Toronto Council’s vote to reconstitute the Toronto Transit Commission may give the new board a better political balance and break Mayor Ford’s stranglehold on transit policy, but that is only the beginning of the work facing our city.
First up will be the March 21 vote on the Sheppard East subway-vs-LRT issue. Already, the Ford camp claims that it almost has the votes needed to spike the LRT scheme and forge ahead with subway plans. Even if LRT prevails, a close margin could provide incentive for attempts to derail the project. The “new” TTC will be in a tenuous position if the momentum of the governance vote does not continue through to the choice of technology.
The future of the TTC, its board and of transit in Toronto is much bigger than the Sheppard decision. We have a “new” board, and later in 2012 it will grow by the addition of four “citizen” members. What should this board be doing?
LRT Design and Advocacy
Land use and Toronto’s Official Plan are integral parts of an LRT network rollout. We know that 1980s-era dreams of suburban development have not been matched by the reality of 2011, but are the proposed mid-rise corridors integral to Transit City any more likely? How do we get from today to the planned tomorrow where the ridership anticipated for the LRT lines will materialize?
For the city’s LRT plans, the TTC must take a hard look at the details. One telling criticism of Transit City was that it papered over annoyances and fudged issues during the public consultation process. For example:
- Even without the incendiary comments by journalists and politicians in the subway camp, there are legitimate concerns that road operations and post-LRT capacity have not been fully addressed. We know from the history of the Ford/Metrolinx Memorandum of Understanding that Queen’s Park was prepared to include widening of Eglinton through western Scarborough to replace the HOV lane displaced by the LRT, but this was rejected by the Mayor. Why isn’t this option still on the table?
- The route between Black Creek and Jane on Eglinton faces difficult choices in alignment and the resulting effect on the Mount Dennis neighbourhood. These choices are complicated by design requirements forced on the project by the TTC which may be excessive. During the EA process, the project’s watchword was to save money on this section of the line, and the “debate” was strongly coloured by financial considerations rather than push-back on the design elements.
- Schemes to handle turning traffic at some locations required roundabout moves with U-turns either across the transit right-of-way or on intersecting streets, and these were not credible both for transit operations and for the manoeuvres required of large vehicles.
LRT can work in Toronto, but the worst possible outcome would be an implementation that builds in problems that could have been avoided. We keep talking about showing Toronto what LRT can do, but if we confirm opponents’ worst fears, their disaster scenarios, we will seal the fate of LRT forever to Toronto’s loss.
LRT advocacy requires more than beauty shots of Paris trams gliding down grassy rights-of-way. TTC and Metrolinx must show examples from various cities of LRT used in ways comparable to what is proposed for Toronto. A great benefit of LRT is that it has so many different implementations, but this very flexibility makes it easy to show inappropriate examples that invite ridicule from subway advocates.
LRT shouldn’t be portrayed as a second-class option, something we are doing only because we’re broke. If that really were the case, Scarborough would never see more than the occasional bus for the next century. What is really needed is an outlook that LRT is good, and that Toronto and its transit system will be much better for the addition of an LRT network.
[For further thoughts on LRT advocacy, see this article on my site.]
Undoing the Damage of an Anti-Transit Ethos
This is no time to waffle, to attempt to make everyone look good on recent transit history. The Ford crew’s interest in transit is, at best, superficial, tied to what might get votes to pull brother Rob through the next election, not to build a transit network people will love to use. On one hand, we (or more accurately, Queen’s Park) have billions to build new transit lines, but on the other we nickle-and-dime transit for service, pack more people on buses, and tell people who live on less-productive routes to find another way home.
The “Core Services Review”, conducted by KPMG in the best manner of consultants telling a client just what they wanted to hear, looked at the TTC and picked the easiest targets for review — improvements from the Ridership Growth Strategy (RGS) during the Miller era. Want to save money? Just undo Miller’s work and — Presto! — all your troubles will vanish. Meanwhile, debate every issue in a “war on the car” context and justify forcing transit to take high-cost options (or nothing at all) rather than looking at co-existence with road users.
Turning back the tide is not simply a matter of reverting to the Miller days, but we must get away from a knee-jerk attitude that if Miller did it, it must be bad.
