The Metrolinx Board met on March 3 for its quarterly gathering. Although there were important issues on the agenda, the debate was as superficial as usual, and the message that “everything is just great” permeated the proceedings.
Things got off to a slow start. The meeting room is relentlessly beige, overlit and unadorned. Windows there are, but when we entered, they were already partly screened and the view, such as it is, simply looks across to rooms and the roof opposite. Not long into proceedings, a further set of screens blocking this view descended lest we be distracted from the worthies sitting at the board table. We might as well have been in the set of an existential play wondering if there actually was a world outside, not a fine, downtown historic building.
The first order of business was a goodbye to retiring director Nicholas Mutton, a genteel fellow who has headed up the Customer Service Committee. Sadly his reports are always pushed to the back of the agenda and are rushed for time, and his presentations rarely get beyond reading a few pages of a short PowerPoint.
Then we had a brief report from Bruce McCuaig, the Metrolinx President & CEO, reiterating events of note since the last board meeting in December. One might forgive the poor directors for being out of touch with recent news given that they meet so rarely and have so little to say. Surely they stay informed on Metrolinx activities and don’t need a recap beyond the most unusual events.
In the remainder of this article, I will discuss:
- Back-Charging Toronto for Metrolinx Work
- The Regional Express Rail (RER) Update
- The Regional Fare Integration Study
- The Study of the Pearson Airport Area
Back-Charging Toronto For Metrolinx Work
Chair Rob Prichard took advantage of the CEO’s report to ask about a story that had just broken – Metrolinx is billing the City of Toronto $95m for its share of works done as part of the Georgetown South project. This news had broken at Toronto’s Executive Committee, and according to The Star, the original demand from Metrolinx had been an eye-popping $170m.
The origin of this charge is a supposed cost-sharing agreement between Toronto and Metrolinx regarding payment for improvements to municipal infrastructure that occur during a Metrolinx project. Suppose, for example, that a grade separation provides an opportunity, or even a requirement, to replace a sewer. This may or may not be work the City was contemplating, but in any event, they get new infrastructure out of the deal, possibly upgraded in anticipation of future needs. Metrolinx will cover some of the cost because they triggered the project, but they expect some payment from the City as well. The problem, here, is that this charge came completely out of the blue for Councillors and one must ask why such a major cost has been hidden by City staff until now.
Metrolinx’ hands are not clean either. If there is a cost sharing agreement, it should be public and the implications of any new provincial announcement should be clear from the outset. It’s all very well for Queen’s Park to shower Toronto with transit gifts, but if there is a hidden requirement for us to help pay for them, that’s not fair or transparent. Equally, we know nothing of the degree to which similar demands will be made of other municipalities for works that projects such as the GO expansions, the LRT lines and the planned High Speed Rail corridor will trigger. Indeed, Toronto could be on the hook for a substantial bill for utility and road reconstruction along the Eglinton corridor, but there is nothing in the City’s capital budget to cover this future charge from Metrolinx.
McCuaig is usually quite smooth when dealing with the press and politicians – he’s been a mandarin around Queen’s Park for years and knows the form – but in the post meeting press scrum, he was positively glib and dismissive of Toronto’s concerns. That is not the posture someone in his position should be taking especially when this “agreement” is still under negotiation and its terms have obvious implications for all future provincial projects.
A particular annoyance for Toronto is the sense that we are asked to make a sizeable contribution to the high-end UPX project, an allegedly self-financing scheme to provide first class service to the airport. Nonsense, says McCuaig, the extra capacity in the Georgetown South corridor will serve other uses notably GO Transit. What he misses, of course, is that the project was launched specifically to make room for the UPX long before any of the proposed add-ons, notably future electrification and frequent all day service under the “RER” brand, were part of GO’s plans. As things are, the $455.5m ($2010) UPX project is likely cross-subsidized by shared works in the corridor that are charged to other accounts and keep the true cost of UPX as low as possible.
The optics are quite clear: Toronto has been asked to shell out a very substantial amount for corridor upgrades. At the very least, voters deserve an itemized list of what their $95m has purchased, as well as a projection of future charges for other Metrolinx projects.
