The LRT Vote: A Long Day at Council (II) (Updated)

Updated February 12, 2012 at 10:40 pm:  Remarks attributed to Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday were in fact spoken by Councillor Doug Ford.  This article has been revised to correct the error which arose from mis-transcription of my notes.

This article continues the discussion of City Council on the question of whether to approve the original Memorandum of Agreement between Toronto and Queen’s Park for the Metrolinx 5-in-10 plan of 2009, or the Memorandum of Understanding signed by Mayor Ford in 2011.

I have not included every speech by every member as some of them added nothing significant to the debate.  However, I wanted to give readers a sense of how each member wanted to get their oar in, and how it can take hours to reach a vote on issues.

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After the Vote: What Does the Future Hold for Council and the TTC?

This week’s historic vote to resurrect parts of the Transit City network is unprecedented in the history of the relationship between the Toronto Transit Commission and city council. Never before has a sitting TTC chair challenged and defeated a mayor on a major transit-policy issue.

Light-rail transit (LRT) supporters may have partied into the night, but the question for the days ahead is: What now?

Read the rest of this article on the Torontoist website.

Stintz Leads Call for Special Council Meeting (Update 3)

Updated February 10, 2012 at 1:00 am:

The description of the reporting mechanism and due date for Sheppard “expert panel” has been corrected to match what Council actually passed.  The information previously quoted here came from the original version of the motion.

Updated February 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm:

The minutes from the Special Meeting of Council are now available online.

Updated February 9, 2012 at noon:

On February 8, Toronto Council voted to seize control of the transit agenda from Mayor Ford and to support much of the original Transit City / Metrolinx 5-in-10 Plan that was approved in 2009.  I will publish a separate article on the debate and the motions later today.

Additional coverage is available from Torontoist, and a compendium of links to other media is available at Spacing Toronto.

The two most important motions were from TTC Chair Karen Stintz.

The first confirms Council’s support for the originally planned subway-surface alignment of the Eglinton LRT line, for the conversion of the Scarborough RT to LRT technology with an extension north to Sheppard (and eventually to Malvern), and for the Finch LRT west from Keele (the future Finch West station on the Spadina subway) to Humber College. Council also authorizes the TTC to discuss with Metrolinx the feasibility of several future projects:  a Sheppard West extension to Downsview, a Sheppard LRT to the Zoo, a Danforth subway extension to the Scarborough Town Centre, an Eglinton extension from Jane to Pearson Airport, and the Downtown Relief Line.

The second creates a special panel with broad enough representation to command political and technical respect.  This panel will advise Council on “the most effective means of delivering the greatest number of riders with the funds currently allocated for a public transportation project on Sheppard”.  The panel is to report back to a special meeting of Council no later than March 21, 2012.

Reaction from Mayor Ford and his faction was predictably hostile, but now extends to openly defying the will of Council.  Meanwhile, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation, Bob Chiarelli, issued a press release affirming the importance of support from “council, as a whole”.  Chiarelli has asked Metrolinx to report as quickly as possible on the effects of Council’s position.

Original post from February 6, 2012 follows the break.

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Metrolinx Contemplates LRT vs Subway (Updated)

Updated February 8, 2012 at 7:40am:  I have often described a suspicion that there is a fifth column within Metrolinx working against the TTC and LRT plans.  Royson James in the Star gives us a view into that organization in which we clearly see how it suits some at Metrolinx to misrepresent what the Toronto of David Miller and the TTC were doing.  This problem goes back years, and was evident during preparation of “The Big Move”, but the Metrolinx love for secrecy, for holding all of the substantive discussions behind closed doors, kept this out of sight.  Now Metrolinx may be faced with a vote at City Council that could run directly opposite to the scheme some at Metrolinx secretly have supported for years.  Will Metrolinx and Queen’s Park listen?

Original post from February 7 below:

On Monday February 6, Metrolinx held a press conference to outline its position on the current subway vs LRT controversy.  This article is a summary of the presentation (which is now available online) and a commentary on it.

I have taken a breather from the Chong report because of its size, the fact that it is now available online, and my desire to review Metrolinx position first.  That agency has somewhat more credibility than and “Toronto Transit Infrastructure Limited”.

Purpose

The presentation is intended to “provide information” on the Eglinton line as outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mayor Ford, and to restate the principles embraced by Queen’s Park and Metrolinx.

