Three Platforms, Little Promise (Update 4)

Updated September 30, 2011 at 5:40pm:  Urban Toronto’s interview with Conservative transportation critic Frank Klees has now been posted.

Updated September 29, 2011 at 2:35pm:  Urban Toronto’s interview with NDP transportation critic Cheri DiNovo has now been posted.

Updated September 28, 2011 at 12:00nn: Urban Toronto will be posting interviews with the three parties about their transportation platforms.  The interview with Liberal Kathleen Wynne is now online.  I will link to the others as they appear.

The NDP has announced that they would commit to electrifying the Air Rail Link from opening day rather than implementing it as a diesel operation and converting later.  This is an ambitious plan, but it has the advantage of forcing GO Transit’s hand.  We hear a lot from Metrolinx about “if” they will electrify, but “when” is a target somewhere in the mists of the future.

Updated September 20, 2011 at 10:45pm:  The calculation of the effect of the NDP proposal has been revised to take into account additional revenue from new transit riding, presuming that this actually materializes in the face of constraints on service.

The original post from September 11 follows below.

Election time in Ontario brings out a fresh batch of promises from political parties, promises they hope will lure our support on voting day, promises that will inevitably be broken no matter who is elected.

Transportation is not at the top of anyone’s priority list in an era of bad economies.  The big ticket items (both for votes and for dollars) are health care, education and jobs.  Transit gets the leftovers if it is mentioned at all.  For many ridings, transit isn’t even an issue, if transit has any presence.

What would the three major parties bring us after October 6?

The Conservatives

After the Mike Harris government walked away from support for municipalities and especially for public transit, it’s no surprise that any claim for better transit support in this quarter raises suspicion if not outright ridicule.  At the municipal level, we have the Ford brothers doing everything in their power to hobble the transit system with funding cuts and little interest beyond a pet subway they cannot afford and a monorail to a Ferris wheel.  If that’s what passes for transit policy and vision in Ontario’s capital city, we can’t hope for much in the Tory corner.

The Conservative platform is in their “changebook“, a document available for download after one enters contact info.  Don’t worry.  Their site accepts anything as input, and you can retrieve the pdf without disclosing your true identity.

Transit is bundled with transportation in the platform, and traffic congestion gets first mention.

Traffic in the Greater Toronto Area has become the worst in North America. Not Ontario, not Canada – North America. We’re spending too much time in traffic and not at home with our families.

Across the province, there are roadways that just don’t work anymore: In Ottawa, there is a jam every day because no one has fixed the split where Highway 417 and Ottawa Road 174 converge. In Northern Ontario, two-lane Highways 11 and 17 grind to a halt whenever there is an accident. No matter where you are, traffic congestion costs our economy, hits our wallets because of rising gasoline costs, and puts a strain on family life.

We need change to tackle traffic congestion that only seems to get worse and worse.

A Tim Hudak government will test all proposed road and transit projects with one question: will they move more people or goods, more quickly, while being a good deal for the people who are paying for them?

We will invest more than $35 billion to pay for new infrastructure – much of it in transit and transportation – over our first three years in office and use innovative technologies to help reduce congestion.

$35b sounds like a lot of money, and investing it in three years is a real challenge.  It’s simply not possible to spend at that rate especially if the projects to be funded have not yet had detailed planning and engineering.  Like many governments, “investment” may well mean “we will stick it in a trust fund” or “we will make a commitment for future spending”.

The platform is notable for its concentration on road congestion and, by implication, much more spending across the province in areas where this may generate support.

The Tories are big on local decision-making, and they want to hand responsibilities for spending decision to the local level.  Where this leaves a regional agency like Metrolinx (and the regional services it provides) is anyone’s guess.  The gas tax funding will remain, but its scope would be expanded so that cities and towns could spend on anything that moves people or goods.

Communities too small to have bus or subway systems do not get a share of the gas tax revenue, even though families in those communities pay the gas tax. We will bring change to give all communities a share of the gas tax to meet their local infrastructure needs. We will increase the dedicated revenue from the provincial gas tax to transit, roads, and other infrastructure projects. No municipality will receive less funding; every municipality can count on receiving some level of investment. This will be a permanent commitment.

We will respect the unique priorities of individual cities and towns, and give them the ability to choose between roads, bridges, and transit.

