In December 2013, the Neptis Foundation published a review of the Metrolinx Big Move plan authored by Michael Schabas. This review received prominent attention in the Toronto Star and is regularly cited in their coverage of transportation issues. Some elements also appear in recent comments by Transportation Minister Glen Murray, and it is reasonable to assume that his view of Metrolinx priorities has been influenced by the Neptis paper.
Since its publication, I have resisted writing a detailed critique in part because of the sheer size of the document and my disappointment with many claims made in it, and a hope that it would quietly fade from view. Recent Ministerial musings suggest that this will not happen.
The stated goals of the report arose from four basic questions posed shortly after The Big Move was released in 2008:
- What evidence suggests that the projects in the Big Move will double the number of transit riders and significantly reduce congestion in the region, as promised by Metrolinx?
- Does each project offer good value for money?
- Do all the projects add up to a substantial regional transit network or is the Big Move just an amalgam of projects put forward by diverse sponsors?
- How do the projects in the Big Move relate to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, its land use equivalent? [Page 2]
The report itself addresses a somewhat different set of questions and notably omits the land use component.
- Will the Big Move projects achieve the Metrolinx objective of doubling transit ridership?
- Are these projects consistent with Metrolinx’s own “guiding principles”?
- Are they well-designed, consistent with international best practice, and integrated with other transport infrastructure?
- Will they support a shift of inter-regional travel onto transit?
- Are there alternative, more effective schemes that should be considered?
- What changes would help Metrolinx produce better results? [Page 14]
Schabas’ work is frustrating because on some points he is cogent, right on the mark.
Metrolinx has bumbled through its existence protected from significant criticism, swaddled in a cocoon of “good news” and the presumed excellence of its work. To be fair, the agency operates in a political environment where independent thought, especially in public, is rare, and years of planning can be overturned by governmental whim and the need to win votes.
That said, Metrolinx is a frustrating, secretive organization conducting much of its business in private, and tightly scripting public events. Schabas rightly exposes inconsistencies in Metrolinx work, although his own analysis and alternatives are, in places, flawed and blinkered.
Metrolinx (originally known as the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority) was created in 2006 by provincial legislation:
The objects of the Corporation are,
(a) to provide leadership in the co-ordination, planning, financing, development and implementation of an integrated, multi-modal transportation network that,
(i) conforms with transportation policies of growth plans prepared and approved under the Places to Grow Act, 2005 applicable in the regional transportation area,
(ii) complies with other provincial transportation policies and plans applicable in the regional transportation area, and
(iii) supports a high quality of life, a sustainable environment and a strong, prosperous and competitive economy;
(b) to act as the central procurement agency for the procurement of local transit system vehicles, equipment, technologies and facilities and related supplies and services on behalf of Ontario municipalities; and
(c) to be responsible for the operation of the regional transit system and the provision of other transit services.
[Metrolinx Act, 2006, Section 5 (1), as amended in 2009]
The Act goes on to talk about Metrolinx’ role as a regional agency. This focus is understandable for a provincial body, but problems arise in the uneasy relationship between Metrolinx and local transportation providers. The recognition that local agencies have an important role as part of the regional network is a comparatively recent one at Metrolinx that has yet to be properly recognized in overall planning and funding.
Meanwhile, Metrolinx has undertaken responsibility for transit construction that is clearly “local” in scope under the guise that the facilities have “regional” benefit. This has more to do with accounting – keeping project ownership firmly in provincial hands – than with any considerations of transit planning or governance.
When Metrolinx was founded, it was charged with the creation of a master plan for the region’s transportation. A majority on the Board were Mayors and Chairs of regional municipalities without whose help there was little hope such a plan could be formed. In 2008, The Big Move was published. This plan did not appear completely out of thin air, but was largely a compendium of then-extant municipal plans with minor adjustments to better integrate the proposals. Schabas himself states:
In its effort to produce results quickly, it appears that Metrolinx developed the Big Move by combining all the schemes that were currently being proposed by GO Transit, the TTC, and each local municipality. Metrolinx put them together in a map and a program, with little or no modification. [Page 16]
One wonders just how much “planning” went into the creation of such an important document.
The cost estimate for this 25-year plan was $50 billion and the implied $2b per year spending rate has stuck with the plan ever since its publication in spite of obvious changes in scope and the inflation of construction costs. Indeed, before the final version of The Big Move came out, an earlier version had a price tag of about $80b, but this was more than Queen’s Park could stomach and ambitions were scaled back to match what was then thought to be available, or at least politically achievable. All this preceded the 2008 financial crisis that ended a golden era in which Toronto could look forward to massive transit expansion fueled and financed by a booming Ontario economy.
