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.

The debate was moderated by Brian Crombie who is the founder and former co-chair of the Mississauga and Western GTA Summits. Professionally he is a merchant banker, and although this might tilt his interest to Infrastructure, he seemed to genuinely try to help the Operations team make their point.

A Keynote Time Waster

The session opened with a keynote speech from Diane Francis, a journalist and financial commentator who is the Editor-At-Large of the National Post. Below are the points I gleaned from her remarks.

“I’m not an expert in infrastucture,” Francis began, but noted she had lived in Toronto, Manhattan and other cities. Catching up with the infrastructure backlog is a problem every successful city has. Who has a traffic problem in Buffalo? All cities share the loss of productive time to waiting in cars.

Francis proceeded to talk about various problems and approaches. The Greenbelt stops sprawl but development leapfrogs over it. Density is good and makes for a surprisingly liveable place. Manhattan triples its daytime population thanks to commuters and tourists.  New York “has the oldest subway in the world” [not true: that honour goes to London], and increased density along subway lines is good. Congestion in outlying areas is not good – compare the city centres of Mississauga or North York.

London and Manhattan are impossible to drive in. Francis is a fan of schemes such as London’s congestion tax, Mexico City’s day-of-week licening, Chicago’s ban on daytime deliveries.

Infrastructure costs money which both governments and the private sector have, but there is a culture of government ownership. Taxpayers subsidize the cost of transportation. Pension funds are not at the table because transit fares are not high enough to provide  return. Governments like to impose social policy and control infrastructure spending while pensions spend elsewhere [offshore] for good return. There is a reluctance of government to recognize what the private sector can do. People are used to this [private involvement in transit] all over the world, and tons of money are available.

In the USA the situation for P3s is very volatile because contract laws can be politicized, whereas in Canada the situation is more dependable. Francis cited the 407 contract as an exam- tons of how the private owner’s contract rights were defended against Queen’s Park.

Vertical density is good because it creates more eyes on street and populations that can support small, immigrant-owned stores. Europe does this well with cities in limited space such as London where people are piled on top of people.

What is in the future? Driverless cars – Singapore will have them in 2 years – cities cannot take any more cars with the current model. This will do to surface transportation what avionics did for air flight. There will be variations in vehicle size. People won’t have to live close to downtown [presumably because congestion will vanish].

At this point I was glad that Francis has stopped talking because she has the breezy confidence of a radio talk show host who can throw out ideas, sound intelligent without getting into details, and have absolutely no responsibility for practicality and implementation. I will not waste my time with a rebuttal, and note that none of the panelists did either. Her “keynote” was a complete waste of time.

Investment vs Expense

Brian Crombie: The Transit Alliance was trying to keep the discussion in public. Unless “we are there” supporting government, the squeaky wheels take over.

I could not help thinking of John Tory and his advisors whos efforts gave SmartTrack a momentum out of proportion to its potential role, but that’s a topic for another day.

Crombie acknowledged that the debate had an arbitrary placement of Infrastructure vs Operations, and that some people may have another point of view. However, he took a poll of the audience on the basis of this split. It came down firmly for Infrastructure by a zillion to 1 lead. The challenge for the Operations supporters was to change votes.

As a first question, Crombie noted that infrastructure spending is always described as an “investment”, but operations is an “expense”. Is this correct?

Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat replied that she was almost late thanks to congestion on the Yonge line. The distinction for this debate is difficult in that the implementation of Automatic Train Control (ATC) is expected to add 25% to subway capacity. Is this an Infrastructure or Operations expense? It will be “transformative” to the subway’s role, and Operations are a critical part of any city.

Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig, who reluctantly adopted his assigned role on the Infrastructure team, noted that he is both a builder and an operator of transit. He remarked that the ATC project is actually Infrastructure spending that will enable more to choose transit with more service available. Infrastructure gives a legacy.

Brian Crombie: There were many recent provincial announcements, but that the recent TTC communications system failure exposed issues with reliability.

Jim Harris (former leader of the Green Party, now a Program Director at the Schulich School of Business) wondered why the TTC does not develop property at Yonge-Eglinton and use the revenue to drive the cost of a token down to a dime. Instead Queen’s Park is selling off Hydro to raise funds. Better service will lead to more use, and operating costs should be lowered through development subsidy. There is a great opportunity for more spending on both sides.