This may send a few thousands off to the hundreds of smaller municipalities that have no transit system, but it won’t do anything for the big city systems.  There’s no more money for operating or capital subsidies, no relief for the Harris downloading of transit costs from Queen’s Park.  Indeed, given that Ontario now provides support for road building as well as for transit, one might wonder if there is any new money in this promise at all, or if transit and roads are simply lumped together to avoid the need for any provincial policy favouring one of the other.

On one hand, the Conservatives would apply a test that any project be a good use of funds, that it delivers on the improvement of transportation, but on the other hand, decision making should rest with local governments.  Control over many decisions is easy to apply when you’re paying for them — if Queen’s Park doesn’t want to build a brand new subway line, then a city is unlikely to fund the project on its own.

There’s little difference here from past governments, and the real question lies in the transit/road split for capital funding, and in the criteria that would apply to determining what projects are worthwhile.

The New Democrats

The NDP’s policy paper is available online, although you may have trouble getting it downloaded from their overworked server (I finally got the whole thing on my sixth try in the middle of the night).

The heart of their transit policy lies in funding for operating subsidies restoring them to the 50% level of the Davis era.  In brief, the NDP proposes to “freeze transit fares and expand transit options”.

For thousands of people who can’t afford to drive, and thousands more who are hoping to get out of their cars, public transit is expensive and time-consuming.

Around the world other national and state governments work with municipalities to make public transit affordable and reliable but in Ontario the commitment has been minimal and inconsistent.

We will share the cost of operating transit equally with municipalities. In exchange for this new commitment, we will tell municipalities to freeze transit fares at current levels for four years.

We will also invest in new transit projects and upgrades for public transit systems.

Freezing transit fares sounds wonderful, a way to cap the cost of transit for riders, but as I have discussed many times before, this is a double-edged sword if it is not matched by transit service.  Indeed, the NDP’s plan will contribute little to service improvement and could actually harm the growth of transit, especially in Toronto where the TTC is such a large system.

Fare revenue on the TTC brings in about $1b annually on a budget of about $1.5b.  That budget will grow by about 6% annually (unless artificially constrained by service cutbacks) through a combination of inflation, wage increases and system growth.  That’s $90m every year in new costs without allowance for compounding, nor for one time jumps in costs through opening of major new facilities like rapid transit lines like the Spadina extension.

In four years, the TTC’s costs will be $360m greater than they are today, and if all of this goes to the subsidy account, that will bring Toronto to a subsidy level above $800m.  The Provincial share would be more than the entire amount set aside by the NDP for this program in their budget estimates ($375m by FY 2015-6).

Updated September 20:  The figures above do not allow for any additional revenue from growth in riding.  If the TTC can sustain 3% annual growth in the face of limited new service, then this would contribute about 12% on top of the roughly $960m in fare revenue for 2012, or about $115m by 2016, and reduce the need for subsidy by a corresponding amount.  However, I doubt that ridership will continue to grow in the face of service cuts although the effect may take a year or so to show up.

If Toronto were forced to freeze fares, and to limit its subsidy to match what the NDP might provide, transit services would have to be cut back because there wouldn’t be enough money to pay for what we have, let alone for expansion.

As for the capital side of the budget, there is talk of investment in “new projects and upgrades”, but there are no specifics nor is there any dollar figure included in the cost estimates.

In the context of a “Buy Ontario” program, the NDP platform states:

Every year our government spends billions of dollars of our money on everything from transit cars to computers to meat and vegetables. It only makes sense to spend as much of that money as possible here in Ontario.

Yet time and time again, government refuses to do so. Contracts for transit cars are rewarded to companies in Germany when they could be built in Thunder Bay. Corn is imported for use in our ethanol plants while local farmers struggle to find a market.

Let’s just ignore that “reward” should be “award” and hope that the NDP gets better proofreaders for the next election.

As for “contracts” going to Germany, the proposed order to Siemens for Ottawa was cancelled when the original LRT project was cancelled.  Siemens would like to bid on the new LRT scheme, but that project let alone its funders have not awarded any money for vehicle purchases.

Meanwhile, the possible LRT projects in Kitchener-Waterloo and Hamilton may well pick up left over cars in the Bombardier contract with Metrolinx, assuming these projects ever get beyond planning.  Toronto’s Eglinton project will definitely have Bombardier equipment, and the legacy streetcar network will get its cars from Thunder Bay if their funding is not cut from the TTC’s budget by a streetcar-hating mayor.