Principles

  1. Sound Regional Transit Planning.  Any projects must “achieve sound transportation objectives for the City and the region” and be in tune with the regional plan, The Big Move.
  2. Budget and Cost.  The maximum budget available from Queen’s Park remains $8.4-billion (2010$).  Any plan must remain within the overall total as well as projected yearly cash flows.  Additional costs must be paid by the City or some other partner.
  3. Penalties.  Queen’s Park will not pay any penalties resulting from changes sought by the City, and the penalty costs and losses from the MOU (the Ford document) remain the City’s responsibility.
  4. Cost of Delay.  Further delay is unacceptable to Metrolinx, and any costs this triggers must be paid by the City.
  5. Traffic.  “Any plan should minimize adverse impacts on traffic to the extent reasonably possible.”

Point 3 begs an obvious question of how the Province can hold Toronto responsible for costs incurred because they were foolish enough to proceed on Mayor Ford’s say-so without ensuring Council’s approval.  As we know from the recent legal opinion, the Mayor cannot bind the City to a contract without Council’s consent.

Point 5 is unclear about whether this refers to traffic problems during construction or after a line has opened.  During construction is of interest because this affects both cost and elapsed times for big projects like Eglinton.  The TTC’s construction schedule for an all-underground version is extended out to 2022 because they don’t want to dig up every station location at the same time.  If this were allowed, say as part of a sweetened deal with a private partner, the cost would come down.

Status

The west/central portion of the Eglinton project is common to both versions of the plan, and it is “making good progress”.  Metrolinx and the TTC are working to allow an alternative procurement strategy (putting more responsibility in the hands of a private partner), but certainty is needed on what exactly will be built in the eastern portion.

Current Plan

This is shown as a map with the following components and costs:

  • Metrolinx Crosstown Project:  $8.18-billion
  • Sheppard East Subway Project:  $2.75b
  • Sheppard West Subway Project:  $1.48b
  • Sheppard Subway Yard:  $0.5b

It is worth noting that the total here for Sheppard is $4.73-billion.  This is the “TTC” estimate for Sheppard, not the lower so-called “Metrolinx” estimate cited in the Chong report.  Is there something about the cost of Sheppard Metrolinx knows that they did not share with Gordon Chong and KPMG (who wrote the section of Chong’s paper where this appears)?

Benefits of the Current Crosstown Plan

Just the title of this section is intriguing because, of course, Council has never approved this plan and strictly speaking, it’s not “current”.

Metrolinx claims that there will be a reduction of travel times from Kennedy to Black Creek by 25% as the line will operate at 30-32km/h overall.  Of course, the subway-surfrace variant would operate at this speed too, and the only question is the speed over the section from Leaside to Kennedy.  Part of this section will be grade separated (around Don Mills Station) although the extent is not yet confirmed.  The total distance from Brentcliffe to Kennedy is about 8km.  From Black Creek to Brentcliffe is a bit over 10km.  In other words, the section where any improvement in time can possibly occur is 8/18 or about 45% of the line.

To achieve a 25% increase overall, the speed improvement east of Brentcliffe would have to be 55%.  We know that the speed used for underground operation is 30-32, and this means that the presumed speed for surface operation would be only about 20km/h.  This is lower than the figure actually used by the TTC in the Eglinton line’s published description (22-25km/h) and it also ignores the change in access time to the more widely-spaced stations on an underground alignment.  The difference is between a 15 minute trip (at 32km/h) and a 24 minute trip (at 20km/h).  If the higher TTC speed (25km/h)  is used, the surface trip falls to 19 minutes.  Much will depend on the degree of surface transit priority afforded to the LRT.

Metrolinx cites reliability because an underground line would be completely separated from traffic.  Conversely, a surface line would have to interact with traffic and pedestrians at intersections, and there would be some effect on left turns and signal cycle times.

They also cite “convenience” because the Eglinton and SRT routes are linked.  Note that this arrangement is not peculiar to the underground proposal, and nothing prevents the TTC from doing this for a subway-surface version of the line.  The TTC’s concern is that demand north of Kennedy is higher than on Eglinton, and they don’t want to operate a very frequent “SRT” service with short turns at Kennedy to accommodate a smaller demand west on Eglinton.  This is an issue of operational convenience rather than necessity.

Metrolinx cites higher ridership, especially in the peak, on an underground Crosstown line as compared to the subway-surface route.  This is a direct effect of their demand model which is very sensitive to running times, and which redirects a considerable amount of traffic from the Danforth subway to the Eglinton line.  Whether this is desirable is quite another matter given concerns about the capacity at Eglinton/Yonge station.  A related question is the potential benefit of a Downtown Relief Line intercepting demand on Eglinton at Don Mills.

