Toronto has elected a new mayor, John Tory, who will formally take office in December 2014. The ancien régime may be on its way out the door, but this is not the time for dancing in the streets with bonfires and blazing effigies.
Part of me secretly yearns for the first of many speeches in which a Tory administration bemoans the Ford legacy, just as Ford bemoaned the Miller years, but that leaves us focussed on retribution, not on progress. Toronto’s job now is to look forward and to undo the damage that four years of narrow-minded, simplistic policies brought us.
The very first question we — and I say “we” because the responsibility of citizens does not end the moment they cast a ballot — must answer is “what should Toronto be”. In this article, I will address only transit issues and their general political context and will leave other portfolios to commentators and activists in their respective fields. However, the question is the same for all.
The Importance of Listening
Throughout the campaign, Toronto heard endlessly about Tory’s plan. Right up to the last debate at CITY-TV where I was a member of the “expert panel”, Tory’s response to criticism was to cite his confidence in Toronto and belief that his plan would work. Wonderful sentiments, but one cannot dismiss alternate viewpoints with a wave of the hand and a Pollyanna-like belief in a bright future.
At some point in the campaign, Tory allowed that he must learn to “listen more”. That’s not just a question of being polite so that a speaker can make their point, but of recognizing the validity of alternate outlooks and absorbing the best of them into a broad-based policy. Tory wants a collegial atmosphere at City Hall, and that requires more than everyone singing his tunes and hanging a SmartTrack map in every office.
A vital first step lies in the creation of a new Executive and Standing Committees, and in the selection of new members for the TTC Board. Will Tory take the same route as Ford in favouring only the sycophants, the Councillors looking to share a new mayor’s power, or will the boards and committees represent the whole city geographically and politically?
The condition of transit requires serious debates about service quality, maintenance and the future role of the TTC network. These are not simple issues, and Council needs to be given honest advice and a broad menu of options, not simply a “stand pat” budget that pretends we can get by with flat-lined subsidies.
In August, the TTC Board passed a motion directing staff to include provision for various improvements as options in the 2015 budget. Does John Tory want to hear what it will cost to improve the TTC, or does he want that muzzled so his SmartTrack will stand alone as the only topic worthy of debate and funding?
Budget Committee meetings of the Ford era treated those who might ask “please, sir, we want some more” to open contempt — the sense that people who made time to come to City Hall for their paltry 3 minutes were slackers who should be out working. City Council owes Toronto a collective apology for this treatment and a commitment to do better. Yes, deputations are tedious to listen through, and a Council less dismissive of alternative voices might find a way to actually hear them.
If we begin from an attitude that people who want better services are somehow undeserving of attention, that they are special interest groups, and most importantly that they are somehow not representative of “taxpayers”, then the new administration will be no better than the old.
The Importance of Transit Service
“City Hall doesn’t listen to us” is a common complaint both downtown and in the far reaches of Etobicoke or Scarborough. When “downtowners” complain of poor transit service, they make common cause with riders all over the city. Yes, we have subways downtown, but much of the “old city” depends on surface routes for transport. There will never be a subway under Dufferin or St. Clair any more than there will ever be a subway under Lawrence or Islington.
Technology battles use up a lot of ink and web space, but regardless of who “wins”, much of the transit system remains unchanged.
Tory’s campaign was all about SmartTrack to the exclusion of almost all other transit issues. The gaping hole in his platform was any real mention of better service on the existing system, and he dismissed out of hand the TTC’s August suggestions (and rather conservative ones at that) of potential improvements. That’s a position of someone who has a blinkered view of city life and of the real needs, today, that should be addressed.
What we know so far is that Tory would look at express buses to solve some “squeaky wheel” problems like transit from Liberty Village, but duplicating existing services this way won’t make much difference for the vast majority of travellers. First off, most routes into downtown are already crowded with traffic, and an “express” bus would still make a slow, expensive journey. Second, many trips are not headed to the core area in the peak period, and these trips require better service on the grid of routes we already have.
Third, needless to say, is that the TTC claims to be unable to run more service until at best 2018-19. In other words, we might see more service just when the next election campaign heats up. That position was useful to Tory in downplaying Olivia Chow’s credibility, but it undermines his own. Any municipal agency’s job is to provide advice on what can be done and how to do it. If the city says “build me a subway”, then that’s the TTC’s job. If the city says “run better service”, it is not the TTC’s job to say “that’s impossible” especially when the statement is a flat out lie. Challenging, yes, but not impossible if the city will provide the resources.
A mayor’s job is to lead, to set goals for the city and, indeed, that’s what the whole SmartTrack campaign, flawed though it might be, is about. Tory stuck with his plan, but now is the time to see how transit overall can be made even better, how it can provide more than superficial improvements in the short term.
This will require using all of the resources the TTC has available today, and accelerating capital purchases that now languish in future years of the budget.
For more about what we can do to improve transit today, see my previous article on the subject.
The Simplistic Proposal for a Fare Freeze
Every politician, especially every new mayor, loves to give the voters something as a reward: a tax cut here, a free service there. Tory (like his two opponents) wants to freeze TTC fares. That would be a terrible decision, and could set the TTC back even further than it has been under the Ford years.
Fare freezes do nothing to improve service, and in fact they hobble service growth unless the freeze is matched by increased subsidy. Roughly speaking, such a move would cost at least $25-million, and that is revenue that is lost not just this year, but every future year because today’s fare becomes the base against which future increases grow.
