Updated January 21, 2014 at 2:20 pm: The description of the loading standards introduced with the Ridership Growth Strategy has been corrected.
The election season is upon us in Toronto, and transit made an early appearance on the campaign with mayoral candidate David Soknacki’s proposal that Toronto revert to the LRT plan for Scarborough. I am not going to rehash that debate here, but there is a much larger issue at stake.
The Ford/Stintz era at Council and at the TTC has been notable for its absence of substantive debate on options and alternatives for our transit future. Yes, we have had the subways*3 mantra, the palace coup to establish Karen Stintz and LRT, for a time, as a more progressive outlook on the TTC Board, and finally the Scarborough debate.
But that’s not all there is to talk about on the transit file. Do we have a regular flow of policy papers at Board meetings to discuss what transit could be, should be? No. Ford’s stooges may have been deposed, but the conservative fiscal agenda remains. Make do with less. Make sacrifices for the greater good, whatever that may be. Show how “efficiency” can protect taxpayer dollars even while riders freeze in the cold wondering when their bus will appear.
Every Board meeting starts with a little recitation by the Chair of good news, of stories about how TTC staffers helped people and the good will this brings to the organization. There is ever so much pride in improved cleanliness and attractiveness of the system – a worthwhile achievement, but one that should become second nature to maintain. It should also be a “canary in the coal mine”, a simple, obvious example of what happens when we make do with “good enough”, with year-by-year trimming to just get by.
If the bathrooms are filthy, imagine the condition of the trains, buses and streetcars you are riding. I’m not talking about loose newspapers blowing around, but of basic maintenance. From our experience in the 1990s, we know how a long slide can take a once-proud, almost cocky system to disaster, and how hard it is to rebuild.
In a previous article, I wrote about the threat to basic system maintenance posed by underfunding of the Capital Budget, an issue that has not received enough public debate. Part of the problem is that the crucial maintenance work that must occur year over year is treated the same way as new projects. Maintenance competes with the glamour projects for funding, and may be treated as something to be deferred, something we don’t need yet. Couple that with starvation of funds for basics like a new and expanded fleet and garage space, and there’s a recipe for a TTC that will decline even while more and more is expected of public transit.
The budget isn’t the only issue that deserves more detailed examination, and many other policies should be up for debate. Within a month, the TTC will have a new Chair as Karen Stintz departs for the mayoralty campaign. Within a year, Toronto should have a new Mayor, one whose view of transit is not framed by the window of his SUV. At Queen’s Park we may have a Liberal government with a fresh, if shaky, mandate to raise new revenues for transit construction and operation, or we may have a populist alternative with a four-year supply of magic beans.
In the remaining months, the TTC Board has a duty to lay the ground for the governments to come, especially at City Hall. The 2015 budget debates should be well informed about the options for transit, if only for planning where Toronto will need to spend and what services the TTC will offer in years to come. Will the TTC rise to this challenge, or sit on its hands with a caretaker Board until the end of the current term?
Here is a selection of the major policy issues we should be hearing about, if only the TTC would engage in actual debate to inform itself, Council, the media and the voters.
- Fare structure: What is the appropriate way to charge fares for transit service? By time, distance, week, month? How does smart card technology change the way fares are collected and monitored? What are the implications for regional travel and integration?
- Service standards: What loading standards should be used to drive service improvements? Should the TTC build in elbow room to encourage riding and to reduce delays due to crowding? Should there be a core network of routes with guaranteed frequent service?
- Service management: What goals should the TTC aim for in managing service? Do the measures that are reported today accurately reflect the quality of service? Are bad schedules to blame for erratic service, or does this stem from management indifference or from labour practices that work against reliable service? What are the tradeoffs in the relative priority of transit and other traffic? What are the budgetary effects of moves to improve service?
- Budgets and Subsidies: Both the Operating and Capital Budgets have been cut below the level recommended by TTC management. These cuts will affect service and maintenance in the short and long term, but there has been no debate about the effect, especially if these are not quickly reversed in a post-Ford environment. The Capital Budget faces a huge gap between available funding and requirements. Over ten years, the shortfall is 30% in available financing versus requirements, and this is back-end loaded so that the shortfall rises to 50% in later years. The proposed level of City subsidy is barely half what would be needed if Queen’s Park returned to its historical 50% capital funding formula. Hoped-for money from Ottawa is more likely to finance major projects such as new subway lines, not the “base” budget for capital maintenance. The budget, especially capital, is not well understood by the TTC Board or Council in part because of the confusing way in which it is presented. Toronto cannot begin to discuss subsidy policies if those responsible for decisions cannot understand their own budgets.
- The Waterfront: While battles rage over subway and LRT proposals for the suburbs, a major new development on the waterfront is starved for transit thanks to cost escalation, tepid interest by the TTC, and the perception that waterfront transit can be left for another time. The pace of development may be threatened if good transit does not materialize on Queens Quay, and later to the Port Lands, but meanwhile this project sits on the back burner little understood by most members of the TTC Board and Council.
- Rapid transit plans: The artificial distinction between GO and the subway (or even higher-end LRT operations such as the proposed Scarborough line) will disappear as GO becomes a frequent all-day operation. There will be one network regardless of the colours of the trains. GO service to the outer parts of the 416 is particularly important as an alternative to subway construction serving long-haul trips to downtown. Subways, LRT and BRT each has its place in the network, but electoral planning must not leave us with fragments of a network rather than an integrated whole.
- Accessibility: The need for accessibility extends all the way from the severely disabled who require door-to-door service, through a large and growing population who have some degree of independence, to those whose only problem may be bad knees or a weak heart. Neither the TTC nor the City has taken the issues of accessibility particularly seriously in recent years. There may be good words, but the budget and service policies clearly limit the growth of the parallel Wheel Trans system. Meanwhile, retrofitting the system for full access is delayed thanks to funding limitations at both the City and Queen’s Park. What we do not know is the true extent of the need for accessibility on the TTC and what this means for service and infrastructure.