Budget Cuts Threaten Transit, Not Just Streetcars

The Toronto Star reported on July 30 that the TTC may defer its order for new streetcars in a move to free up room in the capital budget.

As I have often written here, the TTC’s capital plans badly strain the ability of the City of Toronto to carry the ongoing spending, and constant cutbacks in funding from Queen’s Park are a major problem.  Every chance they get, provincial Ministers tell us about billions “committed” to transit in the GTA.  The problem is that much of the actual spending won’t happen for many years, if ever, while current spending is a major problem.

Many programs that funded parts of the TTC capital budget have wound down, and the only provincial funding stream the TTC can actually count on is the gas tax.  That brings in about $150-million annually, and even this is partly split with the operating budget.  Meanwhile, the TTC has reached a point where it classifies almost every project as “state of good repair”.  That incantation, brought to us by former Chief General Manager David Gunn, is supposed to indicate the scope of work and funding needed just to keep the lights on and the trains rolling.

However, it has been abused in TTC budgets to include projects such as provisions for additional capacity on the subway.  This is not to say the capacity isn’t needed, but that’s a different class of spending, certainly one that should include regional, not just local funding.

The order for 200 new low floor light rail vehicles (LFLRVs) for the “legacy” streetcar system has a pricetag of about $1.2-billion including inflation, spare parts and warranty coverage.  Toronto gambled when it put this deal together that Ottawa would come in for 1/3, but they chose not to participate.  Indeed, Ottawa has always been selective in its spending on transit across the country preferring to drop money where there is a time limit to the spending, where funding is project-specific and doesn’t imply or create an ongoing commitment to all cities.  Ottawa’s only standing funding is from the federal gas tax, and even that falls in relative value over time because it is not indexed.

Toronto’s and TTC’s budgeting practices have not helped.  In a bid to keep the potential draw on the City’s borrowing capacity under control, at least on paper, TTC projects have been either shuffled off beyond the 10-year planning window, or simply ignored as a potential pressure.  Confusion about where and when funding might actually arrive adds to the problem.

Although the TTC produces multi-year capital and operating budget projections, there is never any explanation or discussion about the options that would shape future funding.  Every year, more projects appear on the list, some the inevitable result of decisions already taken (e.g. if you increase the size of the subway fleet, you need more carhouse space to store the trains, and more staff to operate and maintain them).

Adding to this mess is the Mayor’s desire to extend the Sheppard Subway.  Although funding for this might somehow arrive from the private sector or through links to future property tax revenue, if the project is going to launch, a considerable portion will be in public sector budgets.

In this context, the new streetcars are an easy and obvious target especially as they are not loved by the Mayor’s office.  The Star mentions a $1.5-billion shortfall in available capital over the next ten years.  Whether stretching out or delaying spending on new streetcars will make a big dent in this is hard to say.  A scheme for Metrolinx to pick up the cost and lease the cars back to the city is only an accounting trick — one way or another, we have to pay for them just as we will for anything purchased with borrowed money.  (The proposed financing of Presto is a similar piece of sleight-of-hand.)

The fundamental problem is that the revenue stream (be it operating or capital) dedicated to transit in Toronto and in the GTA is far too small for the region’s demands.  Queen’s Park refuses to address new “revenue tools” even though several analyses of the situation by such radical lefties as the Toronto Board of Trade flag the urgency of more spending on transit.

Once upon a time, we had a plan, no an announcement, called MoveOntario 2020.  It had lots of goodies in it including a network of LRT lines in Toronto.  That’s gone, replaced now by a single $8-billion project for an “LRT” subway across Eglinton and replacing the Scarborough RT.  Planned improvements of GO included electrification of the Lake Shore corridor, but what we actually get are small scale extensions dribbling out one announcement at a time.  Even as and when Metrolinx does produce its “Investment Strategy” with recommendations for revenue sources, along with “The Big Move 2.0”, the likelihood any government will have the stomach to raise new taxes is very low.