As for ethanol, I won’t get into that scam by the energy/agribusiness industries beyond noting that the TTC, the old ever-so-green TTC of Miller and Giambrone, voted to drop biofuels because they cost too much and interfered with engine performance.

I live in an NDP riding, but their transit policy tries my patience, putting things mildly.

The Liberals

Remember MoveOntario2020, the grand scheme to build transit all over the GTA, reduce congestion and set us on the road to a glorious transit future?  That was the heart of the transit policy for the last election, and that plan is rather frayed around the edges.

Metrolinx was given the task of making sense of many local plans for transit, and The Big Move was the result.  The original version of that plan was too expensive, and it was cut back substantially even before publication, but the numbers are still very Big, $50b worth over 25 years.  It didn’t take long for Metrolinx to see that this was nowhere near enough money both because of lowballed cost estimates and the omission of operating expenses both for the regional lines and the local services that would have to feed the network.

Metrolinx’ Investment Strategy may actually see the light of day once the election is over, depending on who is in power, but it’s not going to be cheap.  The shopping list of potential revenue sources is well known, with gas and sales taxes being the two biggies.  Even small-c conservative organizations like the Board of Trade recognize the need for more investment in transit, but that’s a hard sell in an environment where vats of “gravy” are presumed to fill government offices everywhere.  Mayor Ford may be doing us all a favour by demonstrating just how empty those fictional gravy boats are, but true believers and the right-wing media will never give up in their anti-taxation tirades.

The Liberal platform adds little to what is already on the books.

Public transit helps move people and goods faster; but it also keeps our air clean for our children and seniors. We’ll continue with the largest transit investments in Canadian history in municipalities across the province.

After years of neglect by previous governments, we turned public transit around. Since 2003, we’ve invested more than $10.8 billion in public transit in Ontario, the largest investment in a generation.

We transferred two cents of the provincial gas tax to Ontario municipalities, large and small, for transit.

Investments such as those in GO Transit, the expansion of the Toronto-York Spadina Subway, our commitment to light rail transit in Waterloo and Ottawa, the Toronto Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown LRT and the GTA Air Rail Link linking Pearson Airport and Union Station all demonstrate our commitment to keep our people and our economy moving.

In the next phase of the Ontario Liberal Plan, we’ll expand service by delivering full-day, two-way GO train service on all corridors – that’s the equivalent of 71 million fewer car trips annually.

While 94% of all GO trains arrive on time, we are committed to doing better. We’ll provide a moneyback guarantee to customers who experience a 15-minute arrival delay.

This means more trains, running on time, getting you where you need to go.

Yes, the Liberals did restore some funding, but much of this concentrated on capital projects.  Operating subsidies are bundled into the gas tax sharing program, and the amount coming to the TTC is a fraction of what it actually needs.  Most ongoing capital programs are winding down with nothing to replace them, and the actual level of transit funding — when marquee projects are omitted — is dropping.  The Provincial operating subsidy to the TTC in 2011 was lower than two decades ago.

What funding is in the pipeline has been distorted to suit political circumstances with all of the Transit City money pouring into the Eglinton-Crosstown project.  Hopes for new LRT lines to Rexdale and Malvern have evaporated with a policy whose entire focus is placating Mayor Ford’s dislike for streetcars.  Indeed, the lack of strong support by Queen’s Park may doom even the legacy system whose costs lie almost entirely on the City’s budget.

The Liberal budget paper shows only two line items for transit.  The cost of all-day GO service is “zero” because this is part of an existing plan requiring no “new money”.  That’s a bit of a fiction because every year, GO/Metrolinx must go cap-in-hand for their budget allocation, and there is no guarantee that planned spending in 2011 projections will actually materialize when it is needed.  Moreover, GO’s much-touted high farebox cost recovery will not survive a move to all-day two-way service with considerable added cost that will not be offset by ridership.

The other line in the budget paper shows a cost of $8m annually for the 15 minute on time guarantee.  The figure drops to $6m in the out years presumably because GO will learn how to run more of its trains on time, or will continue to adjust schedules to match what they actually can achieve.

That’s the entirety of new money in the Liberal plan for transit, and there isn’t a word about the Metrolinx Investment Strategy.


