Almost a month after Ontario’s provincial election, the political landscape in Toronto is shifting away from the Ford Brothers and “Ford Nation”. The Brothers Ford’s hoped-for Conservative ally, a Premier who would support any of their mad schemes, remains in opposition. The Tories didn’t even manage to girdle Toronto with a sea of blue ridings, and the Liberals remain in power in much of the GTA with the NDP taking several urban seats. Between them, the Liberals and NDP count for a large block of “not Tory” votes, and Ford’s effect on the election was at best neutral.
The Liberals, content to re-announce past commitments, proposed little on transit during the election. Queen’s Park remains silent on any transit initiatives. This might be a sign of consistency if only we did not hear daily about “congestion” and the need for much better transit in the GTA.
Bob Chiarelli, formerly Mayor of Ottawa, replaces Kathleen Wynne as Minister of Transportation (also as Minister of Infrastructure). The Ministry’s website describes Chiarelli as “a champion of public transit, including clean light-rail expansion”, and for once we have a transition between Ministers that might not wreck a pattern of support for transit within the government.
There is much to do. Simple recitations of committed projects must give way to discussions of a future, much improved world for transit in the GTA and other major Ontario centres.
Herewith, a few suggestions about what the “major minority” (Premier McGuinty’s term for a not-quite majority) of our new government might do on this file.
You Won: Act Like It
The past election began in fear and desperation with polls showing strong support for the Tories. Even worse, the Ford juggernaut loomed over Toronto poised to seriously damage Liberal support in the City and in the inner ridings of the 905 beyond.
Antagonizing the seemingly popular and powerful mayor was not a highly rated election strategy. Rather than challenge Mayor Ford on his unilateral cancellation of Transit City, and more generally on his moves to drive transportation planning as a personal brief without explicit Council support, Queen’s Park agreed to a new deal, a Memorandum of Understanding.
In one stroke, we lost much of Transit City, gained an ill-considered subway proposal for Sheppard, and saw the Eglinton “LRT” morphed into an LRT subway and replacement for the Scarborough RT. Billions originally earmarked for other projects were funnelled to Eglinton to pay for the higher cost of a fully underground line. Finch may get buses, and much of Sheppard will get nothing. The remaining Transit City lines are wiped from the map. Both the Sheppard subway and Finch bus plans would largely be on the City’s dime.
If Queen’s Park really believes that we must spend wisely, and if we must raise new taxes to pay for all of this, throwing billions at a political problem in the Mayor’s office is not good policy. Indeed, a central tenet of Metrolinx’ project evaluations has been so-called “Business Case Analyses” purporting to show the value of the chosen proposals. Whether the methodology holds water or not (and I have my doubts on that score), the principle is that money should be spent well, with demonstrable benefit, not just for political convenience.
In the wake of the Port Lands development debacle and the search for mythical gravy in the City’s budget, this Mayor’s voter support is exposed for what it really was. People wanted “change” and some sense of responsible spending, not a city of slash and burn Tea Party clones. Continued support for Mayor Ford’s position runs against the evolving mood of the city, and Queen’s Park needs to entertain alternatives.
Ideally, a view of how transit might evolve would come forward municipally and gain political support, something Queen’s Park could latch onto rather than having to do the dirty work themselves. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see this either from a left-centre coalition at Council, nor from the provincial agency, Metrolinx.
The legislature has a strong majority who should support transit, although the parties differ on the details. As for the Tories, their attitude is simply to let local politicians decide, possibly with a few more crumbs from the dwindling pot of provincial funding. How this is supposed to produce an integrated regional transit plan is a complete mystery.
Toronto’s support for transit is hemmed in on one side by a tax-fighting, budget cutting administration, and on the other by the decline of Provincial support for capital programs and the pressure this creates on the City’s capital debt. None of the Liberals’ many election statements addressed these problems. Beyond Toronto, transit does not enjoy strong support from municipalities, and developing a better market share will require improvements the cities cannot afford without new revenues.
An oft-repeated phrase talks of “mature discussion” on transit financing (indeed of all municipal financing). What exactly do we hope to build, how will we afford not just the shiny new trains and buses, but the transit service that must be operated and maintained to support new trunk lines?
