The Missing Half of OneCity

Last week brought the excitement of the OneCity network announcement, followed by mildly supportive words from Queen’s Park and its agency Metrolinx, followed in turn by rather stronger provincial denunciation of a City that can’t make up its mind on transit.  Queen’s Park can hardly talk about consistency given their happiness to leap into bed with Rob Ford’s subway plan until Council gently reminded their provincial cousins that the Mayor had not bothered to ask for Council’s approval.  Meanwhile, delivery dates for provincial “commitments” drift off into the 2020s with the flimsiest of excuses about the limitations of an overheated construction market.  This is the same provincial government who talks about the power and capabilities of international companies just itching to work in the Toronto market.

All this kvetching detracts from two major issues.  First, once we get past the obvious conflicts created by proposals for the Scarborough Subway and the Scarborough/Etobicoke express services taking over the GO/ARL corridors, the rest of OneCity doesn’t step on any provincial toes.  As with so many of the debates here (and on other transit blogs), it’s the “I’m 100% right and you are 100% wrong” outlook that gets in the way of intelligent conversation.  There may be a role for the Scarborough Subway, although I am less certain about the proposed services taking on GO corridors.  At least we should get more information about the options and effects, not to mention defensible costs and demand projections (something neither the TTC/Toronto nor Metrolinx have been strong on in either Transit City or The Big Move).

Second, and at least as important, is the complete absence of money for improved service and maintenance, including a huge capital backlog on the TTC for vehicles and facilities.  The Ford era saw “savings” through cuts in presumed future growth.  A bus order for system growth was cancelled, and a new garage dropped from the plans.  The size of our future streetcar fleet was trimmed about 10%.  Who knows how many cars we really need given the strangulation of streetcar routes for service by the TTC.  Service growth in general was artificially depressed by changing loading standards to fit more people on each  vehicle.

These were all one-time fixes, fudges that got Toronto through two budget cycles while meeting the meddlesome demands of an administration for whom transit was just too much fat waiting to be cut.

The sad part is that thanks to two years of see-no-evil budgeting, nobody really knows what the true backlog in operations and maintenance might be, or what it will cost to put things aright.  Even if OneCity gets some sort of approval and funding, its projects won’t see a rider for years, and in some cases decades.  Should people who cannot get on the King streetcar or Finch West bus have to wait a decade for someone to address their problems?

OneCity is a plan for enhancing transit on major routes, but it’s only half of a network plan.  Most Torontonians will still ride on ordinary bus and streetcar routes for part or all of their journeys, and they are just as deserving of good service as those who will have new subway and LRT lines.  Indeed, even those who will, someday, see a new faster route should not have to wait for its construction.  “Coming in 2021” is cold comfort to someone waiting for a bus in February 2012.

If Council refers OneCity to staff for a report on costs and first-cut details of projects, we will learn more about the options for rapid transit in Toronto.  A long-overdue, informed conversation may actually happen rather than endless posturing for one neighbourhood or another.  But it will only be half a conversation.

Toronto needs to know what it will take to bring better service before we can build our rapid transit dreams, and what might come to many corners of our city that will never see a subway, LRT or BRT line.  What is our goal for these neighbourhoods?  What does “good service” mean to this newly enlightened Council?  How much will it cost?

These questions are just as important for transit’s future as contemplating the route of a new subway or the mechanics of a tax increase.  Council needs to ask them loudly and strongly as part of an integrated review of Toronto’s transit network.

Meanwhile, down the road at Metrolinx, a little humility might be in order.  This is an agency which, until fairly recently, did not even acknowledge the importance of local transit as part of the regional system, and still boasted about its high farebox recovery thanks to cherry-picking the most cost-effective services.  The provincial “investment strategy” must sustain not just the simplest, cheapest lines on the GO Transit map, but a wide range of services across the region including those provided by local carriers.

Is Toronto, is Ontario, serious about transit being a real alternative, about providing a “car-free” option to a much wider market of riders, or do they both simply prefer to hold press conferences with pretty maps?

The maps are nice, and the accompanying studies will fill yet more space in my library (or storage on my hard drive), but it’s the space and time in between that’s most important.  Riders will wait a very long time for some of these brave new transit lines to appear, and they deserve better than a walk to a crowded, infrequent bus route or a drive to a parking lot that fills before 7am in the meantime.

Toronto Council should demand that the TTC look not just at shiny new lines for the indefinite future, but that it address its real requirements today.  If the “new TTC” gets bogged down planning for the 2020s while transit continues to wither from overcrowding and underfunding through the 2010s, they are not doing their job.