None of the major party transit platforms inspires me to songs of joy, dances in the (uncongested) streets or hope that we will see better days for transit in coming years.  We will spend billions on dubious projects while day-to-day service declines with the only difference between parties being the speed of descent.

51 thoughts on “Three Platforms, Little Promise (Update 4)

  1. Just read the interview with the Conservative Party. I was expecting the Conservatives to be trashing Metrolinx, in case they want to justify killing the agency if the Conservative Party wins. Apparently not, but we shall see after the election.

    Secondly, they’re criticising McGuinty of delaying the $4 billion that ultimately killed Transit City. Could this be a sign that they would restore the $4 billion to the same projects?

    Ok, maybe restore the $4 billion, but change the projects it was intended for originally.

    Steve: I was just on Ledrew Live as part of the audience for Tim Hudak’s appearance. I asked him about transit funding, but he made disparaging comments about both Transit City and Metrolinx. He supports Ford’s transit plans, and thinks that long range transit planning is a waste of time. He is obviously out of sync with his own transport critic.


  2. Hi Steve

    Any prediction of who the next MTO Minister would be?
    ( Assuming a Liberal minority or majority )

    Steve: I know that Kathleen Wynne would like to stay in her portfolio at least for the time being, but much will depend on whether she is needed more elsewhere in cabinet. I would hate to see her go in the sense we would probably get someone with little urban experience who would spend a year or more learning the file, and be entirely at the mercy of the staff in the Ministry and its agencies like Metrolinx.


  3. “[Hudak] supports Ford’s transit plans, and thinks that long range transit planning is a waste of time. He is obviously out of sync with his own transport critic.”

    Guess who ultimately calls the shots on transportation? The transport critic (the seemingly more-knowledgeable politician), or the ignore-facts populist? Similarly, Chair Stintz can say and know as much as she wants about transit, but it is ultimately the mayor that controls her role.

    Question: Assuming a minority Conservative, could the LFLRV contract be as easily cancelled, or could other parties with the balance of power have a say? Would a cancellation of contract come as a vote at the Legislative Assembly? And if the Conservatives do lose such a vote on the floor, does that mean another election?

    Also, we shall see if Hudak is one who listens to advice or silences them, in the name of “mandate”.

    Steve: A Tory government will almost certainly accede to a cancellation by Toronto of the LFLRV contract. Don’t forget that this is really a Toronto project, but Queen’s Park would save their contribution. It would be pitched as letting local municipalities set their own agenda. Strange that the Tories rail against Hamilton’s mayor going rogue by downplaying LRT over the stated preference of Council, but have no problems with Toronto’s mayor doing the same thing.

    I don’t think Bombardier will worry, at the corporate level, about losing the LRV contract as long as something else props up the Thunder Bay operation.

    As for a vote in the legislature, it’s only a vote of confidence if it’s a budget bill, or if the government chooses to consider it one. Years ago the Tories rammed through a bill to support the continued development of ICTS by declaring it a confidence vote in a minority house.

    Also, we shall see if Hudak is one who listens to advice or silences them, in the name of “mandate”. Of course, the Tories have to actually win the election, and every poll shows that the NDP and Liberals between them have more than 50% of provincial support. I believe that is called a “mandate”. X


  4. “[Hudak] supports Ford’s transit plans, and thinks that long range transit planning is a waste of time. “

    How ironic that Sheppard Subway advocates constantly preach long-term planning.


  5. The tone of Frank Klees interview is not exactly promising for public transit. He gave multiple examples of highway extensions that he sees as a priority, but did not mention any specific public transit project that his government would actively support. Only vague words about working together with municipalities, and seeking PPP arrangements for Metrolinx projects.

    Of course he criticized the Liberals for deferring $4 billion from the Transit City funding; that’s an easy target. And of course he said nothing about giving those $4 billion back to the city for any form of public transit.


  6. Whew. The liberals are re-elected, so the Eglinton line is now safe from Hudak’s axe of death. Now all that needs to happen is get the work done on-time and on-budget and not drag their rear ends on it.


  7. Do projects get delayed pending elections? I do wonder if the LFLRV manufacturers decided or were told to pause their work until after the election.

    Thank goodness that Hudak didn’t win.

    Steve: I think this is more related to Rob Ford’s playing games with the TTC budget to free up money for his precious subway.


