TTC capital spending plans suffer from a basic problem: political support for funding of routine maintenance that doesn’t have ribbon-cutting, photo-ops and election prospects has been falling for years. During the same period, demand for transit service, not just for shiny new lines, but for seats on buses, streetcars and subways, has been climbing fast. Two to three percent a year might not seem like much, but when many services see no improvement, or even deliberate cutbacks, things get tight.
This is not news. The shortfall in funding the TTC’s ten-year capital plan was foreseen some years ago, and it appears regularly as part of the City of Toronto’s budgetary handwringing about the growing backlog of work. There is always hope that a new formula, a more enlightened attitude at Queen’s Park or Ottawa, will bring new money to transit and solve this problem once and for all. Meanwhile, the shortfall is, to the degree possible, pushed off into later years of the plan so that the TTC can do the maintenance and rebuilding it needs.
That, at least, was the idea a few years ago, but those “tomorrows” are now “todays” and things have not changed much.
The first problem is that the only consistent revenue stream Toronto now receives from other governments is a share of gas tax, and this is a fixed amount, one that could decline due to population shifts and reduced use of fuel. Over the ten years 2015-2024, no increase in this tax stream is included in the TTC’s budget with the obvious result that gas tax as a portion of transit spending will continue to fall in purchasing power.
The second problem is an ideological standoff over revenue tools. “Give us more money” says Toronto, while Queen’s Park replies “We gave you revenue tools, use them”. This is the same Queen’s Park that is scared to death of using its own taxing powers to fund better regional transportation systems. All governments tell fairy tales about the magic of Public-Private-Partnerships and Tax Increment Financing, schemes designed to hide the fact that costs we should pay today would be financed by borrowing against the future, but in a way that doesn’t use that dirty word “debt”.
This is not a happy situation, but the debate becomes more complex when we actually look at those unmet financing needs of the next decade and beyond. Are all of the projects now on the books reasonable? What is missing? Would additional funding, if it were available, be spent wisely?
The “Below The Line” Projects
About $2.3-billion worth of capital spending has been excluded from the current capital plan because there is no funding identified that would pay for these projects. The “line” is the cutoff point where the City’s capital planning has nothing left to pay for the TTC’s capital plan.
[Source: City Budget Analyst Notes for the TTC Capital Budget and Plan 2015-2024, p. 26]
The majority of items deferred in this manner are vehicle purchases:
- 372 subway cars to replace the fleets now used on the Bloor-Danforth and Sheppard subways. These are the T1 cars that were delivered between 1995 and 2001, a fleet that is actually larger than needed today for those two routes because, originally, some of the T1s were to remain on the Yonge line. The plan to replace them prematurely relates to conversion of the BD subway to automated operation, a feature that would be prohibitively expense to retrofit on the T1 fleet late in its life. A related question is the fleet plan for the Scarborough Subway and the number of cars it will actually require, net above the current fleet.
- 201 Wheel-Trans Buses were scheduled for replacement in the next few years, but instead they will have a major overhaul and be kept in service with replacement coming later in the plan. The short term funding “above the line” that was to fund the new buses has been transferred to the accessibility program for station reconstruction projects.
- 99 buses for “Customer Service Initiatives” were scheduled for delivery beginning in 2019. Until the 50 vehicles announced for purchase in 2015 came along, these were the only net net buses the TTC planned to acquire with all other purchases going to replace vehicles due for retirement. Yes, you read that correctly, the TTC had no plans to expand its bus fleet for another four years in the face of ongoing growth in demand. A related problem is the construction of a new garage (or two) to hold the buses Toronto actually needs. All of this has been put in limbo because the Ford administration did not want to spend money on transit expansion, at least for surface routes.
- 60 new LRVs for growth would be an add-on the the current 204-car order which is itself badly overdue from Bombardier. Between the rising demand and population density on streetcar routes, and the possibility of new streetcar services in the waterfront, the fleet must grow. Leslie Barns is already designed with enough storage so that it plus the two existing carhouses can handle a fleet of 264 vehicles. A decision on actually ordering the 60 cars is needed fairly soon, and the $52.7-million shown in 2015 for this project would be the down payment if it were approved this year to lock in production capacity at Bombardier.
- The Bus Heavy Rebuild Program overhauls buses part way through their 18-year lives so that they will actually stay on the road that long. Timing and spending are affected by the fleet demographics and the condition of each generation of buses as it comes due for rebuilding. Without this work, buses now in the fleet will not last their planned lives.