What do we expect of our transit system? What is “good” service? Should we return to RGS, or find something more subtle that reflects a desire for less crowding, but avoids the most uneconomic (and easily criticized) of operations? How much do we actually save with service cuts, and do we risk strangling growth by undersizing the transit fleet? What would service and subsidies look like if we planned for the riding that is actually on the street, increasing at a rate faster than provided for in the TTC’s budget? “Customer service” is not just about clean stations and trains. Service quality attracts riders, or it drives them away at their first chance to motor, cycle or walk. How much will this cost and what are our options?
The TTC faces a big challenge in its capital budget for system maintenance and renewal. As we have seen in recent subway/LRT debates, the cost of owning an aging infrastructure is poorly understood. “Subways last forever” some claim in obvious ignorance of the many projects to repair tunnels, replace signals and track, upgrade power systems and a myriad of other problems of a 50-year old subway system.
The TTC capital budget is tailored to the City’s self-imposed debt ceiling and the low level of provincial funding. Accounting tricks push items beyond a 10-year horizon so their value does not show up in long-range projections, but this does not make the issues go away. That financial fakery has been around since well before Rob Ford’s tenure. If we must debate new funding schemes for transit, we must actually know the scale of spending required.
Just raising funds to build a few kilometres of subway is useless if the network to which it will connect is still falling apart. Capital needs of the transit system must be well-understood by Council so that everyone knows our current options and future exposures to higher costs or disintegrating infrastructure.
How much necessary, or at least highly desirable work, is sitting in limbo because we don’t have the money to pay for it? How bad is the pressure for better service and how much new riding could we encourage if only service were operated at a level commensurate with potential demand? Council cannot simply issue spending edicts and implement cuts without informed debate.
Whether we agree with the specifics of RGS, the premise was sound — provide a menu of options and costs, and let Council decide whether to fund a better system. Understand the implications of not funding that system. Ensure that capital plans and the effects of deferrals are well-understood.
Council must recognize and deal with the financial plight of Wheel-Trans. The very low cost recovery on WT has huge effects when there is an edict to cut budgets, or if annual increases do not keep pace with demand. The portion of Toronto’s population needing accessible transit is growing thanks to the cohort of aging baby-boomers, and that cannot be wished away with exhortations to make do with less or dismissed as “gravy” we should not fund. Improvements to base system may, eventually, allow more riders to stay there rather than needing Wheel-Trans, but demand for this specialized service won’t go away.
Funding should not be diverted from regular transit service to prop up Wheel-Trans, and riders waiting for their bus to appear should not be told that it was cancelled to pay for W-T operations. That’s a resentment we do not need and should not encourage.
Council and the TTC should not create artificial distinctions in eligibility that create rivalries between groups. Recent events with the TTC’s budget and the diversion of funding from regular service to handling dialysis patients on Wheel-Trans show that these riders are considered deserving on W-T service, but they may not be quite deserving enough in 2013. This is a ludicrous situation. Options for service levels and eligibility, as well as the cost of each option, must be before Council as part of the budget debates so that the effects of cuts or improvements are clearly understood and acknowledged.
Rapid Transit Within Toronto
Over 25 years ago, the Downtown Relief Line was pushed onto the back burner to focus political and funding support on a suburban network and on growth that never materialized. How will we address the shortfall in capacity for the core area? GO Transit took up most of the slack for a few decades, and more recently this was supplemented by short-hop trips by people living near downtown. Growth is not stopping, and we have capacity problems in many parts of the network.
What are the realistic projections for the outer 416 (the area known as the “inner suburbs”)? Where do people living there actually want to travel? What new lines do we need to support the potential demand for transit? How can we ensure that plans and projections are regularly updated to reflect actual developments and prevent the tyranny of aging plans that were dubious when written and worthless now?
Toronto must plan for a network of routes and focus on widespread improvements to transit, not just one or two megaprojects. The transit file will not go away after we tinker for a few months and pronounce ourselves satisfied for this generation.
What about LRT beyond the Metrolinx “5-in-10 Plan”? Why should Toronto wait for Metrolinx to publish “The Big Move 2.0” before debating what else we will need? What are Toronto’s priorities especially for lines whose function will be mainly local? Should we keep other Transit City lines as a starting point (Jane, Don Mills, Scarborough/Malvern) or should we look at some alternative network? Are we serious about providing good transit to the waterfront? What about the improvements proposed in the Transit City Bus Plan?