A political Metrolinx Board did not fit with Queen’s Park’s plans, and the 2009 amendments to the Act expressly blocked municipal politicians from eligibility for seats on the Board. [Metrolinx Act, Section 9.(3) 3.] Instead, we would have a panel of worthy folk from the business community plus a smattering of planners to give the impression of an agency in the hands of professional guidance who would bring their experience to the table. This they may do, but their activities are almost entirely in private, and extended public discussions by the Board simply do not occur. If they have a benefit, it is invisible to the outside world.
Metrolinx was founded as a planning agency, but GO Transit was not merged with it as a division until 2009. Indeed, rumblings from inside GO were less than complimentary about Metrolinx plans for a regional rail network and the feasibility of major changes required on rail corridors, some of which were busy freight main lines. The blend of planning and operations did not go smoothly, rather like a married couple with separate, distant bedrooms.
GO Transit has existed since 1967 when it began operations on the single Lake Shore route from Pickering to Oakville. GO has always been starved for operating and capital funding. It made virtue of a high cost recovery rate from the farebox, and most expansion aimed to squeeze in a few more trains where possible at modest cost. This limited growth to only the services with the lowest net cost and forced an incremental outlook for network growth rather than a transformative view for GO to aim beyond basic commuter services to downtown Toronto.
Two other Metrolinx divisions, PRESTO and UPX, bring their own histories. This is not the place for a review of their products or mandates, although both exhibit symptoms of common Ontario problems – a misunderstanding of the role of public transportation and a fetish for “roll your own” technology. Both projects were reviewed unfavourably in the 2012 Auditor General’s Report and I will not repeat that work here.
Metrolinx inherited both schemes and spends a great deal of effort to make them look as good as possible. Schabas’ report takes them uncritically “as is” even though there is reason to challenge their limitations and mandates.
Schabas is an advocate of “ALRT” systems better known in Vancouver as “Skytrain” although different implementations of the concept operate on a few lines worldwide, notably the Docklands Light Railway in London (UK). This is not surprising given his role as Design Co-ordinator on the Skytrain project (1981-83) and Manager of Strategic Marketing for the Urban Transportation Development Corporation (UTDC), the then-proprietors of this technology (1983-86).
My own experience with UTDC (and its predecessor, the Ontario Transportation Development Corporation) was that this was an Ontario government scheme to implement a high tech transit “solution” to a fictional problem – the absence of a “missing link” between subways and surface transit in the form of buses. Forty years ago, Ontario was more interested in promoting new technology than in building transit that cities, notably Toronto, could actually use. The mere existence of “Light Rapid Transit”, a hybrid between subway and streetcar operation, was denied by Queen’s Park lest it threaten their pet technology and its promoters.
While much of the world built LRT, Toronto built almost nothing because the “ALRT” system had proved too expensive and the only alternative on the table was subways at a punitively high cost.
To say that I have a deep distrust of those who market transportation technology “solutions” would be an understatement. Toronto was robbed of the suburban transit network that might have been thanks to provincial meddling and the view that transit existed primarily to drive industrial development schemes.
Schabas sees the ALRT world through rose-coloured glasses and speaks of this technology as being adopted around the world. Unfortunately, the cities listed by him almost entirely use this for airport people movers. Even Bombardier (who long ago acquired the UTDC) lists many subway and LRT projects on their website, but makes no pitch for the Skytrain technology beyond their people mover and monorail. They do not even cite Vancouver as a reference, possibly because they lost the bid for the Canada line to another vendor.
That is the context I bring to any review of plans for Toronto, especially of the Transit City LRT lines, a plan in which I had a role as an LRT advocate and (unpaid) advisor to former Mayor David Miller’s staff.
The Executive Summary
I will not dwell on this section as its content will be reviewed in each of the detailed sections. However, the summary sets the stage, and it is all that many readers will see. In that spirit, I will make a few points about the overall content of the report.
Schabas is right to criticize the inconsistent style and publication of Benefits Case Analyses (BCAs) by Metrolinx. The premise of a BCA is that there should be a consistent manner of project evaluation that will produce a credible basis of comparison between projects and a reasonable defense of spending on a project. In some cases, Metrolinx has suppressed BCAs to the extent that Schabas had to resort to a request under the Freedom of Information Act for access to the documents. This is hardly the mark of a an open, transparent organization. In other cases, there simply is no BCA, possibly because a project is beyond scrutiny either as a work already in progress or as the beneficiary of a political angel.