Overall, Metrolinx states that a fully grade-separated line doubles the capacity of the project.  This is true in the sense that more and longer trains can be operated if the line is all grade-separated, but it also begs the question of the effect on overall cost of providing a fleet and yard sufficient for that capacity and whether LRVs are appropriate for a route that never runs on the surface.  The presentation returns to this issue later.

Light Rail Vehicles

About $76m of $770m of the contract for 182 Bombardier LRVs has been spent to date.  The “current plan” reduced this number to 135 by the elimination of the Finch and Sheppard routes, but these vehicles are suitable for “other LRT applications around the region and province”.  The strongest endorsement of LRT comes here:

“Metrolinx remains confident that LRVs are a good choice given their flexibility to operate at surface, in tunnels and on elevated guideways, with a low floor and high capacity”

Metrolinx notes that the LRVs were intended to operate partly in tunnels in the original plan.  They cite other examples of Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco.  Closer to home, one can look at Edmonton, Philadelphia and Boston (where streetcars have run underground for over a century).  The important point about all of these is that the LRVs do not stay underground when there is no reason for them to do so.

LRVs are low floor vehicles which, in the Metrolinx implementation, will load level with the platform (unlike the surface streetcars which must use a ramp because they operate in mixed traffic).  The low floor aspect of the cars is a “small component” of the overall vehicle cost and project.

Metrolinx notes that:

“Having a low floor provides flexibility for the vehicle to be used in a surface application, when the line is extended west towards Pearson airport or north and east further into Scarborough”

Vehicle Capacity

Metrolinx cites capacities for three-car trainsets ranging from just under 10k/hour at a 3 minute headway (20 trains/hour) to just under 20k/hour at a 1.5 minute headway.  This can accommodate projected ridership beyond 2051.  Surface operations in a median are limited to 8-9k/hour because frequent trains and high pedestrian volumes would interfere too much with road traffic.

Results

What was once a $6.5b project is now an $8.2b project and limited funds are available for other routes.  There will be fewer stations because of their higher cost underground.  Metrolinx states that although this version costs more, it “delivers greater benefits”.  Whether this calculation is offset by the benefits lost through not building other routes is unclear.

Going Forward

Metrolinx and Queen’s Park seek a single position from the City.  They “remain committed” to partnering with Toronto, but “clarity is required”.  Any City position will be evaluated against the principles stated earlier.

I cannot help pointing out that there already is an accepted Memorandum of Agreement dating from 2009 between all of the parties and especially City Council.  It would be difficult for Metrolinx to claim now that the network the MOA contemplates (the 5-in-10 Metrolinx plan for Eglinton, SRT, Sheppard and Finch) would now fail this test.  Tinkering with the plan by Council could re-open the question of what is an “acceptable” request.

The next installment in this drama lies with Council, and political concerns will dominate although this will be disguised by concerns for technical matters.  We may learn again why Canadian winters are too cold for surface operation and other tidbits from Ford’s fountain of transit knowledge.

The Chong Report (I) (Updated)

Updated February 6, 2012 at 11:45pm:  The Chong report is now available online (linked below) together with a report from KPMG on financing the Sheppard subway.  Large chunks of the KPMG report are reproduced in the Chong report.

Original post from Feb 5 follows:

Gordon Chong’s report

Toronto Transit Back on Track
Sheppard Subway Development and Financing Study

will be released sometime this week, but a copy has already found its way to me.  This report was commissioned by Mayor Ford to explore the viability of his proposal, as stated in the purported Memorandum of Understanding with Queen’s Park, for the City to go it alone on the Sheppard Subway project.  The report is close to 200 pages long including its appendices, and I am not going to review it in a single article.

There is no question Chong’s mandate was to substantiate the need for and viability of the subway line, and to that end his report is coloured with sections intended to denigrate LRT alternatives and the political process that led to the Transit City proposal.  I will turn to this material in due course, but any decision on the subway project must stand on its own.  History is worth reviewing insofar as it provides technical background and shows the evolution of transit planning in Toronto.  Fighting old battles may score political points, but the subway must be justified on its own merits.

The cost and financing model are central to the thesis that the Sheppard line, and by extension a network of subways, is an appropriate goal, indeed the only goal, for Toronto.  The common wisdom is that “everybody wants subways”, but as with many aspects of public spending, what people want is not always what they will get.  Recent events in Toronto’s budget process are littered with lectures by Ford’s followers about fiscal responsibility and the need to make do with less.  We are told that the city and its taxpayers cannot afford to pay more.  We must, therefore, examine claims that major new public works are affordable with suspicion.

What is the estimated cost of any new project?  Are the numbers we are using credible?  Are subways actually cheaper than we have been told, and could a lower cost bring them within financial constraints of potential revenue?  Are public agencies the appropriate developers of such projects?  Are their costs (historical and projected) greater than might be achieved through another delivery mechanism?

