Infrastructure or Operations? A Big Debate?

On June 16, the Transit Alliance hosted a debate, of sorts, on the topic of which is more important: spending on transit infrastructure or on operations. The panel of six was arbitrarily divided into two camps although a few on each side felt it was a faulty premise – both are needed.

The audience was definitely pro-infrastructure. This is not surprising in an environment where the major calls are for building something, anything, new to “fight gridlock” by providing transit alternatives where they either don’t exist today, or are a poor substitute for driving. Only yesterday, we saw this attitude on a grand scale with Stephen Harper’s announcement at TTC’s Hillcrest Shops, of all places, that Ottawa would fund 1/3 of John Tory’s $8-billion SmartTrack scheme even though it has yet to progress beyond preliminary investigations. As a route crossing municipal boundaries, SmartTrack would be a “national” program, although if the Feds actually spend the full $2.6b share, it would take a huge bite out of the 10-year transit funding program, leaving almost nothing else for Toronto or much of Ontario.

Such are the problems of megaprojects. We see the same contradiction at work within Toronto where Queen’s Park regularly trumpets the Eglinton Crosstown line and its billions as an example of provincial commitment while other projects languish for want of funds at the municipal level. The Crosstown is always cited in “look what we’re doing for you” responses to calls for increased provincial funding. The same would no doubt be true if SmartTrack proceeds and Ottawa “buys off” its need to support other transit plans.

A Little Context

Before I get into the actual debate, a few comments about the panel overall, and about the topics that were completely missed.

Misinformation was no stranger to this “debate”, and the poor knowledge of the transit situation politically and at the technical level did little to enlighten the audience. Moreover, the format didn’t allow much scope for corrections even in the cases where the opposing groups might notice them.

The focus on gridlock inevitably meant that for the purpose of debate, commuting trips were almost exclusively the subject. Even then, the debate did not often look beyond the standard trips to and from downtown even though congestion is a pervasive problem in the suburbs where building and operating transit is a greater challenge, and the travel patterns are much more diverse. The “one line to rule them all” solution simply does not work when there are so many origins and destinations.

There was no mention of travel at times that did not match the standard workday commuting pattern, and little discussion of 416-905 cross-border travel including service levels remote from downtown. There was no mention of the large volume of travel by students whose “commute” is not to King & Bay, but to the many schools around the region.

The panel had no representation from any number of minorities, economic or racial, and Toronto’s Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat was the sole woman in the group. The audience had a strong professional tinge in light of the time of day (5:30 pm), location (near Bloor-Yonge) and entrance fee.

Most importantly, the debate took place absent any information about spending patterns today. The common assumption is that we’re not spending much on infrastructure, certainly not enough to overcome a decades-long backlog, and this area deserves more support. Panelists from the construction industry agreed wholeheartedly for obvious reasons.

In 2013-2014, Metrolinx spending [See Annual Report starting at p. 35] on capital projects totalled $1,894.6-million while operating costs consumed only $600m of which 2/3 was funded from the farebox. Metrolinx is very much a construction company, although in years to come the balance will shift to operations and will require a different corporate culture dealing much more with the day-to-day rather than the grand plans.

For 2014, the TTC spent about $1,200m on capital projects and $1,549.7m on operations (not including WheelTrans) with about 3/4 coming from the farebox [See Draft Financial Statement]. These projects include a substantial amount of capital maintenance on the existing system as opposed to expansion. About 3/4 of the capital subsidies received in 2014 came from the City of Toronto. It is important to note that the bulk of spending on widely-shared programs such as the Spadina extension is mainly in past years, and current projects have a far higher proportion of City money in them.

If we consolidate Metrolinx and TTC as the two major transit entities in the GTHA, the totals would be about $3.1b on capital and $2.1 on operations with the majority of the latter coming from the farebox. This puts the level of public spending on infrastructure and operations in context, a tiny detail that was completely absent from the debate.

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