By this time I was gritting my teeth at unchallenged assumptions and misinformation.  Keesmaat later pointed out that there is already a plan in place for the Yonge-Eglinton lands, but the property is now being used by Metrolinx for the Crosstown project. In any event, the idea that this land would produce the money needed to drive down fares almost to the vanishing point is hogwash on two counts: first it isn’t worth that much, and second this is one time revenue. Fares now cover about $1.1-billion annually in the TTC budget, and if we make the service that cheap, there will inevitably be a demand for more with almost no compensating revenue. I could not help thinking, yes, this is an example of why the Green Party has no seats.

Jim Tully (Executive Vice-President of Munro Ltd., a producer of drainage and water transportation products, and supplier of tunnel liners for the Crosstown project; no relation to me) noted that, of course, his company builds things, but he was dismayed by the lack of activity for decades. He had looked at the old plans for the Downtown Relief Line (DRL) and its predecessors for the past century, and especially since 1972. More infrastructure means better service covering more of city. People in Toronto don’t want to use transit because it doesn’t take them where they want to go. Moreover, they don’t want to stand outside waiting for it. More infrastructure means fewer buses.

Adam Giambrone (Executive Transit Director for the City of Milwaukee, former TTC Chair) argued that there is a crossover between capital and operating budgets. State of Good Repair (SOGR) is important, and the TTC faces a $300m shortfall for SOGR projects annually. This is equivalent to a 12% increase in property tax if it were funded directly by the City of Toronto. Even if we build all of the Metrolinx Big Move plan, 60-70% of riders would still use a bus or streetcar to reach the new services. GO’s current system uses parking to get its riders. The TTC’s announced 10-minute network will serve more people then the Spadina subway extension (TYSSE). That extension will add $12-14m annually to the operating budget. Even if we build everything in the plans, we should make bus improvements because we won’t be able to build subways, LRT or even BRT (bus rapid transit) everywhere.

Brian Crombie asked about the claim that the 10-minute network will serve more people than the TYSSE. Let’s look at background info to see:

According to the TTC’s report, the 10-minute network will have a net annual operating cost of $7.7m ($11.3m gross less new fare revenue of $3.6m). The predicted average fare for 2015 is about $2.20, and so the added ridership expected is about 1.64m. However, many existing riders will have better service. In the Transit City Bus Plan (which affected fewer routes), the claim was that about 29m trips are taken on the affected routes and these would benefit from better service. However, in many periods of operation, the routes are already at or below a 10′ headway, and so there will be no improve service for riders during these periods.

The ridership forecast for the Spadina Extension concluded that about 30m trips would be taken annually, and this was based on a line ending at Steeles, not at Vaughan Centre.

The relative benefits are, therefore, at best a wash, and probably lie in the TYSSE’s favour. This is an example of citing numbers out of context and without good understanding. The trips served and improved by the 10-minute network are mainly on the periphery of service periods. Combined with restoration of full 7-day, 19 hours/day service to the bus network, the target market is the riders who travel in off-peak periods and whose mobility is constrained by infrequent or completely absent service on their routes. The TYSSE, by contrast, addresses travel at all times of the day and provides a major increase in transit access to the corridor it serves. Apples to oranges, putting it mildly.

Stephen Damp (Executive VP of the Civil Division at Ellis Don, a major construction company) said that he was on the Infrastructure side of the debate. He came in to Toronto from Caledon, and infrastructure is needed to go anywhere. Due to a major delay on Highway 407, he had rerouted his trip to Pearson Airport, boarded the UPX to Union, and thence to join the debate-in-progress. His view is that without Infrastructure, Operations doesn’t matter. His daughter is looking forward to two-way GO service to Aurora. For a city of Toronto’s size, it is far behind its needs, and perfect Operations [of what we have now] won’t get us where we need to be.

Frequency vs Speed

Brian Crombie: Although trains can travel faster, high speed isn’t the critical thing – what is needed is more frequent service – frequency and convenience matter.

Jim Harris: We should view the situation as an integrated problem. The London congestion charged reduced traffic below a critical level – the “15/30” effect [where a 15% reduction in traffic caused a 30% drop in congestion] – Barcelona is shifting to walking and cycling. A car costs $10k/year to operate and this consumes disposable income. A city can be more vibrant with less auto dependency.