  8. I agree with Dennis T. about the Eglinton line. Interestingly, in this morning’s paper, there’s Ford saying the election outcome’s good for Toronto and that he’s going to ask the province for money for the TTC. Does he really think Dalton McGuinty is going to feel much reason to be kind to the Mayor of Toronto after that threat to sic Ford Nation on him a few months ago? It will be interesting to see how this plays out now that the election’s over and McGuinty doesn’t need to placate Ford, whose own political capital has diminished significantly in the meantime, for the sake of re-election.

    Back to the Eglinton LRT: I still don’t think council voted on the memorandum of understanding as it specified and the MOU is nonbinding anyways. This means that Metrolinx can be directed to return to the original surface alignment to reduce costs. The money recovered could be used to fund LRT construction either in Toronto or elsewhere since the LRT cars are already on order and could definitely be made use of – but not to be blown on unsound subway tunneling on either Eglinton or Sheppard.

    Steve: I was amused by Rob Ford’s comments on Metro Morning today in which his implication was that Sheppard would be a government funded project with some private sector financing. Quite a change from a city-only project. Now he’s talking about 1/3 1/3 1/3 with “the taxpayers not be burdened” through the magic of tax increment financing (TIF).

    The interview spends a lot of time on the usual disinformation about the size of the deficit, the growth in city employees since amalgamation, the projected tax increase. It’s the “big lie” technique where repeating something over and over again makes it “true”.


  9. Now that the Liberals are re-elected and the NDP have at least a bit of leverage, I was wondering if a possible compromise on TTC operations funding could be put in place. For example, Queens Park could agree to pay for the difference between the RGS standards and the old standards in exchange for the TTC putting RGS back in place. It doesn’t resolve the long term funding problem, but it would at least stop the most immediate assault on transit in this city.


  10. Now that the Liberals have been re-elected maybe when can move forward together with Transit City. McGuinty didn’t want to impose Transit City on Toronto before the Provincial election while Ford still had a lot of voter support. Maybe it is time to revisit Transit City now that McGuinty has been re-elected as Premier and Ford no longer has much support among Torontonians or City Council.

    The 85 Sheppard East bus is very congested throughout the day (not just rush hour) and a lot of the demand on the route from Victoria Park to Meadowvale appears to be local demand. Light rail in its own right of way is the best option for this corridor.

    Similarly, 36 Finch West is a very busy route. The trip in the afternoon is very slow as buses are stuck in traffic. A light rail in its own right of way is also the best option for this corridor.

    Steve: What has been so frustrating through the entire subway vs LRT debate (even presuming that the eastern part of Sheppard would even see a subway) is that both Ford and Metrolinx ignore the importance of local travel and of the development patterns that an LRT line can encourage. I will explore this and related issues in an upcoming article.


  11. According to the TTC 2002 Budget report:

    The Sheppard Subway’s marginal operating cost of $6.9 million/year is due to the net addition of 146 employees.

    Does the operating cost take into account the energy costs of actually running escalators, elevators, fan rooms, and equipment? Or are the energy costs negligible, and the workers required for this equipment is the dominant factor?

    Steve: You really need to look at the 2003 budget as well as this includes a reference to the full year effect of the subway. Among the various budgetary increases in 2003 over 2002, there is $4-million for the Sheppard subway. However, that is on top of the money allocated in 2002, less the one-time costs associated with opening a major new facility in 2002. The 2003 budget report states:

    “The net increase in operating costs for the Sheppard subway are in the order of $8 – $10 million during the first 12 months of operation (varies depending on ridership). Included in the 2003 figures are $5 million in expenses and $1 million in revenues for a net increase of $4 million in 2003.”

    Contrary to your statement, the costs include all areas, and the dollar figure should not be read as being entirely due to the employee costs. There is a net growth of 146 employees which includes offsetting savings in diminished surface operations. Looked at another way, if the added cost were entirely due to labour, we would be looking at somewhere between $55-68k per employee in 2003 dollars. That’s rather on the rich side and other costs are clearly present. Labour is a substantial part but by no means all of the total.

    The labour will be made up of operators and collectors (netted off against the surface changes), plus the staff needed to maintain the infrastructure. Opening Sheppard also caused the reactivation of Davisville carhouse, but the full cost of this cannot be charged to the new line as some of the capacity was used to rebalance trains assignments on YUS. That benefit will be lost once YUS converts entirely to TR trainsets because they won’t fit in Davisville’s yard and shops layout.


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