The recent TTC meeting saw Commissioner Minnan-Wong digging into questions about rising costs on two TTC projects, the design of Finch West Station and the resignalling of the south end of the Yonge subway.
Reports asking for increased spending authorization come through the Commission quite regularly, and Minnan-Wong has raised the question of “out of control spending” at Council on past occasions. Just to declare my political leanings, I have never been a fan of the Councillor, even though there are certainly legitimate questions to be asked when project costs rise unexpectedly.
Unfortunately, Minnan-Wong tends to approach these issues as if someone is trying to pull the wool over his eyes and implies outright incompetence as the starting point for discussion. This approach brings more confrontation than information. Let’s have a look at the two projects in question and consider how information about them (and their many kin in the overall budget) might be better presented.
Finch West Station Design
Finch West Station lies under Keele Street north of Finch. Fitting the station and its associated surface buildings in has not been easy, and included the planned relocation of a fire hall to make room for the bus interchange.
In this round, the approved cost of the design contract is going up by $4.5-million to $23.6m for a variety of reasons:
- HST: Although the TTC, like other municipal agencies, gets much of the HST back as a rebate (about 78%), there is an increase of about $220k net on this contract.
- Finch West LRT Delay/Cancellation: The bus terminal was originally sized on the presumption that bus service would have been removed from Finch Avenue before the LRT opened, and no provision was included either for bus bays or for traffic access to/from the loop for Finch buses. Metrolinx’ delay in the project, and its possible cancellation in Mayor Ford’s transit plans, requires a different bus loop at a cost of $1.45m in added design fees.
- Flammable liquids transportation: A Bylaw of the former Metropolitan Toronto government prohibited transportation of flammable liquids over subway structures. With the Spadina Subway running directly under Keele Street, this would have required rerouting of traffic from the tank farm located northeast of the station. City Council passed an amending Bylaw to remove the constraint, but this required redesign of the local roads to reflect the needs of tanker traffic. This added $330k to the design costs.
- Additional design support during construction: A variety of factors including mismatches between “as built” utility drawings in the area, the design changes mentioned above, and co-ordination with adjacent tunneling contracts add to the amount of on-the-fly design required while the station is built. A provision of $950k has been added to cover this work.
- Addition complexity of traffic management: The design consultant is responsible for the traffic management plan covering 1.3km of Keele Street through the construction zone. Requirements for this plan have grown more complex, although it is unclear how much of this is due to additional demands by the City, local businesses and the community. This adds $687k to the work.
- Additional requirements for elevators, ventilation and fire fighters: Changes in the fire ventilation scheme and better air conditioning for the elevators add $313k to the cost.
- Scope changes for City requirements: Various changes requested by the City and others add $259k to the cost.
One could argue about the degree to which the need for these changes should have been foreseen, or who should bear the costs, but one way or another, the station has to be designed (and then built) without leaving many elements that are unsatisfactory or unworkable. That approach, a typical response to budget crunches, inevitably leads to separate “fixup” contracts later.
This is the second major group of cost changes for this project. The first, approved in June 2010, raised the original design cost estimate from $12m to $19m taking into account extensive changes in the proposed design arising both from feedback on the original design, attempts to simplify the station and reduce its total cost, and from site conditions requiring changes to the structure. (Details in the report.)
Yonge Subway Resignalling Project
The Yonge-University-Spadina subway will be converted to Automatic Train Control through a project now in progress. Funding for the complete conversion of YUS to ATC is not yet in place, notably in the budget for the Spadina extension to Vaughan. Also, contrary to what I had thought originally, the TTC intends to maintain parallel ATC and wayside signalling over the line.
To allow trains and workcars not equipped with ATC equipment to operate over the YUS Line and to mitigate against delay in the event of an ATC system failure, a new conventional auxiliary wayside signalling system is required to be installed.
In practice, the new wayside system (AWS) won’t be installed in one go, but will likely be retrofitted to the line as the various generations of existing signals wear out. The first contract, for the original Yonge-University line, has already been let.
There are actually three overlapping projects for this route:
- Automatic Train Control (ATC): This project will, eventually, equip the entire line with ATC and a “moving block” system of train monitoring and control. This approach allows train spacing to be based on a fine-grained knowledge of train location and speed rather than on a coarse, fixed block division of a line into segments. The project also includes installation of complementary ATC equipment on the new TR trains so that they can be directly controlled by the signal system.