However, there is a fundamental problem with the BCA methodology in that it addresses proposals on a line-by-line basis rather than looking at the network, at packages of possible routes and the manner in which the whole may be better than the parts. That is, after all, what The Big Move is supposed to be about. Within this context, the components of a project evaluation can be skewed in various ways:
- One important “benefit” is the economic activity of building a new route. In this context, spending $2b is more “valuable” than spending only $1b. In a network context, the question would be “we have X amount of money to spend, what is the best result”. Rewarding individual projects for costing more is directly contrary to the spirit of “value for money”. The problem is the context in which that “value” is measured.
- At the scale of The Big Move, ridership projections (upon which all claims of diverted trips from road to transit depend) were done on a fully-built network even though it is quite clear this is not the network we will see in the medium future, if ever. Moreover, the model was not capacity constrained and it projected levels of demand on some facilities that cannot possibly be sustained.
- At the level of an individual project, demand projections came from other sources with other assumptions about the context in which a line would operate. For example, there have been notable differences in estimates for riding in the Scarborough RT/LRT/Subway corridor, and none of these estimates has taken into account the presence of possible improvements in GO service to the same catchment area.
- Costs which could be shared among multiple projects might be charged on an individual basis especially if the “first out the gate” project of a class must bear the startup cost of a new technology such as suburban LRT network or GO electrification, or the one-time cost of a facility such as a major new subway yard.
- The “cost of time” factor includes both travel time savings for transit riders (although this only really applies to existing, not future riders) and to road users who are presumed to have a less congested journey. The premise that congestion will decrease is false because the backlog of demand and population growth will retake whatever capacity is released by trips redirected to transit, and because much congestion exists in corridors that are totally unrelated to various transit projects. Transit may head off even worse congestion in some locations, but that presumes it would be possible for the growing population to even attempt new trips.
- The analyses completely ignores the fact that would-be riders must somehow get to the new transit services. In some cases, providing this capability will require massive park-and-ride lots and/or substantial improvements in local transit services, not to mention a fare regime that makes the service attractive. These costs and the implications for affected municipalities are not included.
All the same, Schabas engages in his own economic analyses and presents both a table and map showing what’s “in” and “out” of his version of The Big Move. As I will discuss later, some of his analysis is flawed or it is based on a different premise about the goals of new transit lines than were conceived by advocates for specific projects. In particular this shows up in the “regional” versus “local” view of what a transit line should accomplish.
This echoes problems within Metrolinx itself that originally had a Board who understood that transit must operate at both scales, but an outlook stated in legislation and echoed in comments about the merits of projects that “regional” is the important yardstick. If Queen’s Park and Metrolinx were only building “regional” lines and a parallel mechanism existed to fund local service, that might be a valid position. However, with almost all large projects now funded by the province, the distinction of “local” is now meaningless.
Schabas also talks about fare and service integration. Again the fundamental problem here is political because so much transit revenue for the two major systems – TTC and GO Transit – have such a high farebox cost recovery rate. Operating subsidies at both the municipal and provincial level are constrained and some have fallen especially when inflation and demand growth are taken into account. Failure to integrate is not a technology problem that will be solved with a Smart Card of any flavour, but by a commitment to reduce inherent barriers within the fare structures and service designs throughout the GTHA.
Very few transit lines world-wide pay for themselves. Simply claiming that lower fares will magically be self-funding through increased ridership (especially without a proper “business analysis” of the proposal) is naïve and it presumes, among other things, that the marginal cost of new services (including new capital assets) can somehow be wished away. Cherry-picking the best possible examples can lead to unreasonable expectations about what is possible, or to limitations in what is actually implemented when the real costs become evident.
Schabas also pins great hopes on subway modernization, increased capacity and fare incentives to generate more ridership. However, this double-counts some benefits because the same capacity is needed simply for planned growth. Adding to off-peak ridership also has implications for the services that feed into the subway network many of which already strain to handle off-peak demands in something approaching comfort.
Finally, he cites operating efficiency such as automation on transit, but wildly miscalculates the available savings. There is money to be saved with fewer on-train staff, but the saving is overstated at least by a factor of two, and by more if roving customer assistants or security staff are added back into the mix.