It’s easy to say “people pay enough already”, but in fact many riders are quite capable of and willing to pay more if only their bus would show up with space for them to board. Yes, there are lower-income riders who deserve a break, but they should get one directly as a targeted subsidy.
An important fare change under discussion (and likely to be forced by the move to Presto) is the implementation of time-based fares as a replacement for transfers. The TTC estimates the cost of a 2-hour fare at $20m annually, but such a change will make travel cheaper for many riders who now make separate, short hop trips, but not with sufficient frequency to warrant buying a monthly pass.
Such a fare will also make regional integration much simpler because boundaries could disappear. Two hours’ riding is two hours’ worth regardless of the colour of the bus.
Why don’t we discuss this sort of forward looking fare structure but instead simply say “freeze the fares” as if it will solve everyone’s problems? The discussion and the subsidy debate will be right back on the table in 2016 and every year after that.
There is basic math in the TTC budget large and complex as some of its details may be. The cost of running service is driven by two factors:
- Increases in the cost of labour and materials, and
- Increases in the amount of service provided.
There are “efficiencies” here and there such as a move to larger vehicles, but these are one-time savings once they are rolled into the system. If both service and the cost of providing it go up, so must the subsidy unless the difference comes from the farebox.
For as long as I can remember, the TTC has been saying “we should have regular, small increases in fares” because experience shows that at this scale, riders stay on the system. What we do not need is an artificial freeze followed by big changes when the budget pressure at the City becomes overwhelming. Toronto has been through this before, and it worked against the larger goal of getting more people onto the transit system.
Is there a Mayor, a Council, with the backbone to argue that short-term cuts and freezes don’t benefit the city and its transit riders in the long term?
The Technology Wars
Regular readers here will know that there are long discussions about what transit technology Toronto should embrace and where various lines might be built. I am not going to repeat that debate.
However, there are three hangovers from the election campaign:
- A decision has been made to build a subway in Scarborough, and there is strong pressure for more subways elsewhere.
- The regional rail network, call it GO RER or SmartTrack, will feature more prominently in transit planning that it has for decades.
- We might, maybe, someday, see progress on a Downtown Relief Line (whatever it is called).
In all three cases, major studies will be needed to finalize basic details such as alignments, engineering challenges, station locations and cost. These studies should not be short-circuited with political rhetoric, nor should they reach “directed” conclusions to support a favoured result.
Toronto needs to understand the costs, benefits and limitations of various options so that Council and our friends at Queen’s Park can see how everything might fit together. This is not a matter of nay-saying, or delay for its own sake, as Tory’s campaign would argue, but of really knowing what we might do, how much it will cost, and how well any projects will improve the network.
There is far more to planning and building a network than printing hundreds of thousands of campaign handouts with a map of one route on them.
What Is SmartTrack?
As the campaign wore on and challenges to SmartTrack grew, it became obvious that the original proposal needed work, and this was only grudgingly conceded late in the game. The line was not worked out for its engineering challenges even on a rough basis, and its designers even made the fundamental mistake of not visiting potential sites. When someone like me does this, the epithet is “armchair railfan” or “wannabe engineer” if not worse. When a campaign does it, then it’s “a professional opinion” carved on stone tablets (although sandstone may be the actual medium).
I won’t belabour that debate as the challenges in SmartTrack have been addressed elsewhere, but now is the time for many questions to be answered. Just a few:
- Is SmartTrack really a separate service, or is this simply a rebranded version of something GO was planning to run anyhow?
- Why the insistence on veering west on Eglinton with a difficult route under Mount Dennis when (a) SmartTrack could continue northwest on the rail corridor and (b) the Eglinton-Crosstown line could continue west as originally planned?
- At the proposed level of service, can SmartTrack actually benefit would-be riders at the “in town” stations proposed for this line, or would trains be full (just as GO is today) when they arrive?
- How will a Relief Line eventually fit into this mix?
Toronto is being asked to believe that one line on a map can solve almost every problem, and that is simply not credible. We need to move beyond the campaign and talk about how GO’s RER, Smart Track and other parts of the TTC will co-exist and what role each part will play.
I cannot end this article without mentioning the waterfront. Two major transportation issues face Council on waterfront developments in the coming term:
- On the western waterfront, what will expansion of demand at the Island Airport do to the waterfront neighbourhoods, to the road and the transit systems serving that facility?
- On the eastern waterfront, we are about to build a small city of 50,000 residents and at least as many workers and students over the next two decades. This was supposed to be a “transit first” undertaking, but what is actually happening is that transit comes up last. We risk building on a scale that could dwarf Liberty Village but without good transit to move people in and out of the new developments.
Yes, the waterfront is “downtown”, that place so vilified in recent political discourse, but it is a signature project for Toronto, something with which we show the world how well we can build our new city. Failure here will be front and centre, part of the picture post card of Toronto. Our new mayor cannot allow this to founder.
After four years of cutbacks and budgets that strangle the TTC’s ability to grow, it is time for real improvement in Toronto’s transit system. Some of this will come with the usual megaprojects, but attention must be paid to the day-to-day work of providing better transit. That means more service, a commitment to maintenance and fleet expansion that will allow the TTC to attract more riders, not simply keep the minimum possible service on the streets.
John Tory has a chance to show what he can do for transit and for Toronto, to show real improvement before he stands for re-election in 2018. Please let his record be something more than cleaner stations and a pile of discarded maps.