Bruce McCuaig talked about VIA Toronto-Montreal service with 4 trains/day. Availability, frequency, comfort and convenience are all important, but if the service isn’t available, the rest cannot be achieved. VIA needs track capacity, and CN/CP traffic comes first on their own lines. VIA also needs more rolling stock.

A reader has noted in the comments that:

One minor correction that doesn’t change the overall point: Bruce McQuaig mentioned VIA having 4 Toronto to Montreal trains per day. But they actually have 6 trains per day Toronto-Montreal, plus 2 direct (same train) options through Ottawa (which take significantly longer of course).

I cannot help thinking this argument avoids the basic issue that obviously infrastructure is a pre-requisite to any operation, but it does not address the relative level of spending. VIA’s problem for decades has been the lack of will to operate more service, and that leads to an attitude that whatever infrastructure exists is enough to get by. Even then, if the trains are falling apart, or if the track is in a state where trains cannot operate at scheduled speeds, that infrastructure is worthless. Maintenance of what is already there is as important, if not moreso, than building anew.

Jennifer Keesmaat, correcting an earlier remark, noted that there already is a plan for Yonge-Eglinton lands, but this must await Metrolinx’ completion of work on the Crosstown line. Will the city allocate funds from this development to transit? Maybe, but that is not Council policy for proceeds from land sales today. Toronto needs to think about where it builds. Some infrastructure does not make sense due to long term drains on operating budgets, and mistakes in what we build can hurt the system in perpetuity. A good planning framework will lead to sustainable infrastructure.

Stephen Damp: Toronto needs a lot more infrastructure – it is a big city where people need to move around. Also, there is a demographic and culture shift for younger generations.

Maintaining and Rebuilding What We Already Have

Brian Crombie spoke of the recent complete failure of the TTC’s communication system noting that politicians have said “we have a great system circa 1973”. He asked whether we should be spending more on maintenance.

Jim Tully: We tend to band-aid an old system, but are not building up for future. He cited Liberty Village and the Distillery District and asked why the DRL was not built first? When we do build, we should do it properly, using Ontario companies. Good infrastructure will lower operating costs. Just trying to make what we have better is not enough.

Adam Giambrone: How we handle state of good repair is critical. New infrastructure builds will bring new costs including subsidies for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and GO/RER. Long Haul riders such as those from Richmond Hill should be on GO, and the system needs to be optimized. Reliability is a fundamental part of the cost discussion.

Bruce McCuaig talked about the benefit of P3s in packaging capital and finance costs (construction), operations and maintenance with a life cycle approach to projects.  Decisions should optimize capital vs operations spending with capital dollars reducing future operating costs. Risks and project schedules can be improved.

Brian Crombie cited a recent article by Royson James about the Scarborough RT and its complete replacement by a subway rather than simply upgrading the existing technology. Is this an example of band-aids vs new construction?

I could not help noticing how the need for capital spending on system maintenance often slipped away with the focus on new projects, a reflection of the political imperative to “build more”, and how simply fixing what we have is conflated with “band-aid” solutions. This is like buying a new house because your toilet won’t flush. [My thanks to Jennifer Keesmaat for providing the inspiration for that analogy.]

Jim Harris: The question should be how we can have a sustainable, predictable funding model? One time asset sales don’t address the real problem of continuous funding.

Stephen Damp: We have to spend on maintenance – people will bail on transit if they are let down too often – there are no other options. An integrated private and public model is the way to go. We need a funding mechanism. The debate is about how we pay for transit but at the lowest cost possible.

Adam Giambrone: Some maintenance has already been deferred, and yet the TTC maintains a high reliability citing their performance stats.

As regular readers here know, these stats are not worth the paper they are printed on because a high ranking for subway reliability is ludicrously easy to achieve. Giambrone should know better, and this is an example of the danger of publishing meaningless, but superficially rosy, “statistics”.

Giambrone: Some projects like new signals cannot be deferred, and asked what gets pushed off the table – accessibility, new vehicles, comfort, service, safety? He warned that P3s are not a financing scheme, only a delivery scheme, and that future bills to pay off the P3 costs will work their way into the operating budgets.

Earning Trust

Brian Crombie raised the issue of “on time, on budget” projects saying that people don’t trust promises about spending and project execution.

