TTC Commission Meeting Wrapup for October 2011

The Toronto Transit Commission met on October 19, 2011.  With the exception of one item, it was an uneventful agenda.  This article deals only with matters where significant new information came to light beyond that reported in my initial review of the agenda.

28 Billionth Rider

In case you were wondering, the “official” 28-billionth rider chosen to mark the TTC’s 90th anniversary on September 1, 2011, was not chosen with a countdown clock, but from the pool of the TTC’s Metropass Discount Plan subscribers.  The lucky rider gets a free Metropass subscription for one year.

I did not win, although I have been using the Metropass since its inception in 1980, and became a subscriber as soon as this was possible.  By the 100th anniversary (if the TTC still exists by then), we will all be using Presto.  Sigh.

Budget and Efficiency Reviews

The Operating Budget was mentioned only in passing in the context of planned public consultation on “Customer Service”, and the service cuts for January were treated as a done deal that is not subject to discussion.  This is rather odd considering that Council has yet to finalize its budget, and “what if” questions about various funding scenarios will be an obvious part of the debate.

For example, the current TTC budget requires a 10-cent fare increase to balance the books.  What further cuts will be needed if this is not implemented?  We don’t know.  Indeed, we didn’t even know what cuts the present budget would bring until the detailed list found its way to me earlier this week.  Officially, the TTC was still working on the cuts (probably true in the strictest interpretation), but a detailed proposal had already been posted for staff information.

If a higher fare increase were implemented, what could be done with the added revenue?  This type of question, of planning, was at the heart of the Ridership Growth Strategy which, thanks to Mayor Ford, was jettisoned as an unwanted leftover of the Miller era.  With the fundamental assumption that any improvements cannot be afforded, or worse, might be “gravy” undeserved by the beneficiaries, Toronto finds itself cut off from the basic debate of the worth and quality of its services.  The present crew of TTC Commissioners colludes in this by avoiding discussion on alternative budget strategies.  “What if” is a question nobody wants to hear answered.

Meanwhile, Chair Karen Stintz focuses on “good news” stories about things the TTC did, or appeared to do, well.  She is dancing on the deck of the Titanic.

Several issues raised in the KPMG “Efficiency Reviews” are now under study by TTC management.  While many of the areas addressed here are worth studying, they represent comparatively small efficiencies and, moreover, they are one-time savings.  Improvements in the affected cost areas may be found, although some may not bear fruit until 2013.  However, an “efficiency” cannot be repeatedly applied to yield new savings year after year, and the TTC will have do deal with ridership and inflationary pressures in 2013 and beyond without the one-time reductions applied in 2012.

One large “saving” comes from the designation of the TTC’s Pension Fund Society as a “jointly sponsored” plan which does not require full solvency of future liabilities.  If the TTC had been required to fully fund the plan, this would have added $40 to $45-million annually to the Operating Budget through about 2022.  This is really only an avoided cost, not a saving against current spending.

In a separate study, the City is reviewing the consolidation of various pension plans, including the TTC’s.  The possibility of such a move and its financial implications have not yet been reported out to Council.

Wheel-Trans Operating Budget

Commissioner Cesar Palacio tabled a request that staff consider moving from the current 60/40 ratio of contracted versus TTC-provided service to a new target of 80/20.  The question of using private operators to carry more of the WT customers has come before the Commission many times before, although in this case it crept into the agenda unexpectedly with Palacio’s motion.

The fundamental problems with previous attempts at private operation of WT vans/buses has been with the quality of staff, vehicle maintenance and passenger treatment.  How this will be address in the 2013 budget cycle remains to be seen.

One point TTC management has not yet addressed is the degree to which high in-house costs are a function of poor dispatching that affects vehicle utilization and trip lengths.  A new booking system is supposed to reduce these problems, but we have yet to hear any reports on actual operational or financial benefits.

Fitness for Duty

By far the biggest issue for debate was the question of mandatory testing for drug and alcohol use by TTC staff.  The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 strongly opposes this scheme, and the matter is already in grievance proceedings and likely to wind up in the courts.  The ATU’s position is that random testing is an invasion of privacy, and that it does not fully address the problem of a driver’s ability to perform their job.

The ATU supports the implementation of non-invasive technologies to assess driver alertness that check for response times using video displays, a system already deployed in parts of the USA.  The ATU’s position is that this would monitor for all forms of fatigue including those due to tiredness or illness, not just test for the presence of drugs or alcohol.

This is not as straightforward a situation as it may appear.  For one thing, privacy and especially health privacy laws in Ontario are much more strict than south of the border.  The TTC also claims that it is interested in whether someone is impaired at the time a test is taken, not whether there is evidence of past use.

TTC Management and the Commission appear to be exploiting a recent collision between a bus and truck which caused a passenger’s death to push through the new policy.  The driver was charged with “criminal negligence causing death” and it is unclear whether a separate charge for marijuana possession has any bearing on this case.  I will not comment further on this matter, and will edit out any comments that speculate on this subject because it is before the courts.

What is clear is that until various legal and labour proceedings work themselves out, the new policy will be in limbo.

Subway Station and Vehicle Cleanliness

The TTC received a presentation on the cleanliness of its stations and vehicles.  In case you have been wondering why TTC vehicles might be a tad grubby, we now know that the only daily cleaning they get is a “dust and sweep” except for the bus fleet which gets an exterior wash as part of the daily fuelling cycle.  Streetcars don’t need to be fuelled, and they go straight to the yard.

Now that the wash tracks at Wilson and Greenwood are back in operation, subway trains do look a lot better, although some cars remain grungy, notably on the BD line, possibly because the long period without cleaning has left dirt and grease more or less permanently part of the cars.

Audit results for the condition of stations and vehicles show that there has been some improvement, but the TTC is still not at its hoped-for targets.  The streetcar fleet, in particular, is well below the hoped-for level of litter although this is probably due to the relatively large number of vehicles staying in service all day and evening without a mid-day break where basic housekeeping might be possible.

The TTC plans to transfer some subway cleaners from carhouse duties to subway terminals where they can clean out trains at the end of each trip.  It is unclear whether there are enough cleaners for this during all service hours.

Some tile and grout work now underway at a half-dozen locations should be finished by year-end.  However, there was no comment on the many locations where portions of station walls were removed for inspection, and the due date for replacement recedes into the future.  Similarly, there was no comment on locations like St. George where the trackside walls remain filthy even while work continues on the platforms and stairwells.