Schabas recounts the years of strong growth in Toronto’s transit system with the post-war boom in suburban housing, strong immigration within the boundaries of Metro Toronto (what is now the City of Toronto) and system expansion. However, things started to go “off the rails” even as the first burst of suburban growth was underway with the Bloor-Danforth subway and associated improvements to the feeder bus network.
… attempts to extend the transit culture to the newer suburbs began to falter in the 1970s. The flat fare was extended to the Toronto (Metro) boundary, bringing a one-off jump in ridership, and suburban bus services were increased. The subway was extended into the outer boroughs. But attempts to extend subway and light rail lines further into the suburbs have been expensive failures. The Scarborough RT and Sheppard Subway did little to spur more efficient, denser development. Planned extensions to these lines were never built and Toronto did not even take steps to protect surface alignments for future rail lines from development. [Page 15]
The flat fare into the suburbs was a direct tradeoff for municipal subsidy of transit operations. The subway had pushed well into “zone two” making hash of the zone fares, and suburban riders complained that their taxes went to support a transit system where they had to pay more to ride less frequent bus services than enjoyed by their cousins downtown. The saw-off was that Metro kicked in a subsidy, but the zone fare had to go.
This deal will haunt anyone who attempts to move back to zones, fare-by-distance or any scheme that makes suburban riders pay more. Today, there is the added factor that the suburbs are no longer just the leafy dens of well-to-do escapees from downtown, but the home of many lower income Torontonians who suffer the combination of long trips and less frequent service to go anywhere by public transit.
There may be issues with cross-border riding from the 905 into Toronto and double fares for short trips, but just try fixing this with anything that raises suburban Toronto fares relative to downtown. Schemes that sound good on paper do not necessarily work in the real world of transit riders and politicians.
The Spadina extension to Downsview and the Yonge line to Finch – expensive failures? Tell this to the thousands packed onto the north Yonge trains to the point Toronto is fast losing the ability to carry its own riders. Even the Spadina subway does reasonable business and, indeed, if it were more “successful”, there wouldn’t be room for transfer traffic at St. George on the University line.
As for the Scarborough RT: it was expensive precisely because it was built as a showcase for the technology that would become Skytrain (Vancouver could hardly be expected to buy into something that Toronto rejected). The line was so expensive that continuing to Malvern (part of the original LRT proposal) was abandoned, and there was no thought of buying additional cars at the ruinous cost charged by the UTDC, over three times the price charged to Vancouver.
Some of this can be put down to the provision of operator cabs, but certainly not all of it, especially for an add-on order where the extra sunk costs had already been covered. At one public meeting, a hapless UTDC rep actually claimed the extra cost was due to provision for “snow load” on the roof. If only the propulsion systems had been designed to work better in snow, the SRT service would not collapse the moment a north wind blows.
The line is packed with riders to the extent that a parallel express bus service supplements capacity, a service that exists precisely because the cost of adding to the fleet is exorbitantly high. The failure lies in the high cost of the technology on a route that could have operated with LRT at less than half the cost four decades ago.
As for the Sheppard subway, it ends at Don Mills thanks to Queen’s Park cutting off funding. The Harris government really didn’t want to build this line, but caved in as a sop to North York Mayor Lastman whose opposition to municipal amalgamation was soothed with goodies like the subway. Whether the line should have been built as a subway at all is a separate question, but nobody was talking LRT in those days. As Lastman himself said to me “Real cities don’t use streetcars”.
Schabas cites the Metrolinx “Guiding Principles”:
- Regional or “Metropolitan” focus
- Invest where it matters most
- Prudent fiscal management
- A system that works and is accountable
- Risk management and project implementation discipline [Pages 15-16]
What is noteworthy here is the absence of any reference to operating, as opposed to building, transit service, and the focus on regional projects. These principles led to the adoption of the “BCA” concept that, superficially, implies that projects will be evaluated for their worth as part of the transit system. However, as I have already discussed, the BCA process has been inconsistent, and some elements have been sheltered from public view possibly because they do not endorse some projects at least within the terms and methodology they employ.
Schabas notes the prominence on The Big Move’s map of improved GO service. This is an essential part of the plan because it would provide vastly increased capacity on many corridors (some of which don’t even have GO trains today). The demand projections for these lines are quite substantial, to the point that Metrolinx realized that Union Station would be overwhelmed with the demand. Moreover, the ridership would push service levels well beyond the capacity of current train and signal technologies.
