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.
State of Good Repair
This phrase was added to the TTC’s lexicon by Gunn after a disastrous subway accident revealed how maintenance had been allowed to slip during a period of austerity in TTC budgets. It’s easy to pretend you can get by on less for a short period, but that always sets a new, lower base budget from which more cuts are inevitable. In time, organizational rot sets in and the sense of doing a job well is replaced by doing it cheaply, if at all.
The TTC has a huge 10-year capital budget containing billions in basic maintenance. While it’s fashionable to say TTC spending is out of control, one fact is inescapable. The subway isn’t brand new any more, and as it ages, major subsystems and even some structures need replacing. As Gunn says, this isn’t as sexy as announcing expansion projects. To this, I would add that maintenance does not afford the same opportunity for “stimulus” as new construction.
Over the years, the TTC budget has come to lump over 90% of its projects under the “SOGR” heading even though some of these are related to system expansion. The term is no longer meaningful, and the TTC needs to both correct its project categorization and develop a more finely-grained breakdown. This is not to say the money shouldn’t be spent, but the TTC risks having “SOGR” lose its urgency when an expensive pet project like station platform doors is lumped into this category.
Here I part company with Gunn. He decries the fall in farebox cost recovery from 84 to 70 percent (that’s only on operations, and almost none of the capital costs are recovered from fares). “You had a 350% rise in the deficit while ridership rose 15%”, says Gunn.
He’s wrong, and what’s worse he plays right to that block of Council who feel the TTC is a bloated organization ripe for cutbacks.
Back in 1990, when riding peaked at 460.4-million, the Commission was operating with a cost recovery of 67.8%. The total budget was $625.9-million, of which $100.9m was covered by Queen’s Park and $103.6m by Metro Toronto. The TTC was chaired by Lois Griffin, a Councillor from Etobicoke, and the Chief General Manager was Al Leach. Neither of these can be described as pinkos out to bankrupt the TTC and City with unwarranted service improvements.
The 1991 budget proposal had as its major objective “Provide better product to attract more riders” with initiatives in service quality and reliability, safety and security, accessibility and cleanliness. Sound familiar?
The preliminary estimate of budget growth for 1991 was expected to be $76.6m (12.2%) of which $44.0m came from inflation and $32.6m from improvements. This was trimmed back to about $60m to get down below a 10% overall increase. Subsidies would rise by about 9%, fares would rise 1.8% above inflation and some revenue from the Transit Improvement Fund (a nest egg from the 1990 sale, for $30m, of Gray Coach Lines) would combine to finance the 1991 budget.
It was not to be. In 1991, Ontario’s economy and TTC ridership fell off a cliff, and the losses didn’t stop for six years until riding bottomed out after more than 20% of that 1990 peak vanished. Over the past 15 years thanks to both economic recovery and an active investment in better service, the TTC surpassed its 1990 peak, but now serves a greater population and has a lower market share. It may be only 15% above the 1990 level, but ridership since the mid-90’s has grown by about one third.
Meanwhile, Queen’s Park walked away from fully sharing the operating subsidy, and the amount allocated to operations from the gas tax in 2010 was less than the subsidy paid 20 years ago. The City is forced to carry much of the subsidy, and that’s where the “350%” increase in the deficit comes from.
There is no “correct” level of subsidy, and the recovery factor varies immensely across Canada and North America. The level cannot be discussed without also considering service quality and market share. If a transit system operates only as a social service, the customer base is captive, headways will be wide and voters will overwhelmingly demand more facilities for roads and commuter rail, not for local transit.
Budget hawks will demand that cost recoveries rise, while advocates of lower fares will demand that they fall to finance fare freezes. Either way, once a system reaches a new “target” level, the same pressures of inflation and growing demand for service will remain, and we will be back at the debate over whether this should be financed from subsidies or fares. Political and economic fortunes change often enough that this process never stabilizes.
When I read my notes from the November 14, 1990 Commission meeting, it was amused that Chair Griffin spoke of the need for a five-year operational plan. Two decades later, the TTC still does not plan on this basis, and there is no strategy looking ahead beyond the most rudimentary projections of inflationary cost pressures.