- Auxiliary Wayside System (AWS): At this point, this project covers only the replacement of the signal system for the original south end of the Yonge-University subway. Oddly enough, the Spadina extension budget includes a new conventional AWS, but does not yet include provision for ATC.
- Speed Control System (SCS): Separate from the signal system, the SCS provides speed limit indications to trains. The technology is passive, in the sense that the information transmitted is static, very much like the station announcement transponders.
When the AWS contract was awarded, the presumption was that the SCS would handle the speed control for grades and curves where trains should not run at full speed. However, SCS may not be in place in time, and more importantly would not have any effect on trains or work cars that were not SCS-equipped. Therefore, the AWS contract is to be modified to include grade timing control comparable to what exists on the current system. This physically limits train speeds by keeping signals red (and automatic train stop arms “up”) so that trains cannot run through a section faster than the posted speed.
Are you getting the impression that there is a confusing overlap of designs and contracts here? I certainly am.
Indeed, the brand new ATC system will depend on the old-style AWS to “see” trains that are not ATC capable to prevent collisions. Funding for a full rollout of ATC is not yet available, and yet the operation of very short headways and the use of platform edge doors (a billion dollar TTC pet project) both depend on a control system that can precisely position trains.
At this point, the TTC has a large number of overlapping projects either in progress or in various stages of planning that all address capacity problems on the Yonge subway, or are spinoffs of the core projects. These include:
- Automatic train control
- Speed control
- New wayside signals
- New TR trains (base order, ATC equipment budgetted as part of the ATC project)
- More new TR trains (to correct for the 2010 Fleet Plan) (plus ATC for same)
- Carhouse modifications to handle TR unit 6-car trains
- Additional carhouse space for increased fleet
- Additional online storage for increased fleet
- Proposed Yonge Station expansion
- Platform edge door proposal
- Richmond Hill extension
- New carhouse in York Region
Also lurking in the background is the idea of adding a short seventh car to the TR sets. However, it is unclear how this would fit with the modifications already done at carhouses for the TRs, or with the spacing of platform doors that would have to accommodate a seventh short car within a train.
At no time has the Commission ever seen (at least publicly) a consolidated plan showing all of the projects needed to deliver the claimed additional capacity that is required on the Yonge line as it exists today, and as it will develop should the Richmond Hill extension go ahead. Moreover, some of the projects now in progress (signalling) and some requiring funding in the near future (additional trains and associated storage space) are not fully funded. If they proceed on the basis that they are essential work, they will crowd other deserving capital works off of the table.
There is a major problem in TTC capital planning, and I will turn to this in my next article. For decades, projects have come forward on the assumption that the money would be found, and the need both for an integrated view of how each project fits into a larger system plan, a true sense of prioritization and cost containment, have not been part of budget discussions. All we know is that we need more money.
If members of the Commission or Council want to dive into the details of contract changes, it would be useful to have a summary of the design changes and what drove them. In the case of Finch West Station, the estimated design cost has almost doubled, but many of the changes are driven by external requirements or events (which may save money in another agency’s budget), and some additional design work is intended to yield an offsetting reduction in construction cost.
This type of detail may reveal patterns in the shortcomings of preliminary design done as part of the Environmental Assessment, or of a lack of attention to details of third-party requirements in early stags of a project. For example, many station designs on the Spadina line have been revised to deal with a higher-than-expected water table. This could be viewed as a foul-up, or simply the byproduct of a process that leaves detailed site investigation until after a project is approved thereby exposing preliminary work to criticism for missing important factors.
In the case of the signalling projects, the problem is that each component has evolved with its own rationale, and it is hard to understand how much more must be spent just to reach an end state that will deliver on the project goals. This is a classic case where a Board does not ask questions about, or indeed fully understand system plans, and winds up as hostage to whatever management recommends. When the budget crunch arrives, a Board can flail about looking for savings or gravy, but they will drown in a sea of poorly understood details.
A review may improve the design and cost estimation process, develop valid “lessons learned”, and yield better understanding the workings of the overall budget. If so, then digging into the details is worthwhile if only to reassure the Commission and the public that the TTC’s engineers are doing their jobs properly.
If Commissioners and Councillors really want to address budget problems, then they must first understand what they are trying to manage and direct. If, however, the intent is simply to paint the TTC and its consultants as bumbling fools, then the exercise is little more than cheap political theatre.