Jim Tully: When governments partner with a builder, they [the builder] fill find the best way, and will provide a good system when the product comes back to the city. He believes that there is an alternatve way to structure “co-operative contracts” for reasonable costs without overruns and extras, and cited UPX as delivered by two contractors “on time, on budget”.

The naïveté here is touching in his belief that all contractors will do the best work possible all of the time. Counterexamples are easy to find.

Jennifer Keesmaat: A big part of any project is communication, and this includes the definition of what it is to achieve. Changes in scope and timeline lead to budget changes. Hidden challenges can be found during construction – should these be patched over or fixed for the long term. As owner of an asset, should we recognize that changes during a project may be preferable to hitting an “on time, on budget” target.

Brian Crombie asked how a 3P would help in these circumstances if the project delivery and operations are not linked – there is no incentive for the long term, no reason to worry about hidden problems.

To me, a fundamental flaw is the assumption that a builder will actually be the operator, rather than flipping a completed project to another company who will attempt to milk it for whatever value can be gained. Moreover, the build-operate model runs contrary to practices in countries like the UK where ownership is retained by the public sector with operations being leased or contracted from the private sector. This is a fundamentally different investment and risk model which the panel did not explore.

Bruce McCuaig agreed that public trust is essential, but argued that we cannot take an ideological view on each project. UPX was largely a traditional project, and this shows that this method can work. Problems of “the unknown” and scope changes must be managed, and being “on budget” includes enough thought about risks.

Adam Giambrone: With a P3 there is more certainty as to cost and scope because the bids come at a later stage in the process. The TYSSE was only at about 5% design when its budget was set. Transit City grew from $6b to $11.4b. The change was in detailed design. The advantage of a P3 process is that it forces the proponents to go through more detailed design and costing up front, and politicians must hold off decisions until there is adequate design. Stable funding can allow longer term planning, but the Catch 22 is that engineering work is needed to nail down costs even though political commitment may be sought early in a project.

I must observe here that there is a political imperative to lowball project cost estimates for political approval. The pressure is to fund to a value when a project is announced, and the project must live within that even though the budget may be meaningless. Queen’s Park gets around this, in part, by announcing project budgets as a current dollar amount plus inflation. This avoids the need to estimate, in advance, the effect of rising costs through the life of an extended project such as the Crosstown, but it makes “on budget” a moving target that is harder for the public to validate. Municipalities, by contrast, must budget on an “as spent” basis because they must plan their budgets for future years with reasonable estimates of inflation and other external factors.

Stephen Damp: Technological advancements in the architecture and engineering community are making it much easier to assess site conditions in advance, and at lower cost. This reduces the need for contingencies and improves risk sharing [for P3s] because unknowns can be discussed at length up front.

Fares vs Subsidies

Brian Crombie: We have a high operating ratio – most cost are covered from the farebox. Is this a good or a bad idea? What if we change it? Should we spend more on maintenance or on lower fares?

Adam Giambrone: The real question is what to spend our money on. If you ask people how to spend – lower fares or better service – they opt for service. We need to fund expanded operations. In 2015 roughly $100m will be spend on new service, and another $60-70m is needed for growth and inflation. Investing at this level won’t drive the raatio down much. The real debate is about what do we want to have.

Bruce McCuaig: The revenue/cost ratio is “a great indicator”, but it is only one. There are so many other policty objectives: land use, accessibility, mobility. We should look not only at the R/C ratio, but recognize that a dip in this can be an investment to increase ridership that can, in turn, improve the ratio again. He noted that although the Toronto streetcar system carries more people than GO, the average GO trip is longer and riders benefit more from having GO as their commute. We need to look at a variety of performance measures.

Jim Tully: Toronto has more cranes than any other city, and all of the people who will live in all of these buildings can’t own cars. We “invest” in road and “subsidize” transit, but need to flip this outlook. Private vehicles cannot move everyone. What, by the way, is the cost recovery on that investment in roads?

Brian Crombie asked, on behalf of people in the suburbs who feel that they pay for their roads through the gas tax, why transit riders cannot pay more.

Jennifer Keesmaat: My property tax is not affected by her choice of travel mode. There is a cost associated with transit, but in Toronto the vast majority of road costs are paid for through municipal property tax. This is the 3rd ranked cost after police and fire services.

Jim Tully: There is huge projected growth in Halton, Durham and Barrie where regional rail service is essential. More people on transit will reduce road costs.