David Gunn and I both have little but scorn for the Sheppard subway, a bauble thrown to Mel Lastman by Premier Mike Harris to pay off Mel for supporting the Megacity amalgamation. The extension of this subway proposed by Rob Ford is an even greater waste of money and focus in the transit system. I won’t belabour the point here.
Gunn says “North-south capacity on Yonge is the TTC’s big problem. So what are they doing? They’re planning extensions to feed the Yonge line.” I have already written about the follies in TTC subway planning whose premise is that vast, untapped capacity lies in the Yonge-University route if only we can spend a few billion on new signals, trains and station upgrades. They are betting the store that all of this will actually work, but that much-hyped new capacity cannot actually operate for at least a decade given the lead times on the work needed to make this possible. Meanwhile, the TTC continues to treat the “Downtown Relief Line” as a unwanted guest who won’t leave the party. This is deeply irresponsible, but TTC management and the political urge to build east-west lines in the suburbs trumps the needs downtown.
The Spadina extension certainly has grandiose stations, and Gunn blames this on former chair Adam Giambrone. I hate to say this, but the desire for architectural innovation was born in the era when the streets were paved with gold, and politicians throughout the Spadina corridor didn’t want the “bathroom” stations of a basic subway. This was to be a showcase, and it was designed accordingly. Sadly, some of the innovation fell victim to cost cutting as design changes and “ooops” such as discoveries that water tables and other local geography had not been adequately explored in the preliminary design work of the Environmental Assessment.
Mixing Track Gauges
This has been discussed at great length before. I can argue both sides of the question of whether the Transit City routes should be TTC gauge or Standard gauge, and it’s not going to change anything.
The “Transit City” shops will be at Black Creek, while the “Legacy System” shops will be at Ashbridges Bay. The two networks would not have been connected, even in the most optimistic days of Transit City until long after both shops had been running for a decade or more (the link hinged on an unlikely extension of St. Clair 512 to meet the Jane LRT).
The question of an “LRT subway” on Eglinton is the subject of a separate thread on this site. I’m not thrilled with taking $2-billion from other projects and using it to buy Mayor Ford’s agreement to let Metrolinx build and bury the Eglinton line when it does not all need to be underground.
The quality of provincial planning shows clearly in the Weston Mt. Dennis segment where, as part of Transit City, underground construction simply wasn’t an option due to budget pressure. Now, it’s an integral part of the project.
My understanding of Gunn’s position (from conversations with Stephen Wickens) is that he is not opposed to streetcars per se but to the manner in which the fleet is being renewed. There is an assumption that the new cars will have bugs galore and that they will be susceptible to collision damage. However, the Bombardier Flexity model is already running in many cities, and it’s not as if we are getting car number 1 off the line. For the first time in decades, Toronto is getting a new fleet based on international experience, not on fantasies of economic development for an Ontario-centric car building industry. The CLRV may be a robust car, but Ontario managed only one small sale.
As for accessibility, it would not matter whether we were buying 100% low floor, or 70% cars (such as the Minneapolis model whose mockup was displayed at Dundas Square). “Low floor” does not mean that there is no step, and any vehicle that loads away from the curb will always need a ramp. In places, most of the height difference can be addressed with “bump outs” from the sidewalk as on Roncesvalles Avenue, or with safety islands, but in others, the ramp will be essential.
As to streetcar service versus buses, Gunn proposes a one for one replacement of the new LRVs with articulated buses while ignoring comparisons of capacity, and the fact that buses cannot manoeuvre through traffic as well as streetcars. He does not address existing capacity shortfalls on the streetcar routes, or the growing demand that new development and higher residential densities downtown will bring.
The introduction of the Toronto Rocket unit trains has triggered many added costs on the TTC system including carhouse modifications and a need to buy more cars than would have been needed (and were planned) in a fleet based on the standard married pair design. Claims for reliability of the new fleet have yet to be tested, but one factor is already clear. The TTC has not lowered the spare ratio for TR trains compared to the T1’s that preceded them and there is no capital saving from supposed higher reliability.
The TTC is working on projects to replace and improve signalling on the Yonge-University line as discussed elsewhere on this site. There are overlapping projects, and the need to maintain a basic block signal system for trains that do not have Automatic Train Control adds to the complexity and cost. Claims that the subway will eventually get down to 90 second headways are wildly optimistic, and such operation depends on many factors and a lot more money. See previous discussion of the Downtown Relief Line.
