Liberals Plan Transit One Tweet At A Time

Premier Kathleen Wynne recently unveiled the Moving Ontario Forward plan which, at this point, consists of a website and a  general idea of what level of spending we could see. The details won’t be released until the budget is tabled in early May.

Some ideas come out in comments by Transportation & Infrastructure Minister Glen Murray who is as active on Twitter at times as he is in press scrums. How much these comments are realistic, how much they reflect government policy or detailed study, is quite another matter.

From a funding point of view, there will be two pots of money – one for the GTHA and one for the Rest Of Ontario.  When the Transit Panel released its Making The Move revenue tool proposal, misinformed media stoked the idea that rural gas taxes would go to pay for subways in Toronto even though this was explicitly rejected by the panel.

The solution is to fund the non-GTHA projects with non-GTHA money, in effect building a wall around whatever the “GTHA” means for planning purposes from day to day. This may quiet those who feel “Toronto” gets everything, but with the scale of transit operations in southern Ontario, “Toronto” grows every time the government announces a new GO service.

The political rhetoric takes the Scarborough-vs-Downtown battle over rapid transit spending to a province-wide scale. Perish the thought that Thunder Bay should pay one penny toward a rapid transit line in Toronto even though they will reap the benefit from cars manufactured to operate it. The Liberals bought into this divisive talk to win a by-election in Scarborough, ironically in a riding that won’t even see a subway line. The danger is that even within the GTHA, voters may well ask “why should I pay for a service I won’t use”.

According to the Premier’s announcement, “nearly $29 billion” will be split between the GTHA and non-GTHA funding pools over the coming decade with four sources of funding:

  • “Repurposing” the sales tax (HST) now charged on gasoline and diesel fuel for on-road use;
  • “Redirecting” 7.5 cents of the existing fuel tax;
  • Sales of government assets, and
  • Proceeds of a “Green Bonds” program.

Among the tactics proposed by the Transit Panel was the leveraging of any revenue stream through borrowing. A government that once was terrified of more public debt may now embrace it with the proviso that it can be retired with earmarked revenue.

The problem here is that new spending requires either new revenues, or cuts in expenses elsewhere. Shifting existing tax streams into a transit fund will leave a hole in general revenues that could be made up by other taxes on classic targets such as the well-to-do and the corporate sector. We must await for the budget for any details.

A backgrounder from the Ministry of Finance hints at some of the projects that might be funded:

Proceeds from the dedicated fund for the GTHA would help build the next set of priority projects included in Metrolinx’s regional transportation plan, The Big Move. Projects identified in The Big Move include: GO Rail Service Expansion (more two-way, all day and rush hour service) on key corridors, Brampton Queen Street Rapid Transit, Dundas Street Bus Rapid Transit, Durham-Scarborough Bus Rapid Transit, Hamilton Rapid Transit, Hurontario-Main LRT linking Mississauga and Brampton, a Relief Line, and Yonge North Subway Expansion to York Region. The fund could also support other transit infrastructure projects that stimulate economic development and improve mobility, such as the East Bayfront Light Rail Transit project.

This list sticks mainly to the established Metrolinx plans and implies that they still have some relevance in this very political setting. However, a backgrounder on GO Regional Express Rail ups the ante:

The new Moving Ontario Forward plan would work toward phasing in electric train service every 15 minutes on all GO lines.

This is a rather careful statement, and the words “work toward phasing in” have been the death knell of more than one project, most recently the Transit City LRT plan. The backgrounder talks of the benefits, oddly, of relieving subway congestion rather than of the much larger regional role GO could have.

It would also give commuters within Toronto another way to get downtown by increasing service between GO stations and Union Station. A commuter could get to Union Station from Danforth GO Station in just 9 minutes, or from Bloor GO Station in just 15 minutes.

This ignores the problem of transferring between routes and the substantial barrier now posed by GO’s separate and punitive fares for travel over short distances within the city. It also presumes there would be capacity available for such short-hop trips. Near-downtown trips were an odd choice to feature in such an important announcement.