A party with a fresh almost-majority needs to drive this discussion sooner, not later, and do so in the context of the difficult economic situation Ontario and its cities are in. This is no time to timidly hide from voters, to say “we’re doing all we can” when there is clearly a demand for more.
As for Rob Ford, we have already seen his so-called private sector subway on Sheppard evolve into a call for tripartite funding with Queen’s Park and Ottawa kicking in 1/3 shares, and some private investment filling in the cracks. To this scheme, the answer should be a resounding “no”. He agreed to a plan, fantasy or no. Ford must live within this agreement or put the whole thing up for review including the issue of surface transit taking road space. Any new plan must have support from Council. Without this, we might as well just wait three years for a more-enlightened administration to take power from the Fords.
Queen’s Park must show that they are open to transit spending, and this must not be for one or two projects. New revenues and the Metrolinx “Investment Strategy” must be the top priority. Without them, discussions of enhancing transit will be confined to the back of beer-soaked napkins.
The Role of GO Transit
At the regional level, GO/Metrolinx must deal with the challenge of all-day bidirectional rail services. Not only does this add to GO’s costs with comparatively empty trains, it creates a need for good off-peak transit feeding into GO stations. The commuter model, in in the morning, out in the afternoon, simply won’t work any more.
Toronto presents special problems because the GO lines could form a regional rapid transit network once service is frequent enough to attract riders. However, the fare structure discourages TTC/GO riding, and TTC services do not focus on GO stations as major transit nodes.
Back in 1967, the rationale for GO was that running commuter trains was cheaper than building more highways in the Lake Shore corridor. Why doesn’t the same philosophy apply to GO’s role as part of a transit network? Capacity issues are often cited as the reason for limiting GO’s role in the 416, and yet The Big Move’s demand model quite clearly assumes that GO will have a major role within the City of Toronto.
By 2016, Union Station’s reconstruction will be finished, and passenger capacity will no longer be an issue in the medium term. Train capacity is another matter, and we know from the GO electrification study that much remains to be done for service frequencies to approach levels proposed in The Big Move. This may be a problem for another government, but we must know what we are aiming at.
Open conflicts between Metrolinx and GO plans do us no good, and undermine discussions of what we can expect of transit in the 2020s and beyond. Consistency is not a strong suit in planning by GO and Metrolinx, and we cannot intelligently talk about new alternatives in funding, construction and operation of transit if we can’t even have a coherent plan for the regional network. Add to this GO announcements that flow from the Premier’s Office rather than as part of a regional plan, and one might wonder if there is a plan at all.
A related question for Queen’s Park is GO electrification. Recent studies showed that not only is electrification of the major GO corridors a good idea, but that it is essential for these services to reach their target capacities and speed. Unfortunately, GO still speaks of “if” it will electrify rather than “when” despite an endorsement of this in principle by the Metrolinx Board.
GO’s attitude seems to be that their network will never reach the service level where electrification is justified and, therefore, the question is moot. This directly contradicts demand and service projections in The Big Move and, implicitly, projections for the traffic volumes that will be redirected from roads to transit by GO. Either GO’s rate of growth will be much lower than projected by Metrolinx, or GO’s indifference to electrification is dangerous posturing that ignores a complex and critical part of the system’s development.
Finally, GO and Queen’s Park are lumbered with the Air Rail Link to Pearson Airport, a project inherited from a failed private sector consortium. The entire project is a comedy of errors deserving an article in its own right, but its problems include:
- The vehicles have standard railway coach height floors that are incompatible with existing (and future) GO Transit platforms. This means that the ARL needs its own station infrastructure, and the equipment cannot interoperate on other GO routes or be redeployed in any future network restructuring.
- The airport spur will be built to ARL vehicle specifications, and we are unlikely to ever see low-floor GO equipment operate to the airport.
- Because electrification has not yet been approved, future conversion will be more complex than if the line had been built for electric trains from the outset.
The desire to have a “world class” link from the airport to downtown in time for the Pan Am Games in 2015 drives the ARL project’s timing. If we were serious about this, we would ask why the airport connection will remain an infrequent, premium fare service divorced from the local transit system. We would also ask why LRT options connecting to Pan Am sites (Eglinton West, Sheppard East, East Bayfront) won’t see the light of day in time for the games, if ever. “Pan Am” is a convenient bit of hocus-pocus weaving protective spells around a project Queen’s Park wants to see at all costs, but strangely absent from alternatives that would be more useful in the post-games transit network.