Meanwhile in Toronto, despite an $85-million hole in the TTC’s operating budget, Mayor Ford wants yet another freeze of transit fares.  This is madness.  Fare revenue totals about $1-billion and we know that the combination of strong riding demand and good service will minimize the negative effect of a fare hike.  The TTC projects a 10% increase (to $2.75 per adult token, with other fares adjusted proportionately) would bring $50-60m, but this is conservative.  It includes a considerable allowance for “elasticity”, the degree to which a price increase leads to a drop in demand.

Service cuts alone will not address that $85-million, and that approach would ignore both the overall growth in demand on the TTC and the close linkage between service quality and the system’s attractiveness.  Moreover, the $85m does not include the $25-$30m cost of an arbitrated labour settlement TTC workers will likely receive.

While it is tempting to blame everything on Mayor Ford, this is a case where many others must share the burden.  TTC financing has occupied a never-never land in Toronto and Ontario budgets for years.  Toronto is badly served when an agency appears to have an unlimited appetite for money, but a financial plan consisting of “let’s hope for better next year”.  The City is also badly served by doctrinaire budgeting that decrees funding and service cuts with no regard to their effect on system users, on the viability of an essential part of the City’s transportation network, and on the ability of Toronto to attract and serve its businesses and residents.

A 2012 TTC budget will probably show up on the agenda for the board meeting of September 20, although I suspect details will continue to leak out in coming weeks.  How many decisions will be made behind closed doors before those budgets formally appear?  What options will citizens or Council have to examine the details, to debate the options for the future of our transit system?

Instead of that debate, we have far too much focus on what we can do without, on what we can cut.  That is not city building, and certainly is not city leadership.

How Many Riders Will Use The Crosstown (2)

In a previous article, I discussed the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT subway and the issues raised by demand projections for it.  On July 26, I met with staff from Metrolinx to explore the subject in detail, and this post summarizes our discussion.

What Network and Land Use Drove the Demand Model?

Before we can understand the numbers generated from any model, it is important to know the assumptions behind it.  Is the network a realistic view of services that will actually be in place?  What residential and work locations and densities are used to generate the travel demand flowing through the model?

Notable by their absence from the map of passenger flows are any extension of the Sheppard subway, the proposed Richmond Hill extension of the Yonge subway and any reference to GO Transit routes or demand.

Metrolinx replied that their model includes only those routes and services for which funding is committed.  This means that only the Spadina Extension, the Eglinton line, and the GO improvements in GO’s 2020 plan are part of the model.  In effect, this takes the transportation network to roughly a 2020 state.

However, the underlying land use represents 2031 population and job projections with growth concentrated in major nodes such as Yonge-Eglinton and Scarborough Town Centre. Continue reading

Roncesvalles Renewed Celebration (Updated)

Updated July 24, 2011 at 11:00 pm:  Links to archival photos of Roncesvalles Avenue from the City Archives have been added to the end of this article.

Apologies to those who expected to find the PCCs running on Ronces.  In turned out that one car had already been hired out for another event, and the second PCC was in the shop for repairs.  Two CLRVs don’t have quite the same effect.

Continue reading

Will Nobody Stop Fords’ Folly?

The Toronto Star and Globe & Mail report that TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster’s days may be numbered thanks to his failure to support the Sheppard Subway proposal.  Not only might we lose Webster, but we might gain a Ford cohort, a politician with no real transit experience, as his replacement.

I will leave readers to peruse the full articles, but here is a key section in the Star:

The plan to get rid of Webster “is in play now,” said former TTC vice-chair Joe Mihevc.

“(The Fords) are so committed to Sheppard they are actively contemplating getting rid of the entire streetcar system in Toronto,” he said, adding that the cost of the new streetcars could be applied to the subway.

“If Doug Ford bullies his way through on this, it truly will be the victory of extreme authoritarian ideology over good public transit policy and good business management,” Mihevc said.