Although the “Downtown Relief Line” is still mentioned as an important part of overall plans, work now underway by Metrolinx and comments by some politicians imply that they would love to put this project on a slow track with GO improvements taking up the role. If nothing else, this would free up money in the short-to-medium term for large pet projects elsewhere. Both GO and an expanded subway system have a role to play, but too much rhetoric has focused on single-line “solutions” rather than a network view.

All this begs the question of just how much of The Big Move will actually survive the Minister’s interventions.

In qualifying the electrification plans, both the Premier and the Minister talk of “lines that we own”, although the Minister is on record about acquiring more track for GO:

“We’re looking at higher speed connectivity, buying up rail lines more aggressively, improving service outcomes and more regular two-way GO service,” Murray said of the priorities that will be laid out in the budget.

… he said the province is actively buying up rail capacity so that GO Trains are no longer seen as “tenants” on other railroad’s lines.

“We now own 80 per cent of the track that we need to own, we will be buying up the remaining 20 per cent and a lot of that is on the lines that come to Kitchener,” Murray said.

[Kitchener-Waterloo Record March 31, 2014]

That will be a challenge considering that portions GO does not yet own are the main lines of CNR and CPR, not lightly used or abandoned branches.

GO has long had an aversion to electrification both because of objections from the railways whose lines would be affected, and from a chronic lack of strong, dedicated funding that could expand service and operations to a range where electrification made sense. Changing that outlook would be quite a coup, but this depends on continuity in the government and long-term commitment to transformation of the GO network. GO must have a publicly announced plan for expansion and improvement beyond whatever is needed to win the election of the day.

On the municipal front, things are not quite as clear. Although the Metrolinx Investment Strategy included 25% of new revenues for municipal projects (with 15% going to transit), municipal funding was completely absent in this announcement. Indeed, Murray has rather testily noted that Toronto, especially, already gets money from the gas tax and has revenue tools such as Vehicle Registration Tax that it chose not to use.

The gas tax revenue, of course, has been established for many years and is worked into the budgets of all local transit systems. It is not “new money”, and can hardly be cited in response to questions about the hoped-for Investment Strategy dollars. [Toronto splits its provincial gas tax between the operating and capital budgets. See 2012 financial statements at page 26 (operating, $91.6m) and page 28 (capital, $75.0m).]

Murray also spoke of “High Speed Rail” in the Toronto KW London corridor, an idea that has been floated before. Although this was unclear in the press statements, Murray’s Twitter exchanges claim that the corridor would see 320 km/h operation (see below). The problem with the Toronto-Kitchener-London corridor, however, is not simply getting from one and to the other, but to the many stations in between.

The line once had reasonably frequent VIA trains on rider-friendly schedules, but this service withered through years of cutbacks and, more recently, competition from GO expansion. The infrastructure needed for operation at this speed is substantial, and one must ask whether the corridor’s demand could be better served simply by more frequent service at typical (Canadian) rail passenger speeds up to 150 km/h. Better service for southwestern Ontario risks being highjacked as an HSR technology project rather than a service improvement that could be delivered faster at much less cost.

The operative phrase throughout the announcement was “wait for the budget”.  A Liberal party website promotes the Moving Ontario Forward plan, but is short on details pending the budget announcements.

Meanwhile, Minister Murray, a prolific tweeter, adds his own spin to the debate.  [The tweets have been edited to remove extraneous user ids and hastags. All of this can be retrieved by browsing Murray’s Twitter account @Glen4ONT.]

On April 17, an exchange about GO and Downtown Relief, Murray shows support for both regional and local relief.

Glen Murray: #RER15Min will build transit ridership on local transit routes. Need 2 plan GO-local transit connections together. Greater demand w/RER

Robert Zaichkowski: I wonder if #RER15Min will lead to GO stations being placed closer together? Could be a good #ReliefLine solution.

Glen Murray:  Robert you are absolutely right. Downtown relief needs system wide relief & increased capacity downtown.

Also on April 17, an exchange about the Scarborough Subway.

Rob Salerno: So if Scarb has access to improved GO service, is there still ridership/need for a subway there?

Glen Murray: MLX will make that decision. We will meet our commitments.