This is the sort of topic the Metrolinx board should be discussing, but it’s not “good news” and is unlikely to appear on any public agenda, likely on the grounds of “confidential financial advice”. Bunk. If Queen’s Park’s $29-billion transportation plans have a hidden cost for municipalities, then they need to know this up front. When the Minister makes one of his endless photo ops, he needs to be open and honest about how much is expected of local taxpayers to make him and his government look good.
City Charges to Metrolinx
Also included in the report at Executive Committee was an update on the cost sharing for the Union Station rebuild and for the North West Path extension linking the station north to Wellington Street.
The City requested the following from Metrolinx:
- $15 million in respect of general cost escalation increases of $80 million
- $20 million in respect of the $40 million cost increase for the North West Path
The Province has rejected both requests and will not increase its current contributions to the Union Station project.
The unanswered questions here relate to the cost sharing agreement Toronto might have had with Queen’s Park. Was escalation included in the provincial contribution agreement? Were any additional costs a function of changing Metrolinx requirements, or simply down to unexpected site conditions or new scope of work from the City? Without this information, it is hard to know whether Queen’s Park has a strong case for rejecting higher contributions, or if the City has a good case to demand more.
GO Transit Capital Funding
A little-known part of the Metrolinx/GO capital plan is that all municipalities in the GTHA contribute funds to it each year with Toronto paying almost half of the total municipal share. For the remaining two years covered by the regulation, this amounts to $20m in each year for Toronto. The City does not wish to continue this arrangement, a scheme that in theory represents the benefit to Toronto of having GO carry people into downtown by train rather than having them drive. An obvious counter argument is that Toronto pays substantially from its own pocket to carry riders from the 905 without compensation.
Queen’s Park has agreed to suspend the 2015-16 payments, but that’s only buying time, not cancelling the charges.
At its December 2014 meeting, the RER Update spoke of four key elements in the RER work plan: a service concept, infrastructure needs, a phasing plan and an engagement plan. The presentation went on to describe a “service plan” in detail and stated:
Metrolinx anticipates that the recommended service concept will be completed in the first quarter of 2015 and will be released with the Province at that time. [Slide 8]
- The network map will change from the generic collection of GO Transit rail corridors to specific locations that will receive enhanced services both by time of day and frequency. This will inevitably create a “winners and losers” environment in which the promise of RER may turn out to be less than some regions might have expected.
- Physical constraints on service levels will have to be acknowledged and, with them, the limits on just how much can be provided in which area. Some constraints are hard: there is no room for more track in certain locations. Some are softer: implementation of better service requires co-operation from the host railway companies. Some require only a will to spend money: how much track and how big a fleet does GO want to operate.
- What could be practical for individual branches might not work when every service consolidates at Union Station, and capacity problems there will trigger a separate debate about upgrades.
- RER cannot work without good local transit services as feeder/distributor. The park-and-ride model completely fails outside of the traditional commuter pattern.
- Any decisions about infrastructure upgrades and service levels will trigger budgetary requirements both for capital construction, fleet expansion, and ongoing operating costs. We have all heard about the $29-billion pot of gold promised by Queen’s Park for transportation improvements, but we don’t know the projects for which this is earmarked or even if there is enough for all of the competing demands.
The March report has some content carried over from December, but with changes. Notably the description of phasing now includes considerations of integration with the freight railways in the Hamilton, Brampton and Milton corridors, and management of floodplain issues for the Don River (Richmond Hill service).
The work plan component list has gained a fifth, distinct component: an electrification plan. This is an important change even though aspects of it may have already been present. Electrification is a network-wide activity that must be planned outside of the corridor-specific projects. Much of the infrastructure will be shared, and core upgrades such as the Union Station area are a prerequisite to any one line’s implementation.
The RER work also includes a “Business Case” analysis. Whether a positive “value” for each project will arise remains to be seen, and there is always the problem of deciding just what “value” any component might bring. All public works involve a tradeoff between the short and long term costs and their perceived benefits, but those benefits cannot always be expressed as a monetary value. It will be interesting to see how these analyses come out, and whether some pieces of RER simply fall off of the map. If the network remains intact, this will beg the question of why GO/RER expansion took so long if the business case is so strong. If the network frays, then the question turns to whether the weaker parts should remain with the stronger parts supporting them, if only for political reasons.