Elsewhere, we learn that TTC Chair Karen Stintz who, as recently as yesterday morning praised Mayor Ford’s support for TTC customer service initiatives, is actually frustrated with the speed of implementation of changes.  The fact that there isn’t a penny for this program in the budget, and that the TTC faces a 10% cut in city funding for 2012, shows what the real level of commitment is in Toronto.

Meanwhile, the only project of any importance to the Brothers Ford is the Sheppard Subway whose “private sector” financing is a bubble of their imagination that burst months ago.  Every penny that can be scrounged from other projects, plus tax revenue from developments miles away on Eglinton, would be used to finance Sheppard and minimize the level of private sector participation needed to top up the budget.  This is financial trickery of the worst kind.

According to the Globe’s story, Stintz appears to be splitting from Ford’s all-or-nothing approach to the Sheppard line preferring instead to build to Victoria Park as a first step using money originally earmarked for the Sheppard LRT.

Queen’s Park struck a deal with the devil to preserve the Eglinton LRT as a subway while leaving Ford free to work his financial magic on Sheppard.  The streetcar system appeared safe if only because replacing it would be a long-term, difficult proposal.  However, the Liberals’ hold on power is tenuous, and a Ford-favouring Tory government would no doubt be happy to cancel the streetcar order (and probably the LRVs for Eglinton as well) with Bombardier, and the voters of Thunder Bay be damned.

In ten years, we would have a much reduced quality of transit service in the central city, we would choke streets with clouds of buses and limit the growth of major areas served by the present and proposed streetcar system.  In return, Sheppard Avenue would have its subway, and what started as Lastman’s folly and a Liberal campaign promise by former Premier David Peterson would become a full-blown monument to the stupidity of transit planning and politics in Toronto.

Has any of Rob Ford’s transit scheme gone to Council for review?  No.  Council, especially its “mushy middle”, is too busy currying favour with the Mayor to rein in his actions, leaving the Fords to dictate policy on the transit file and so many others.

Toronto’s Core Services Review Contemplates Transit Cuts

This morning, while TTC Chair Karen Stintz, Mayor Ford and other luminaries were dedicating the inaugural run in service of a Toronto Rocket subway train, the agenda for the July 28th Toronto Executive came out.  The city’s “core services review” has reached its agencies, including the TTC, and the consultant’s findings can be found starting on pdf page 161 of their report.

The premise of the city-wide review is that there is some sort of “standard” above or below which services are provided.  In some cases, reference is made to other cities, but in the case of the TTC, the “standards” appear to be pre- and post- David Miller’s mayoralty.  If something was done in the “Ridership Growth Strategy”, it is by definition “above standard” and up for elimination.

This is a strange way to evaluate services especially in the North American city lauded for the quality of its transit system and the economic benefits this brings.  Never does the consultant address the value of good service, only its cost.

The consultant, KPMG, show their colours on the title page with the double-entendre corporate motto “cutting through complexity”. Continue reading

How Many Riders Will Use The Crosstown?

[See also Part 2 of this discussion.]

In a previous article and its long comment thread, readers and I have discussed the question of demand for the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT subway.  After the Metrolinx board meeting in June that started all this, I asked Metrolinx for more information about their projected ridership for the underground line.  In particular, I was interested in the numbers behind not just Eglinton, but the other routes on the demand map below.

Here is Metrolinx’ reply:

Under the previous Transit City plan, most morning Scarborough RT passengers arriving at Kennedy would transfer to the Bloor-Danforth subway. However, a small number of them would transfer to the Eglinton LRT, and bus riders would also transfer to the Eglinton LRT

Under the current Toronto transit plan agreement, many morning Eglinton – Scarborough Crosstown passengers arriving at Kennedy are not expected to transfer to the Bloor-Danforth line. Instead, we expect those passengers to stay on board the Eglinton – Scarborough Crosstown and continue west along Eglinton Ave.