Rob Salerno: erg, so now the Scarb subway may be cancelled if @Metrolinx says it’s not necessary?

Glen Murray: No. Let MLX do their job.

Rob Salerno: Huh? Those two sentences are contradictory.

Glen Murray: No. MLX has made a decision. I don’t imagine that will change, but it is their decision.

Oh come off it, Glen. The idea that Metrolinx makes any decision independently of the government is riotously laughable. The Liberals ran on a Scarborough Subway platform to win the Scarborough-Guildwood by-election, and Murray himself is pushing a subway from Kennedy Station to Scarborough Town Centre via the existing SRT alignment.

It’s amusing that in one line, Murray says that Metrolinx “will make” the decision, and later that they “have made” it. One of these statements cannot be true.

Is there now a recognition that the rationale for the subway may have been cooked to placate Scarborough voters (not to mention the Scarborough Liberal Caucus)? Might a proper analysis show that another option including GO improvements might be preferable? If Metrolinx made a decision, where was this analysis? Nobody has ever published a review including GO services, the subway option and the Scarborough LRT network proposals.

Even better, what would happen if an independent Metrolinx actually concluded that the Scarborough Subway was a waste of money? Would such a report ever see the light of day?

In a discussion with the Globe’s Oliver Moore, we hear about the benefits of more frequent off-peak service.

Oliver Moore: Increased GO service will lead to higher ridership and lower subsidy required, @Glen4ONT says. Could lead to more competitive fares.

‏@GTAMOVEnetwork: The big problem is spending the money required to take GO transit from “commuter” to “rapid transit” and in ensuring that the investment in GO Transit will not be pulled back in the first 3 years when ROI is not great.

Glen Murray: Not an issue at all.

‏@GTAMOVEnetwork: I very much hope so. This is going to be a huge investment and ROI won’t be seen for a long time.

Glen Murray: ‏Not true. 1/2 hour Lakeshore service increased ridership & fare revenue by 30% in less than a yr.

This discussion dodges the basic point that capital costs have never been considered in evaluating GO’s business, only day-to-day operating costs. The situation is the same at the TTC. It is very unlikely that GO will make a profit from extra fares with expanded service. If anything, one could argue that service improvements should come as quickly as possible to maximize the ridership and convenience from the capital investment.

On service to Niagara Falls, London and “HSR”:

Glen Murray: Niagara will be getting 15min Regional Express Rail. See today’s announcement. Completed with in 10 yrs.

Tom W: Wynne said GO-owned tracks only – still valid? Or will GO be buying tracks from Burlington to Niagara Falls?

Glen Murray: No. All tracks we own or lease.

Tom W: Thanks! Also, does “high-speed rail” to London mean 200+km/hr?

Glen Murray: 320KM

Tom W: To be clear, you’re promising a train with a top speed of 320 kilometres per hour running from Toronto to London?

Murray really seems to be freelancing on both of these issues given the ownership and existing uses of the corridors in question, not to mention the challenge of truly high speed operation in the KW-London corridor.

On April 17, asked about travel across Toronto rather than to the core:

Glen Murray: #RER15Min is 15 minute service across the GTHA using Electric Multiple Units (EMUs) running on all GO lines. Huge reduction in congestion.

Saurabh: Someone going from York region to Peel can bypass Union?

Glen Murray: Yes. Once the Crosstown is complete. It is under construction now.

Someone should mention to the Minister that his own government chopped off the western end of the Crosstown, and unless the boundary of Peel Region is now at Weston Road, the Crosstown won’t get someone to Peel from Richmond Hill even presuming they wanted to take such a route.

And finally on April 19:

Glen Murray: Projects 4 Prov funding will b evaluated by MLX based on Big Move priority & net benefits.

This, of course, presumes that “net benefits” are fairly calculated and don’t include politically inflated assumptions.

When the budget comes out, we will see just how much of the “promises” made here have survived.

48 thoughts on “Liberals Plan Transit One Tweet At A Time

  1. I wonder how long it will take for them to flesh out the projects that they are promising with the budget. Major issues as previously mentioned with just announcing 15 minute GO service all day all routes, like a critical shortage of engineers and a need to start a process of training.