Gunn’s complaint is that the TTC does not have the expertise to manage the signal system implementation, and he worries that other necessary maintenance on the line will be pushed aside to allow the signal installation top priority. My concern lies more with the unreasonably rosy expectations of the eventual benefits and of the budget pressures that all of the add-ons (more trains, more storage space, station expansions, spin-off effects on Bloor-Danforth) will have within the larger context of TTC system funding.
The fragmentation of authority (or direction) between the TTC itself, the Mayor’s Office and Metrolinx is a big problem. Take a transit system demoralized by accusations (some deserved) of incompetence, stir in a doctrinaire Mayor whose idea of consultation and planning is a “mandate” that grows more and more stale by the day, and a Metrolinx that meets rarely in public, and you have a foul brew. Lots of finger pointing. Lots of grand schemes that bear little resemblance to existing plans or to each other. No actual progress.
Meanwhile, the day-to-day problems of providing service and maintaining the system go unwatched.
Gunn is right when he talks about partial uploading of the TTC, such as taking only the subway system. Aside from the jurisdictional problems and fare management issues, we have the basic fact that Queen’s Park does not want even greater problems with its own budget. The subway may be “profitable” depending on how you allocate the fare revenue and gerrymander the books, but it has billions in outstanding requirements for capital maintenance, and expansions will never have the cost recovery of the old, downtown part of the network.
Meanwhile, higher subsidy costs would stay with the City for the surface network, and there would be no incentive to run good service feeding into a subway system the City could no longer profit from.
Gunn talks about absenteeism, and the need for 400 to 500 extra staff to cover for those who call in sick. This is an irresponsible statement. First off, all organizations have absentees, but one whose product simply doesn’t hit the streets without someone to drive it cannot simply absorb an absence into the workload. Second, the very nature of the front line jobs makes “getting by” through sickness less possible than with a quiet desk job in an office. Is TTC absence out of control? Maybe, but let’s have some numbers comparing it to other industries with comparable working conditions.
Yes, platforms and trains do not get cleaned as frequently as they did when Gunn was CGM. Janitorial staff are always the first to go when organizations look for cutbacks that don’t affect front line service, and they’re one of the hardest groups to replenish.
TTC’s new “Station Manager” program has a few people in place who should be wandering around checking up on problems, but their work is complicated by the glacial pace of repairs where stations are under maintenance. Repair projects run months over their advertised deadlines, and advertised completion dates are routinely updated to the point they have no credibility. A Station Manager can’t make that work complete any sooner if this type of delay is routinely tolerated.
As for the trains, the simple fact is that two of the TTC’s car washers have been out of service for over a year while expansion projects at Greenwood and Wilson got in the way. Some trains are filthy, and they get washed only when they are cycled to a wash track that actually works.
This situation is an example not just of lousy planning, but of an acceptance of a far less than adequate standard of maintenance. What other work just doesn’t get done that we can’t see? Why does nobody care that if wash track “A” is out of service, a new task to shuffle trains regularly and frequently to location “B” should be part of the project plan?
Recently, TTC Chair Karen Stintz reported on her daughter’s reaction to the new TR train on display at Davisville for Doors Open Toronto. “They’re so clean!”.
The wash tracks are supposed to return to service imminently. Let’s hope that they actually get used, and that the grime on the fleet will actually come off.
Fiddling While Rome Burns
Gunn was quoted as saying that his presentation to TTC staff, Chair Stintz and Vice-Chair Peter Milczyn provoked no response: “There was no reaction, no questions. … I think they’re headed for a cliff, while people talk about new uniforms.”
Gunn’s comments (and there were far more than could fit in Stephen Wickens’ article) deserve debate whether we agree with them or not. In coming budget debates, we will hear calls for TTC cutbacks, and the effect on service in 2012 and beyond will be grim.
The combined effect of a 10% cut in City funding, no additional money from Queen’s Park, a pending labour settlement, and rising diesel fuel prices will require at least $100-million, probably more, in new revenue. The TTC is considering both a fare increase and cuts to the service standards, not to mention a rollback of the Ridership Growth Strategy improvements. This is outrageous, but almost inevitable in the fantasy world of budget planning under the Ford administration.