Transit Operating Budgets
Toronto’s operating budget is financed from a combination of subsidies and fares:
- About 66% comes from the farebox
- About 4% comes from miscellaneous revenue such as advertising and contract services outside of the 416
- About 24% comes from city property taxes
- $90-million worth of provincial gas tax pays for the remaining 6%
The gas tax was originally intended as a capital subsidy, but Queen’s Park allows Toronto to book part of this revenue against the transit operating budget.
Provincial subsidy used to account for 1/6 of the total operating budget, roughly 2.8 times greater than the current level. Restoring funding to this level is a major goal, an “ask” by Toronto of Queen’s Park, but this idea has already been rejected by Premier McGuinty.
One challenge in any new arrangement will be ensuring that new provincial money actually improves transit operations rather than simply providing room for the City to cut its TTC contribution. The last thing a Minister or Premier wants is a bold announcement followed by no visible improvement or continued maintenance and service cuts.
The NDP would have cities freeze their fares in return for better transit funding, but this scheme would do nothing to preserve or improve transit service. Fare freezes are the transit equivalent of tax freezes — superficially attractive, but ultimately destructive. Rising transit demand will not fully fund the added service needed to carry the loads, and ongoing subsidy increases will inevitably be a target for future spending cutbacks.
If there is to be a quid-pro-quo, this should focus on quality of service to ensure that transit does not erode just at the time when more and more would-be riders try to use it as an alternative to driving. This is important not just for Toronto, but for the small transit systems around the GTAH where local political support for good transit service is even more tenuous than in the 416.
Transit Capital Budgets
Say “transit” anywhere near a provincial Liberal and you will get a speech about $11.7-billion and thinly-veiled admonitions that asking for more would be unwise. However, little of that money will benefit transit users in the short term. The lion’s share goes to the Eglinton LRT subway project, and will actually be spent over the period to 2020 (much in the last five years). This includes a few billion to keep Mayor Ford happy and put the whole route underground, although that scheme may prove impractical now that Metrolinx (and even TTC Chair Karen Stintz) acknowledges complexities at river valleys.
(Another chunk, a tad under $1-billion, goes to the Spadina subway extension, a project that will complete in late 2015 or early 2016, after the Pan Am Games have come and gone. The Provincial funding for this was placed in a trust fund in 2006 for accounting purposes, and has been sitting there ever since doled out as needed by the project.)
If we bring Eglinton back to the surface for part of its length, what do we do with the “savings”? Queen’s Park has agreed to give Toronto some leftovers, if any, from the Eglinton project as a contribution to the Sheppard line, but even this offer has its limits. We need a well-informed debate about where the Eglinton funding might go. Back to some form of the Finch or Sheppard LRT schemes? To other Toronto transit projects such as the new vehicles and carhouse for the “legacy” streetcar system? To the underfunded Waterfront transit proposals?
I despair that the government, or its agency Metrolinx, or the Mayor’s office can have such a discussion, let alone one in which the public might have a say as to options and priorities.
As I have described elsewhere, capital funding from both Queen’s Park and Ottawa declined as various time-limited programs wound down. Toronto’s only sustained funding today is the gas tax totalling about $320-million between the two sources. Most of this goes to capital, but comes nowhere near the ongoing needs of our network. Far too much “committed” capital is linked to specific projects.
The TTC itself is partly to blame for this situation. For many years, the capital budgets low-balled the true cost of proposals, and “gotcha” situations usually emerged when a project advanced beyond the point of no return.
Estimates for the Transit City and Waterfront projects are recent examples, but the whole question of subway network capacity and planning is another major issue as I have discussed elsewhere. A routine trick is to move projects beyond a ten-year timeline so that their cost estimates don’t show up in funding requirements even when management knows that the work should be done sooner. Their hope is that capital will magically appear and allow such projects to move back into view.
This approach, however, means that there is always a hidden backlog of projects, some of which cannot be deferred, but which remain out of view. The result is an understatement of the real needs, and a continued reliance on funding individual budget items as special projects rather than as a routine, annual allocation. Just when we think we have a formula to match our needs, we discover that the project queue extends out of sight around the corner.