    Also I realistic look at the limits of the system, and what would be most effective, in terms of hierarchical transit implementation. GO for longer haul yes, but a train should not make the trip to Barrie and stop 10 times inside Toronto, same applies for trains from Kitchener and Hamilton. This is too long a trip to have to be stopping all the time. Local transit need to be able to fill the gap within Toronto, Mississauga etc.

    Steve: As we are about to have an election courtesy of the NDP, all of these questions are best left for another day.

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  2. Steve said:

    “As we are about to have an election courtesy of the NDP, all of these questions are best left for another day.”

    Would you be prepared to talk about the idea of Tim Hudak transferring money out of a proposed Mississauga LRT in order to support more subway for Toronto? I found the comments he made about financing subway in Toronto somewhat confusing, and it gave me the feeling he does not really believe in small efficient government, as subway where LRT will serve is the antithesis of appropriate public service.

    I hope we end up with a government that can look at what will provide the most appropriate service, not what people think they want. I also hope the incoming government does not reflex first to the mega project, or cure-alls, but will require a hard look at incremental changes. Even where new mode may be required, it is to be hoped that they will (1) require a technical case to be made, and (2) will push hard against changes that skip a mode. Normally you would expect bus=>BRT=>single LRV LRT=>multi-LRV LRT=>subway.

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  3. The other aspect of proposing to take money away from the outer suburbs that bothered me, was that this would mean that growth of destinations would less likely to be concentrated, so less likely to be able to be served by transit in the future.

    I would note that in my mind one of the reasons both the STC and NYCC have not grown, is that they do not act as a major focus point of transit from bedroom areas beyond. If a couple of light LRTs (streetcar type) and a BRT had been built to the STC as a destination and the RT (or heavier LRT) had continued to the subway, I suspect that the STC would be a much more significant centre.

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  4. Malcolm N said:

    I would note that in my mind one of the reasons both the STC and NYCC have not grown, is that they do not act as a major focus point of transit from bedroom areas beyond.

    I expect the problem is with the land use arrangements and the lack of commercial/office space density and an oversupply of residential density. NYCC has 2 subway lines meeting at the south end … but there still giant open parking lots all around. STC has the mall and some offices but not in any way that leads to the kind of walkable density that creates an effective community+transit hub.

    Cheers, Moaz

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  5. Moaz Yusuf Ahmad said:

    “I expect the problem is with the land use arrangements and the lack of commercial/office space density and an oversupply of residential density. NYCC has 2 subway lines meeting at the south end … but there still giant open parking lots all around. STC has the mall and some offices but not in any way that leads to the kind of walkable density that creates an effective community+transit hub.”

    I am of the mind that some of this is a chicken and egg problem. Decisions in terms initial employer location are partially based on travel time for employees to reasonable appropriate housing. The STC area was developed without being well served by transit to areas beyond it. If you were to use the area as a collection point, it would be better served by transit, and thus might start to see some intensification.

    Land use and transportation mode are linked, you cannot support walkable density without transit, although you are right cannot be sure that you will get walkable commercial density just because you have transit.

    Cutting off an LRT in Mississauga, however, will mean that we are locking in this non-walkable development model, due to the requirement for massive parking space for each bit of new development or redevelopment.

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  6. “The STC area was developed without being well served by transit to areas beyond it. If you were to use the area as a collection point, it would be better served by transit, and thus might start to see some intensification.”

    Huh? STC has all these bus routes running into the terminal from all over Scarborough.

    Mind you, trying to walk anywhere in the STC area is very discouraging. It’s not the issue of transit, in my opinion. It’s because STC is designed for cars, and is right next to the 401. Try walking from STC to Sheppard. Or even from STC out to McCowan.

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  7. STC may have a large number of bus routes but all low order. They would not be credible in terms of a serious permanent mode that someone building would be sure of. The routes however are part of what supports current STC. Their limits in frequency and being stuck in traffic mean most will chose car for same trip. There would need to be a move beyond basic bus to shift balance now and I do not recall the bus frequency being that high when STC was built up.

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