Adam Giambrone: We will not build our way out of the problem. Even with The Big Move, commute times won’t improve, only be reduced relative to what would occur without more transit. There are now commuters from Marseilles to Paris – a 2h45m, €240 trip. We need a high mode share for walking, and smaller downtown housing units. Current development responds to the transportation challenge. GO/RER can do more to make the core accessible, but operating subsidies are required. Companies are moving into downtown because that’s where people want to be. Transportation is an issue: congestion won’t go away – that’s what living in a big city means.

Bruce McCuaig: Looking at municipal growth plans, the population outside Toronto is now greater than inside. GO/RER is not just a model for downtown but for regional population and jobs. We must make sure to serve both.

The 416/905 Split

Brian Crombie wondered about the split between Toronto and the GTA around it – is there a view that operating dollars  means “downtown” and capital dollars means “suburbs”?

To me this question says a lot about how much spending has not occurred in the burbs, and the huge backlog of investment needed there. However, it also speaks to the scale of transit within the city, and the fact that demands on an established system are both for more service on and good maintenance of what we already have.

Jim Tully: The Scarborough Subway Extension is driven by politics. Fickleness can enter into planning – we lost another effort [Transit City] because plans were thrown out. We need to be smart about where we build. The Yonge-University line has huge amount of development, but on Bloor-Danforth, there isn’t so much. Development plans have to work with the transit buildout.

Stephen Damp: Put a group of professional planners/engineers in charge, and take the politicians out.

I have to comment here about transit development and the YUS: there is a long stretch of the line, the Spadina subway, which has almost no development along it. Part of this is due to its location in an expressway corridor, and part due to the abutting low-rise neighbourhoods, a situation not unlike that we see on the BD line. There is also little development near Lawrence Station, yet another low-rise neighbourhood.

If we begin with the premise that a rapid transit station must come with high density development, this could have a major effect on the acceptance of network proposals, and could pit the interests of existing neighbourhoods against the demands of commuters. One issue for DRL planning is the question of whether locations such as Gerrard Square should be redeveloped and what the effect will be on nearby commercial and residential property if a station there becomes a major node.

The role of feeder services (including park-and-ride) in supporting transit is constantly underplayed, even though GO Transit would have many fewer customers if it depended on walk-in trade. “Operations” as a cost for the 905’s transit will continue to grow as the role of parking to feed GO is limited by construction cost and the availability of land.

The Environment vs Economic Development

Brian Crombie: What are our objectives? The environment or economic development?

Jennifer Keesmaat: The YUS corrridor’s development is recent in some locations. Sprawl allowed growth to occur elsewhere. Density on BD has been limited by shallow lots on main streets that make for smaller land assemblies. Do we want to rezone single family neghbourhoods, especially when other land is available for development. Some areas are trickier than others to address.

There are 8 key criteria in the City’s planning process, and the overwhelming response from public consultations has been that all of these should be weighed equally. There are many city-building  objectives, and transit infrastructure is a critical way to reduce poverty.

Brian Crombie: Los Angeles passed a municipal sales tax for transit, and proponents sold this based on the jobs and economic development it could bring. Is Toronto’s problem that we don’t have a single focus?

Stephen Damp: The SSE can achieve social and economic goals at the same time. It can open up job opportunities through better access to the wider city, and stations are not far from “difficult” neighbourhoods.

Adam Giambrone: $1-billion generates far less job years in Infrastructure than Operations because there are many non-labour infrastructure costs. Subways only work because of surface feeders – 25,000 riders/hr come not from walk-ins but from feeder buses. The ideal is to get more long trip riders on GO/RER.

Bruce McCuaig: What is the evidence-based decision framework? Build a compelling case, sustain this over government changes. The province requires Metrolinx to produce a “Big Change” document that will be published soon. [This is a mandated updated to “The Big Move”.] There are not just economic but other benefits such as the need to sustain continuous. As an example, London’s Crossrail is the biggest project in the G7, and that is in an established city.

Jennifer Keesmaat: We will never be finished. There is a logic of order. We need the core layer working so that the whole net does not fall apart, but we are missing a layer of local infrastructure. GO/RER can take some pressure off – one of the tensions is doing a better job of getting the proper sequence for projects – but just extending lines won’t work.