Four network-wide studies are underway: grade separations, electrification, rolling stock and future stations.
The March report contains a corridor-by-corridor review of current activity almost none of which has to do with RER per se, but with short term improvements to stations and increased services.
SmartTrack has its own short section, but Metrolinx and the City of Toronto are in early days on that work. The City’s target for a report on SmartTrack is fall 2015. Meanwhile, Metrolinx will incorporate SmartTrack in the development of service plans for the affected corridors. At this point, nobody is making definitive statements that could imply prejudgement of the outcome, but it is no secret that the Eglinton West branch of SmartTrack faces stiff questions of feasibility, cost and appropriateness as the major transportation link in that corridor.
As with so many planning exercises, both RER and SmartTrack have focused on capital costs and the engineering challenges of implementation. The unknown factor is the future cost of operation for various service scenarios, the expected ridership, and the effects on fare structure and subsidies. In a political context, simply building a line is the easy part – lots of construction, but with time limited effects on budgets, and photo-ops galore every time a hole is dug or a structure even partially completed. Operations are quite another matter, not to mention the debate over what might constitute appropriate levels of fares and subsidies.
A report on fare integration his finally surfaced at a board meeting, but it begs more questions than it answers. After a quick review of the balkanized fare structures across the GTHA, the report sets out the goals of the fare integration study:
Working with municipal transit providers:
- Global Practices review
- A Vision and Objectives for the GTHA Fare Policy
- Defining a range of potential fare policy options
- Refine the list of options to a preferred fare structure
Thirteen agencies worldwide are the source for the “Global” review, and three are highlighted. Notably, all three have some form of zonal or distance based fares (Montreal, London and Amsterdam). All use some form of smart card, although none uses Presto. This should tell an alert reader that the rest of the world gets on without Ontario technology quite well, thank you.
Notable by its absence here and in the following discussion is any mention of time-based fares – treatment of the single fare or token as a limited time pass – even though this scheme is common in the GTHA and was proposed by the TTC as recently as August 2014.
The “Vision” includes the intent of a common fare system that is “simple, harmonized and consistent” where fares “reflect the quality and value of the services provided”. For transit systems, the scheme should respect “the hierarchy of service needs, improve service and financial efficiencies, and improve competitiveness”.
Those words imply judgements about quality and value of services which are not defined. By the time we reach detailed objectives on page 13 of the presentation, simplicity and efficiency are watchwords. But we also find that a customer wants fares that reflect the quality of service and align cost to the service provided. “People [are] generally willing to pay for faster speed or higher amenity services.” This statement sets us on a path to justifying a major shift in the basis for transit fare design.
This move might be closer than we think with integration between Metrolinx, TTC and regional fare structures associated with the RER, SmartTrack, Spadina extension and Eglinton LRT projects. This statement prompted a question from the board asking, if TTC was to be the operator for the Eglinton line, what “integration” was necessary. Similarly, the Spadina extension reference turns out to mean integration of fares for the bus feeder networks with the subway, not a change in subway fares. The answers struck me as a tad evasive as if either there is an agenda to split fares apart for various components, or a simple incompetence by the report’s writers to acknowledge how fares work today.
Examples in place already include the co-fare between 905 systems and GO, and the Metropass sticker pilot for TTC riders at Main and Exhibition stations. Metrolinx refuses to release stats on the takeup of these stickers, and rumour has it that sales are dismal because the pass+sticker price is excessive. One might even say that it violates the principle of reflecting the value of service provided.
Next comes a discussion of regional fare structures with four basic structures:
- Flat fares defined as a single fare across the region
- Fare by mode with different fares for different service levels
- Fare by distance travelled
- Fare by zone, a granular version of fare by distance
Note that time-based fares are not even mentioned. This puts the “flat fare” in an unfortunate context of appearing to offer a single fare from Bowmanville to Niagara when the definition could be much more subtle including an overlay of zones and/or service classes.