While it may be a common Toronto sport to poke holes in TTC budgets, management practices and operations (a not uncommon thread on this blog), such criticism must be backed with a standard of accuracy and care.

How Much Will the Sheppard Subway Cost?

A central premise in this debate is that the TTC, and by implication the public sector generally, is unable to deliver this project at a reasonable cost.  An oft-quoted figure puts the TTC’s estimate of the project at $4.7-billion while an estimate from Metrolinx sits at $3.7-billion.  These numbers first appear in Table 2 in the Executive Summary, and they are routinely repeated as gospel.  One must read all the way down to page 147 and Table 38 to see the details. Here we see component costs that are generally higher for the TTC estimate than the Metrolinx one, but the details reveal that the billion dollar difference is not all that it seems.

Metrolinx estimates the cost of maintenance facilities at $138-million based on a per-car value of $2.66m.  A footnote on the table clearly states that the TTC estimate of $500-million is based on a new facility larger than is needed to hold just the fleet for Sheppard.  Why such a big difference?  Metrolinx assumes an expansion of the yard at Wilson and therefore a marginal increase in system capacity whereas the TTC makes provision for future fleet growth for demand and for system extension.

Wilson Yard has a looming problem with its size because there are limits on how fast trains can be pushed out for service buildup in the AM peak.  Already there is discussion of shortening the hours of subway service to retain an overnight maintenance window between the end of one day’s operations and the start-up of the next.  TTC plans include proposal for an underground storage yard north of Finch Station and, eventually, to a new carhouse somewhere in York Region.  We cannot simply keep stuffing more and more trains into Wilson.

This aspect of the cost difference cannot be counted as a penalty against the TTC because it addresses a completely different model of what would be built (and why), not some inherent flaw or inflation in TTC costing.

“Operating Systems” covers a range of items listed in the comparison.  For this, the TTC’s value is 4.5 times the Metrolinx value ($329m vs $73m).  This amount cannot be explained simply by claiming inefficiency at the TTC, and it is wildly out of scale with the differences in other items.  At the very least, anyone purporting to compare estimates would flag such a difference and explain it in their report rather than simply using the numbers without question.

“Contingency” is a catch-all allowance in any project budget to allow for unexpected events and costs during construction.  Both the TTC and Metrolinx estimates allow about 26% over and above the component costs, and with the TTC’s costs being higher, so is the contingency in their estimate.

Sales tax is included in the TTC estimates, but it is not in the Metrolinx version.  This shows up by virtue of an HST Rebate in the TTC section of the table which has no equivalent on the Metrolinx side.  The HST is included in the component costs including the contingency factor, and the TTC unit costs are not presented on an equal, untaxed footing with the Metrolinx costs.  Again, this sort of adjustment is a basic requirement of financial analysis, but it is absent from Table 38.

There are likely other areas where differences between Metrolinx and TTC figures would bear scrutiny, but as the TTC numbers are not detailed here, nor are the assumptions on which they are based, it is impossible to dig further.

Taking what we can see into account covers about three quarters of the difference between the Metrolinx and TTC estimates.  Before we can believe the Metrolinx $3.7b estimate, the inconsistencies with the TTC numbers must be explained.  Both values may be legitimate given the underlying assumptions used in each case, but these are demonstrably different.  Saying that there is a $1-billion spread between the two is an apples-to-oranges argument.

Here, it suits Gordon Chong’s thesis that the TTC is an inherently poor steward of public funds and that the project could be delivered at lower cost through another agency or mechanism.

A January 2008 Metrolinx report on a study tour to the United Kingdom and Spain is included as an appendix to the Chong report.  Even a cursory reading of this document shows that there are significant differences in the environment in which large-scale projects were undertaken in these jurisdictions compared with Toronto.  A major source of savings lies in the scale and continuity of construction projects, a general agreement that the projects should go forward (possibly with less up-front review such as our Environmental Assessments), and a regulatory environment that reduces contention between proponent agencies and the companies actually building their projects.  (Buried in the report, by the way, are references to “Tram” (LRT) components of the Madrid system which are considerably cheaper per kilometre than their subways.)

The degree to which each difference between the European cities and Toronto contributes to differences in costs is not explored, and yet this is essential to any comparison.  The scale of their projects and longevity of their construction plans are not directly transferable to a single Toronto subway extension.  It is not enough to say “look at how cheaply Madrid builds subways” without also understanding why they can do it.

In my next article I will turn to the question of how we will pay for this project.