- The Easier Access Program installs elevators in subway stations. As noted above, it has been funded in the short term by transferring money from the Wheel-Trans bus purchase, but the latter part of the project is still unfunded.
- The Train Door Monitoring System will provide subway drivers with a better view of the train exterior at platforms. This is part of the ongoing plan to move to one person crews.
- The Fire Ventilation Upgrade rebuilds and installs equipment at stations that will allow better control of smoke in the event of a fire. The project has been on the books for years after the existing systems were found to be inadequate, but the work tends to be deferred because it is complex and expensive. In some cases, stations undergoing major retrofits for other reasons such as second exits and elevators receive their fire upgrade at the same time to consolidate the work.
- Capacity to Spend Opportunities is a catch-all that is as much about accounting sleight-of-hand as it is a real saving in the budget. The TTC tends to underspend its capital program either because projects take longer than expected, or because some parts are deferred. One example is that some streetcar track replacement projects usually are rescheduled because of conflicts with other activities. The City arbitrarily lops off money in several years of the plan, but this tactic only works if, in fact, the projects would never actually be undertaken. What results is an accumulating backlog in the State of Good Repair (SOGR) reported elsewhere in the budget. The work and the funding is needed eventually, but through this trickery, the funding needed for it vanishes from the books.
As if the “official” shortfall and SOGR backlog were not bad enough, there is another class of projects that don’t even get into the below-the-line list. This has the convenient effect of keeping them off the books so that the shortfall looks smaller than it really is, but it also hides some projects from view that deserve full discussion.
[Source: City Budget Analyst Notes for the TTC Capital Budget and Plan 2015-2024, p. 31]
This list raises serious questions about priorities for future capital spending and whether, in fact, these projects are appropriate as the next calls on available funding should it become available.
- Fire Ventillation Upgrades were described above. This line covers work that is beyond the current budget window.
- Yonge-Bloor Capacity Improvements is a project dating from an era when the TTC planned to handle all growth in travel to downtown through its major interchange with extremely frequent subway service, and no relief capacity via another subway route or GO Transit.
- Platform Edge Doors are related to the scheme for much increased line capacity on BD and YUS. This is a further $1.163-billion related substantially to a capacity provision that these lines may never require.
- Plans for handling regional demand growth have been changing, and yet these projects stay on the books. This shows the kind of expense Toronto will face (not to mention the upheaval of adding to a complex station while it remains in operation) if relief capacity is not provided. Equally, these are potentially avoidable costs — the business as usual option — that could be offset in a financial comparison of relief options.
- Notable by their absence from plans for much-increased subway service is any provision for the extra trains this would require or the storage yard(s) needed to hold them.
- The Bremner Streetcar is a portion of the proposed Western Waterfront LRT which would branch off from an expanded Union Station Loop through the basement of the Air Canada Centre and emerge onto Bremner itself west of York Street. The whole scheme is rather dubious considering other uses now being made of Bremner Blvd. and questions about how the line would thread its way past the Exhibition Grounds, through South Parkdale and eventually to The Queensway. The money could not possibly pay for this route. It is worth noting that the Waterfront East route is not even listed here even though the need for it is more pressing.
- The Station Modernization Program for University Station Renaissance is related to the beautification of the remaining stations on the University Line (Museum was the only one actually done, and even its design was not fully implemented). Other target stations include St. Patrick (Art Gallery) and Osgoode (Opera). It is unclear just how this would be funded, or why, among many competing demands for station renewal, these should still be tagged as an individual project.
- Redundant Elevators is a recent addition to this list, but it is unclear what, exactly, is intended given the limited spaces available to add elevators to stations like Bloor-Yonge, St. George and Union.
There are no doubt additional projects (a second new bus garage comes to mind) that should be in a list somewhere, but are nowhere to be found. Coupled with the lack of planning for an increased bus fleet, this can leave Toronto unprepared for future growth in transit demand.
While the politicians and the planners have busied themselves with drawing fantasy transit maps and holding photo-ops at every opportunity, the capital plans just to keep the TTC running have languished. In the short term, the new Mayor Tory at least understands that transit systems don’t work if they have inadequate service, but this philosophy is yet to be manifest in the capital plans.
For 2015, that won’t matter much because short term funding is covered. However, a failure to address medium term problems and gaps in the capital plan will further strangle the growth of transit service. A thorough review of TTC capital planning with realistic goals and a full accounting of financial needs is essential before Toronto faces its 2016 budget and beyond.