It is important to note that the Eglinton – Scarborough Crosstown morning morning peak hour westbound ridership leaving from Kennedy station is roughly 6,500 higher than the Transit City plan forecast. In the Transit City plan, the forecasted behaviour of these 6,500 new Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown passengers was as follows:

  • 60% rode the Bloor-Danforth subway out of Kennedy station.
  • 40% rode parallel bus routes or used different modes

We also expect an increase of ridership at the other stations along the Bloor-Danforth Eglinton-Scarborough line, but passenger behaviour at Kennedy is the dominant factor distinguishing the two plans.

Finally, below is a comparison of the anticipated 2031 morning peak demand points for the two plans:

SRT section (southbound into Kennedy)

  • Transit City (5 in 10 plan):  10,000 pphpd
  • Eglinton-Crosstown:  11,000 pphpd

Eglinton section:

  • Transit City:  5,000 pphpd eastbound into Eglinton West
  • Eglinton-Crosstown:  12,000 pphpd westbound into Eglinton/Yonge

[Corrections to the original text provided by Metrolinx July 26, 2011]

This is the entire reply, and there is no information on the following issues:

  • What are the numbers for other lines on the demand chart both for 2011 and 2031?  In particular, to what extent does the model show growth in demand on the existing subway system?
  • What other elements of a regional network exist in the 2031 model that could alter the growth pattern and future ridership flows?  In particular, there is no Downtown Relief Line even though it is part of The Big Move, and there is no indication of what GO services might also be in place.

My ongoing complaint about regional planning, both by the TTC and by Metrolinx, is that we talk a good line about networks, but we plan lines in isolation.  It is trivially simple to produce a huge demand on a new route simply by making it the only addition to an existing network — that’s how the TTC “justified” the Sheppard subway.

Ontario is spending $8-billion keeping Rob Ford happy by burying the Eglinton line, and they desperately need to justify this investment.  A 12k demand at the peak point is just the ticket!  Where else might the extra $4b have been spent to better overall effect?  We don’t know because Metrolinx has reverted from network planning to the traditional one-at-a-time methodology it was set up to avoid.

Metrolinx needs to be much more transparent about the way it projects ridership and the underlying assumptions of its models.  What routes are in the model network?  What frequency of service operates on them?  What is the fare structure?  What is the presumed future cost or practicality of using an automobile?  Where are the capacity constraints in the road and transit neworks?  How do these factors interact to shift projected demands?

This is the heart of regional planning, and Metrolinx is utterly silent on these issues.  Instead, they prefer to show us fully built-out networks decades in the future, networks we already know will be different thanks to various short-term changes and likely funding constraints, networks we will never see in actual operation.  We see simulations of the impossible, not the practical or the likely conditions we will have to live with.

This may serve short-term political needs, but the approach evades, no ignores, the vital debate we must have about what we might (or might not) build with the limited funding that our parsimonious, if not bankrupt, governments are likely to devote to transit.

How Many Trains Will Fit Through Union Station?

During the Metrolinx Electrification Study, those of us who attended various workshops became aware that there was a parallel study of capacity issues at Union Station.  The electrification plans are, among other things, in support of operating better service on GO generally, but if that service won’t physically fit through Union Station and its approach corridors, there’s a big problem.

That problem is independent of electrification per se because The Big Move from Metrolinx depends on substantially improved commuter rail service.  No capacity, no additional service.

At the recent Metrolinx Board meeting, GO’s President, Gary McNeil, presented an update on GO operations and construction activity.

GO President’s Report & Presentation Deck

The report includes a reference to Union Station capacity:

… Retaining wall construction is well underway to allow for an additional track in this corridor. The Union Station capacity study has been completed, with the result that in the near term, there is capacity at this station to meet needs. With the start of design of double berthing and new south platform, this will provide access required for service expansions. This work is anticipated to be completed in the next five years.  [Page 8]

After the meeting, I requested a copy of the study to learn what conclusions it might have reached. Various working papers from the study had been leaked, but they were neither definitive nor entirely coherent on how to deal with the problem.

Metrolinx has now replied that:

At this time, a detailed public component of the Union Station study is premature as we are undertaking on-going research. Specific information will most likely be available for the public when future potential projects develop from this study.