This most important part of The Big Move has been sidelined, and Schabas goes into that in detail in his third chapter.
An important general point is made early:
London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore have all developed similar “three-tier” transit systems, with a network of radial rail lines for inter-regional trips, slower metro and light rail lines providing local collection and distribution, and bus and surface trams to penetrate local communities.
But maps can be misleading. The actual usefulness of the system will depend on service details such as speeds, journey times and frequencies, the integration of fares, and station layouts. If any one of these does not work, then the competitiveness of transit suffers and many travellers will continue to drive. For example, the 905-region BRT routes, and the TTC’s Scarborough-Eglinton-Crosstown LRT route, appear to offer an alternative to Highway 401 for crosstown trips. But in fact, journey times will be too slow – almost two hours from eastern Scarborough to Pearson Airport. Although these schemes appear to be “inter-regional,” because together they cross municipal boundaries, most trips will be local unless there are good connections onto a fast inter-regional network. [Page 18]
Schabas clearly recognizes the need for a three tier system of regional, local trunk and distribution lines, but he also clearly shows that in his mind the Crosstown line exists for “regional” travel, a task at which it fails because it is so long and is designed as a local trunk. The “failure” such as it is lies in this mis-characterization of Eglinton to serve regional trips, as a transit “replacement” for the 401. The same can be said of his view of the 905 BRT services which in no way are a substitute for the 401, but rather for east west travel miles to the north in York Region.
Metrolinx fell into the same trap during internal battles over the form of the Transit City scheme. They objected to the high cost of Eglinton, especially with the central tunnel, if it would not serve the goal of moving people swiftly across the “region”. Memo to Metrolinx: the Bloor-Danforth subway is almost as long as the Eglinton line and nobody makes pretensions that it is an alternative to the 401 or proposes that it have fewer stops to speed residents from the outer suburbs across the city. One particularly annoying intervention that went unreported at the time was an attempt to justify “extension” of the SRT to the airport in place of the LRT line that wound up in The Big Move.
The whole point of Transit City was to provide improved local, trunk services and to remain on the surface wherever possible to minimize capital costs while avoiding the sterilization of between-station areas with the wide spacing typically found on subway projects.
It is ironic that some would fault the Eglinton line for not achieving what the long-dead GO-ALRT (a separate technology from the RT/Skytrain that was closer to LRT) would have achieved with its cross-Metro service along the Finch hydro corridor. Finch, which was in places a country road with farms only 50 years ago, has of course developed as a major artery and the transit demand today would be hard to refocus on the hydro lands except as an express route such as the segment used for access to York University.
This shows a fundamental disconnect in Schabas’ evaluation of some Big Move components. If you measure something against a goal it was not intended to achieve, you will almost certainly find it wanting.
A key challenge for Metrolinx is to ensure integration, so commuters can travel across the region easily and with few transfers. Motorists driving along local, regional and provincial roads may notice a slight change in signage, but otherwise do not notice much difference between the roads. Transit riders, however, do not have the same kind of experience. Black dots are easy to show on maps, but effective transit interchanges can be much more problematic. Sometimes trains pass but do not stop. Sometimes an interchange requires a long walk between stations, or crossing a busy road. While some interchanges are reasonably well designed, at others even basic signage is lacking. The lack of contra-peak and off-peak services on many GO rail routes means that a trip that looks simple on the map is in fact very slow and difficult to accomplish. It can also be expensive. Currently, people travelling between, say, Oakville and Richmond Hill may need to pay two or three fares. Regular commuters can learn timetables, and purchase a monthly pass. But many people have irregular travel schedules or work shifts. If they need a car for some trips, they will be inclined to use it for all trips.
This paragraph shows a good understanding of the difference between travel by road and transit, and the need for this statement shows how far Metrolinx is from producing a truly integrated, regional transit system.
Schabas goes on to talk about the difference between simply having a “Smart card” to collect fares for many operators, and truly integrated pricing. This brings us back to the problem of transit funding and the need every system feels to defend its revenue streams from leakage through “integration”. Where he and I differ is that Schabas lays the blame primarily on the local transit systems and their turf wars rather than the underlying problem with the overall source of revenue.
2. Study Approach
This chapter deals with methodology and I will skip over it although it is good background reading about assumptions that went into the report, and on the relationships between many factors in financing and operating transit systems. When I reach the detailed appendices with evaluations of the various projects, I will return to this subject
[Continued in Part II of this article.]