This misrepresentation continues on slide 19 of the report where the following statements appear:
- Does not reflect the cost of value of long or short trips; local transit and rapid transit. Short trips subsidize longer trips.
- Longer and rapid transit trips have very poor alignment of fares to cost of services.
That of course is precisely how the TTC’s fare structure is organized. Considering that the subway is routinely claimed to at least break even while the surface system loses money, the statement above doesn’t align with reality. However, of course, new rapid transit lines will unquestionably operate at a loss (the Spadina extension is expected to cost Toronto $14m annually net of new fare revenue, presuming that fare structures are not changed). One might reasonably ask whether riders on the profitable part of a network should subsidize those who demand subways that cannot cover their operating costs (never mind the capital).
Having a single fare encourages longer trips to be taken on transit even though the longer the trip, the more attractive a car looks by comparison. An integrated subway-surface fare avoids distortions in the trip matrix caused by riders optimizing their cost even if they must take a longer route and trigger a requirement for improve parallel surface routes to the rapid transit network.
On slide 20, we learn that for fare by mode:
- Higher fares relate to faster service. Short trips still subsidize longer trips.
- There is a good alignment to cost for both local and rapid transit services.
- Fares are more complex for multi-mode trips, and fare gates are required where riders transfer between modes.
On slide 21, for fare by distance:
- Reflects fair value of the service provided with trip cost directly related to trip length.
- It is claimed that transfers do not add complexity.
- There would be a “good to fair” alignment to cost of service.
These statements imply that distance is a surrogate for “fair value” when elsewhere the metric would be, at least in part, speed with premium fares for faster services. On the complexity front, what is completely missed is the need to know where everyone’s trip ends, and this brings the “tap in, tap out” challenge that would severely delay passengers especially for boardings where fare collection and monitoring are done right at the doorway, not at the entrance to a platform. Even GO Transit recognizes that this is a problem with the Presto arrangement for a “standard trip” that will be billed for routine commuting patterns to avoid the need for a rider to tap out at destinations. This model does not work in a complex network serving a variety of travel needs and multiple types of service.
Finally at slide 22 we have zone fares:
- Good value to customers with trip cost indirectly related to trip length, although there are complexities for trips crossing through zones and areas that use buffer zones.
- Rapid transit services may bear a higher burden of costs, and zones could be more difficult to administer.
Again, the assumption is that trip length is a surrogate for its value to riders. The remark about rapid transit implies, albeit indirectly, that because these services would not have a premium fare, they could not as easily recoup their costs.
There is a thread running throughout this analysis that says “fast service should cost more, and people should pay for distance travelled”. In other words, an endorsement of GO’s existing fare policies with possibly a bit of tweaking, but no major changes.
I asked Metrolinx Chief Planning Officer Leslie Woo about the omission of time-based fares, especially odd considering that they are already here. She replied:
Thanks for raising that Steve, timed based could be a sub-option to the four base options. Let me pursue that. [Email of March 5, 2014]
Er … um … we have done a “global review”, but an option already used in our own back yard doesn’t even make it into the study?
Just to be certain, I checked with the TTC’s Deputy CEO Chris Upfold, and he confirmed that the ability to handle time-based fares is included in the TTC’s requirements for Presto functionality. In other words, it is hardly a secret that this is an option under active consideration by the largest transit operator in Ontario. The TTC is not some two-bus system whose plans can be nudged aside for the greater good.
The repeated reference to higher fares on faster services which are described as “rapid transit” begs the question of whether Metrolinx, in order to buttress its own GO fare structure, thinks that routes such as the existing subway system or even LRT/BRT services should operate at a premium fare. If such a premium were coupled to implementation of zones or distance-based fares, the effect on riders particularly in Toronto would be very severe. The political insensitivity of such a scheme is obvious: politicians have been seducing voters with faster, better subways that riders (even some who live outside of the 416) expect to operate at standard, flat TTC fares. New lines such as the Eglinton LRT are presumed to be part of the TTC flat fare system.