The purpose of the study is to assess the Union Station Rail Corridor (USRC) train capacity at four time points:

  • existing;
  • completion of planned infrastructure in 2015 and implementation for service improvements, including the ARL;
  • Electrification Reference Case (ERC);
  • and 2031 (Big Move planning document).

In doing so, we hope to identify opportunities to increase capacity by making more effective use of existing and planned infrastructure.  We also hope to identify the infrastructure needed to address any capacity shortfalls.  This study provided only a technical analysis, and Metrolinx will consider its opportunities after further assessment.

However, there is a good deal of material to get started on.

Continue reading

The TTC’s 1991 Operating Budget

In my article about David Gunn’s opinion of what’s wrong with the TTC, I mentioned the 1991 Budget introduced as the TTC was having its record year of ridership in 1990, but was on the brink of a recession and unprecedented cutbacks.

The major objective of the proposed TTC operating budget for 1991 is to provide a better product and thereby to attract more riders to the TTC.  This will not be an easy task at a time when other demands on the taxpayers’ dollars are escalating, and with the economy headed into a recession.  The proposed budget is best summarized in one word:  balance — a balance among the needs of TTC riders and the taxpayers of Metro Toronto and the Province of Ontario.

[From Proposed 1991 Operating Budget, November 14, 1990]

This budget was introduced by TTC Chair Lois Griffin, a Councillor from the then Rexdale-Thistletown ward of Etobicoke which took in the northwest corner of the city down to Highway 401.  The south half of this ward is Mayor Ford’s home turf.  Al Leach, who would later preside over the amalgamation of Toronto as part of the Harris government, was Chief General Manager.  Neither of them could be called radicals.

David Miller was not yet a member of Council having lost on his first try to the incumbent in 1991.  He was successful on a second try in 1994.  Adam Giambrone was 13 years old and had not yet become active in the NDP.

In the face of economic difficulties, a conservative Commission was advocating service improvements as the best way to gain and hold ridership, and none of the ills that might have afflicted transit could be blamed on a previous administration’s misguided policies.

November 1990 Proposal For 1991 Operating Budget

By March 26, 1991, staff recommended that the budget be trimmed to compensate for falling ridership and for flatlining of the Metro Toronto subsidy contribution.  This flatline was relative to the budget submission, but the drop in riding was hitting revenue and would have triggered a greater subsidy need without offsetting changes.  This led to proposals for service and staffing cuts, although some additions stayed in the budget for safety and reliability reasons.

In reading the 1991 proposal, it’s notable that even before the heart of the recession, there were concerns that some TTC practices needed improvement.  In the years to follow, we would see just how badly the cumulative effect of putting off repairs would hit the TTC.

By July 1991, the projected budget, including cuts requested by Council, was back at the TTC.  Total expenses had dropped from the original $686.1-million proposed in November 1990 to $675.1m.

A few excerpts from my deputation at the time:

Transit riders expect a lot more from the TTC than their counterparts in New York, Philadelphia or Chicago, and we must work to meet Toronto’s expectations.  Simply being better than everyone else is not good enough.

No matter how good the subway service, if someone cannot get to and from the subway reliably, they will not use it.  If someone’s trip is not served by the subway, they will not attempt it by an unreliable or overcrowded surface route. … The fine-grained surface network will never be duplicated by the subway network.

The common complaints about crowding suggest that the average rider does not see the “average” loading conditions which may meet the service standards.  The empty space in buses at the back of a platoon is of little use to the riders crammed into the first vehicle. … providing better service with your existing fleet improves your productivity, makes your service more attractive and defers the need for additional vehicles.

I have often spoken of the need for the Commission to be advocates for the transit system. … Cities become “world class” because people living there care about all the parts that make up the whole.  Your job is to care about the transit system and to tell all of us how we can get it back not merely to “the better way”, but “the best way”.