Is there a role for GO Transit within the 416, or must be provide all capacity for new riding within Toronto on TTC routes?
Planning can tell us what we might have under various scenarios, policy will chose among these and direct the actual implementation, and regular review should ensure that the plans we make today are actually working and relevant a decade in the future.
Revenue Tools and the Role of Queen’s Park
Astute readers will, by now, have asked “what about more money from Queen’s Park”. The question is valid, although a supply of tin cups and training courses for street-corner beggars are all we are likely to see from that quarter.
That we need new revenue to invest in transit is no secret at either the provincial or municipal level. Some hope for an eventual federal presence, but that’s unlikely with the crew now in charge and the need for any program to be national in scope. We must plan to raise the needed cash locally rather than making any progress contingent on a federal share.
The menu of revenue options has been cited many times by Metrolinx (in backgrounders for its “Investment Strategy” due in 2013), by Gordon Chong (in his Sheppard subway proposal) and by groups such as the Board of Trade. We know that there is only a handful of “big ticket” sources such as a regional sales tax, a levy on commercial parking lots, tolls or fuel taxes. Calculating how much each would-be source might provide is easy. What is hard is making the decision to collect the money from voters who trust no politician to spend wisely.
Toronto and Queen’s Park will be fishing in the same pond for revenues, and the amounts both will require are not small. The original “Big Move” was pegged at $50-billion over 25 years, but that was in 2008 dollars and didn’t allow for basics like actually operating the network once it was built or beefing up local transit systems to be feeder-distributors to regional services. The number today is more like $75-billion and growing. Toronto’s need for properly funding the TTC is outside of this pot, but is running at over $1-billion annually separate from expansion projects for both operating and capital subsidies.
Getting people in the GTA to agree to new taxes or fees will not be easy, and this will require a demonstration that something is actually happening to improve transit. The glacial pace on just about everything, coupled with the recent political deadlock in Toronto, has not helped one bit. We hear lots about gridlock, but have little hope that it will change for most travellers in the near future.
Going after new revenues really must be a joint municipal-provincial project. Whether this is possible with an anti-tax Mayor in Toronto and a provincial government afraid to mention new revenues is quite another matter. Somebody has to start this discussion on a broad public scale, not just in workshops preaching to the converted.
TTC and Metrolinx
The TTC must engage much more publicly in debates over regional planning and the role of transit. Metrolinx gets a bye on this vital topic because so much interest focuses on Toronto politics rather than on what transit should do on a wider scale. How do local and regional systems interact? How do fares and service structures distort riding choices? How do we eliminate barriers to cross-border riding — not just with one smart card to collect two fares, but with real service and fare integration?
Torontonians must have confidence that the TTC and City Council can be trusted with the transit file. Some call for shifting responsibility for transit to Queen’s Park — hand it all to Metrolinx. Someone, anyone else must be able to do better job. There is a naïve faith that Metrolinx would rise to a TTC-sized challenge and a demand for service far beyond the comparative simplicity of GO Transit.
The TTC and Metrolinx should work together, but “togetherness” does not mean that the TTC meekly stays out of the debate. If Metrolinx won’t discuss transit issues, the TTC and Toronto should. Toronto could a lead regional discussion of where transit is going and reassert the political dimension of input to transit planning lost when the political Metrolinx board was disbanded. That will be a challenge under Mayor Ford who seems uninterested in regional efforts, but Toronto must make common cause with 905.
There is a need for advocacy at the TTC — we may not have the money today, but we need to know what we would build, what service we would provide, what we want our transit system to be when and if the money is available. This is independent of whether transit is financed through new revenues or expenditure efficiencies.
Our city used to be “Toronto the Good Enough”, but now that must be styled as “Almost Good Enough”. We (or the mythical taxpayers on whose behalf politicians act) don’t really want to pay for what the city needs. If that is our goal for transit, it will never be a credible alternative. Transit will continue to be a service for a city and region far smaller than what Toronto is today. That will guarantee eroding political support, and the irrelevance of transit as a choice outside of the core.