Congestion vs Mobility
The “war on the car” is a false premise — it leads to a focus on congestion, not on mobility. In cities, there will always be congestion because there are far more people, far more demand, than roads can handle. Even Metrolinx’ plans acknowledge that, at best with full buildout of their proposed Big Move, congestion will get no better over the wide planning area of GTAH. Will we see the full network? Not very likely.
Downtown, the “old city” is congested because off peak road traffic is growing, and because road space is used for parking and loading, not for travel. Roads are only so wide, generally four lanes, and unless we take Baron Haussmann’s 19th century Parisian approach, they are as wide as they ever will be. Some blame congestion on streetcars, but oddly streets free of these vehicles are congested too. Cycling volumes continue to grow, and if there are more bike lanes, they too will remove capacity from other road users. Even the growth of pedestrian traffic affects road operations with crowded sidewalks and frequent blockages of turns where they are legal.
Outside downtown, the problems are different and the mix of travellers (auto, transit, etc) gives a balance unlike what we see in the dense, pedestrian oriented parts of the city. Taking capacity away from cars, the dominant mode, in these areas will not be easy especially where there is no room for adding lanes.
Many trips in these areas are already poorly served by transit, and new lines will not address the diverse origin-destination patterns between parts of the suburbs. The goal will be to get what market share transit can attract, and to support this with evolving land use that improves transit-friendly density on the street, not behind acres of parking.
The focus must be on how to move people around. Frequent, reliable service is essential. Don’t waste time trying to pack on a few more passengers in the name of “efficiency” if this pushes crowding beyond reasonable comfort and slows overall service. Make headways predictable, minimize wait times and improve speed where possible with transit priority that really works and good connectivity between routes. These may sound like local transit issues, but they all cost money that transit systems and their cities don’t have.
We talk about “reduced congestion” as a holy grail, but are unwilling to make transit more attractive as an alternative.
Do Governments Believe in Transit?
A long-standing problem with transit financing has been a focus on capital construction and the direct economic stimulus this provides, possibly with some benefits to land development. The idea that transit is a good in its own right, that transit mobility across the GTA has personal value for voters and economic value for the region, is absent from most transit debates. The result is a focus on projects to keep somebody — a politician, the construction industry, a developer — happy. Looking at the network as a whole, at what it might achieve, comes second if it is considered at all.
No discussion of new transit funding — be it from tolls, taxes, development fees or bake sales — can occur without shifting our expectations of transit to that network view. Politicians and planners need to lake the long view of where transit is going. Are we just muddling through, spending as little as we can politically afford, or are we fundamentally changing transit’s role in urban areas?
Most politicians represent ridings where transit is a poor second as a transportation choice. For them and for their voters, supporting new money is an uphill battle in personal commitment. There is only so much political capital to go around for deserving causes, and transit isn’t top of the list for many at the municipal or provincial level.
The original premise of MoveOntario2020 (the Premier’s scheme timed for the 2007 election) was that we would prime the pump with a set of projects financed from general revenue to show what could be done. In practice, many of these projects are sitting on the back burner or will not complete until long after new revenue tools were supposed to be in place. Some were poorly chosen, some were deferred thanks to economic developments. It’s hard to convince people they should spend more on transit when they see so little.
The next municipal election will be in 2014 with a provincial election to follow in 2015 presuming that the Liberal minority survives that long. While it may be difficult to do so publicly, Queen’s Park needs to think of a post-Ford era in Toronto and what transit planning will look like in that context. What accomplishments need to be in place, what promises will be made in coming years? Will they answer yesterday’s question — the vain hope that traffic congestion can be eliminated — or will they look forward to make transit “the better way” in the GTAH regions where this is possible?
The Metrolinx Investment Strategy is now planned to appear in 2014, and The Big Move 2.0 may get underway next year. Both of these drag along far too slowly, in part in deference to the 2011 election. Many groups, including normally conservative business lobbies, are calling for better transit spending and new revenue sources to pay for it. The shopping list of possible sources is well-known with only a few — gas taxes, road tolls, regional sales tax — offering the dollars needed to finance capital and operating improvements.
We can debate these over and over, but the list will not change. What is needed is the will to proceed and to advocate for the benefits transit can credibly bring.
We need a strong transit network, not pet projects. We need results, not promises.