[Letter to the TTC, November 20, 1990]

The TTC’s decline in the early 90s was so severe that the proposed budget for 1996 was $673.5-million, almost the same as the approved budget in 1991, and ridership was projected at 376-million.  When David Gunn talks of Toronto achieving only a 15% increase in riding, he forgets those dark days and the system he inherited when he joined the TTC in 1995.

David Gunn Slams Toronto’s Transit (Updated)

In the July 5th Globe and Mail, Stephen Wickens has a full-page article in which David Gunn slams the TTC, Metrolinx, and just about anyone else in sight for the looming disaster that passes for transit planning in Toronto.  I agree with much he says, although we will obviously differ on the future of the streetcar system which Gunn would replace with a fleet of articulated buses.

What most interests me about this article will be the fallout, the debate, if any, at City Hall, and the degree to which Gunn’s advice is cherry-picked to support whatever argument anyone wants to make.

It’s also rather sad that this much-needed broadside against the state of planning in the GTA has taken so long to appear.  Many of the issues have been debated on this blog and others, whatever our opinions on individual topics, while critical coverage in the mainstream press is hard to find.

Updated July 10, 2011 a 8:00 am:

While I concur with some of David Gunn’s comments, there are issues where he misses the mark, sometimes quite badly.  Many have already weighed in through the comments thread, and here’s my take.

Continue reading

Spadina Subway Extension Update

The presentation from the Spadina update given at the TTC meeting on July 6 is now available online.

There’s nothing very surprising, but a few points are worth noting:

Station Names (p 3): There are still discussions in progress about station names.  The ones in the presentation are the working names that have been used for the project, but the final selection will occur probably in October.  Among the proposals in various stages of consideration are:

  • Sheppard West:  There are some who would rename this Downsview, or Downsview Park, although this would create a conflict with the existing Downsview Station which, just to spice things up, is actually at Sheppard.
  • Finch West:  There was a proposal to call this University Heights, although that is a neighbourhood name that doesn’t appear to have much currency among the local residents.
  • Steeles West:  This might become “Black Creek — Pioneer Village” to mark the nearby historical site.
  • Vaughan Corporate Centre:  Aside from being a name that would only inspire an accountant, it’s a rather long name that will be hard to fit on signage, literature, etc.  However, Vaughan wants it “Vaughan Metropolitan Centre” which is still rather long.  York Region is paying the municipal share for this part of the line, and I suspect that a long name will prevail, even if it’s rather pretentious.

Whatever names stations do eventually get, I hope that the major street names survive with a local neighbourhood name as a subtitle rather like “Bay Yorkville”.  Of course if we sell the station names to the highest bidder, neighbourhood and street names might vanish completely.

Budget (pp 4-5): The project is “fully funded”, but this has to be taken with a grain or two of salt.  First off, all of the project contingency has already been consumed in the design phase, and we still have four years of construction to get through.  The TTC hopes to make up any deficiencies through a combination of cost controls and the interest earned on the trust fund holding the provincial contribution to the project.

The project has repeatedly been described as “on time and on budget”, but whether this condition will hold through the remaining 4.5 years to opening remains to be seen.

Construction Schedule (pp 10-13): The schedule shows that the line will open at the end of 2015 taking us beyond one municipal election and two provincial elections.  Who knows which politicians will actually get to cut the ribbon.  Although the physical construction will finish in early 2015, commissioning of the line will take several months.  There has been no discussion of an early opening to York U or to Steeles West to serve the Pan Am Games.

Just as with the budget contingency, all of the “float” time in the project has already been consumed.

Automatic Train Control (p 14): When this project started, the TTC had not yet launched into an ATC conversion project, and the extra cost of ATC over a conventional signal system was not included in the approved, shared budget.  Strictly speaking, this is not required to open the line provided that a headway shorter than a conventional system can handle is not operated into non-ATC territory.

Earlier in the design stage, the TTC dropped Platform Edge Doors from the extension to save money.  At one station, this triggered a redesign because the wall containing the doors was planned as a structural element holding up the roof.