We might think of GO Transit’s never met goal regarding crowding of its trains. There are simply too many riders for GO to achieve its goal of seats for 80% of every peak passenger, and the results through 2013/14 sit at 62%. Imagine what might happen if we were to claim that the jam-packed Yonge subway is a premium service and passengers should pay more for the privilege of waiting while trains pass by full, and for extremely uncomfortable trips once they manage to board?
Does Metrolinx actually think that this sort of scheme has any hope of acceptance, or is this some sort of provincial fiat that will arrive one day with the claim that a faceless committee somewhere has decided, in private, that this is the “best” solution for fare integration? Modelling and discussion among “stakeholders”, whoever they may be, is supposed to lead to a report in summer 2015, possibly as early as the June board meeting.
The terms “arrogant” and “out-of-touch” do not begin to describe this. It is quite clear that Metrolinx is attempting to railroad through a massive change in the GTHA fare structure under the cover of “integration” with almost no public discussion or review.
Does this raise any eyebrows among board members? Not a one. They are too busy congratulating staff for their great work.
Pearson Airport and its surrounding area is the second largest concentration of jobs and commercial activity in the GTHA after downtown Toronto. Not only are the millions of airline passengers and tons of cargo, there are thousands of jobs both at the airport and in areas clustered around it. One of the goals of the Metrolinx Big Move plan was to improve “high-order transit connectivity … from all directions”, but there has been far too much focus on the UPX rail service set to open this spring. We also see SmartTrack whose focus, at least for the short term, is on trips originating to the southeast.
Transit trips to the airport area have a sadly low transit market share with the strongest showing among airport employees. Their origins do not align well with single, high-capacity transit links, and their peak travel time does not coincide with the traditional commuting pattern. This could actually be an advantage for transit planners in the sense that an offset peak could be served by vehicles that later took on a different function, but this will require more study. It will also require an acknowledgement that “commuting” starts earlier than the traditional office-oriented model with transit service to match.
The transit situation is not good, and it is clear that the airport area has been planned and operated around automobile access. The physical impediments to transit are compounded by the jurisdictional ones and by focus on the airport itself rather than its larger district.
Short term (1-2 year) improvements include various organizational and infrastructure changes to aid transit useability and operations, as well as service improvements for better links to the airport from regional hubs and improved access to employment areas.
My sense is that the local accesses will be far more important than the regional ones both because workers in the airport district tend to live in the reach of local rather than regional services, and because it is the longer trips where competition with private auto travel will be more difficult. A focus only on regional travel would be as if we tried to fix downtown congestion while ignoring everyone who lives south of the 401.
Better local transit will require better inter-agency co-ordination of services and fare structures.
The situation overall shows the challenges we face with the very terms “regional” and “local” because the district spans multiple political boundaries. This is a generic problem for the GTHA, but it is particularly obvious in a district like the airport.
These charts and notes are particularly interesting. Population at the airport will be stable for coming years while employment will grow by over 40%. There will be a substantial increase in the three types of trips to the district, but their distribution will be “similar to existing conditions”. This challenges a premise behind SmartTrack, namely that the airport district requires a high-capacity service from the southeast to boost its fortunes. If, however, workers originate more to the south and west of the airport, SmartTrack will not serve them.
The large increases must be tempered by projections of transit market share.
Relative to an 11% share in 2011, transit will move up to about 17%. However, growth in jobs will be far higher, and so on an absolute basis, the amount of auto-based commuting will continue to rise substantially by 2031. If the entire 120k increase in job-related commuting were to be by transit, the number of transit trips would have to rise from about 30k (11% of 280,000 jobs) to 150k, a five-fold increase in absolute transit demand. This does not include airport passengers.
That is a huge challenge, and the much more modest 17% share implies only about 68k transit trips into the airport district by 2031.
The study includes a long list of medium and long term options. Notable for its presence is the Eglinton LRT as an alternative to a rail (e.g. SmartTrack) option in that corridor. Discussion of this item noted that Metrolinx is working on the problem of threading an LRT line through the airport, although my understanding from years past is that a right-of-way for this had been protected. If that has fallen out of the plans, one must ask how and why considering that the need for some sort of transit link through the airport lands has been an obvious requirement for decades.
The full study is to be published on the Metrolinx site sometime in spring 2015.