Jim Tully: Other cities have networks with alternatives – we need this as part of our system, and cannot just load up one line.

Express vs Local Service

Brian Crombie: New York’s 7th Avenue Express is an example of a very heavily travelled transit route. Should we have more express lines?

Bruce McCuaig: The network is what we need to build. We must meet local and regional needs, and the network must provide choices for travel.

Stephen Damp: Building will never end.

Adam Giambrone: Pick the correct mode: LRT or subway. Speed is a question of stop spacing. $50-billion disappears quickly if the wrong choices are made. For example, Richmond Hill commuters to downtown should be on GO, not on the subway. In some places, BRT will be appropriate. If we are not careful, we will have a fragmented network because we run out of money – in Scarborough, many trips don’t go downtown, but the bus routes focus on commuters, not local shopping. How can we get people around within the suburbs?

At this point, the floor was open for questions from the audience, but I stopped taking notes. Nothing significant was added.

Brian Crombie wrapped up by asking for a new poll in the Infrastructure vs Operations debate. Ops came up with a somewhat better showing, but still lost by a wide margin. Crombie declared Ops the winner on the grounds that this team changed more votes. Given that the room started out almost unanimously on the Infrastructure side, anything would be an improvement.

A Footnote

If anyone cited in this article feels that I have misrepresented their position, please leave a comment or email me, and I will address this.

7 thoughts on “Infrastructure or Operations? A Big Debate?

  1. Thanks Steve, this is most helpful as I was unable to attend.

    One minor correction that doesn’t change the overall point: Bruce McQuaig mentioned VIA having 4 Toronto to Montreal trains per day. But they actually have 6 trains per day Toronto-Montreal, plus 2 direct (same train) options through Ottawa (which take significantly longer of course).

    Steve: I will add this note in the body of the article. Thanks. VIA’s website wasn’t showing schedules when I tried to check this. Nothing like good customer service!


  2. From the sound of it, it seems like everyone on the panel was talking through each other (or at each other and enjoys listening to the sound of their own voices) but no one was actually addressing anything. What concerns me greatly is this panel featured some “heavy hitters” – the people who have the influence to impact the way our transit develops, now and in the future – and they’re all acting like little children with their own agendas and not acknowledging each of them (or their politics) have contributed to the mess that is currently transit planning in Toronto.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Honestly I think this is a false choice. The only reason it presents itself the way it does, is because we want to build subway where it will not be operationally reasonable.

    If we were to be investing in order to achieve the highest level of service, and maximizing operational efficiency – the conflict would not be so stark. Only double tracking where that alone will provide enough capacity, electrifying only where that is required to permit required service. Build BRT or even by pass lanes, where all that is required is improved operations, build LRT where buses cannot meet the demand, build subway only where none of the above will serve.

    We should not be thinking subway where a couple of by-pass lanes and signal priority would provide both the capacity and service levels required. If we would just focus on what was really required, we would likely be able to use investments in infrastructure more wisely – to achieve a situation where we got a lot more – not less from our operating dollars. We need to spend the time focusing on how a network will operate, and build appropriate capacity, and in the sequence it is required. We need to stay focused on what we are trying to achieve, not how it should be achieved. We have spent too many years starting with subway is the solution, and then defining the problem to fit.


  4. It is a little like the “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” question. In a city the size of Toronto if you don’t build the infrastructure then there is nothing for the service to run on but if you are not going to pay for the service then why build the infrastructure.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I applaud your effort to capture the details, and the questions, in relation to this discussion. Getting into the “weeds” is necessary for some people, so that others (like myself) can have at least an elemental understanding of some of the issues (and people) involved. We don’t have to agree to recognize the value of really “getting into it”.


  6. Thank you Steve, This kind of transcribing takes a lot of work. Happy to read as I was also unable to attend.

    Do you usually record these things and listen to it after/type it out or do you type at ludicrous speed (wpm?)? I’m in awe!

    Steve: I was keying the highlights into my BB as they went, and then expanded/corrected the text for the article.


  7. Interestingly, I often spend time in California, and I find that they have their ratio of infrastructure to operations for transit completely off-balanced. They regularly vote for extra taxes on themselves to pay for new transit infrastructure but then they are also never willing to pay enough in regular taxes to maintain and operate those pieces of infrastructure.

    In the Bay Area, they spent billions building the BART subway deep into the suburbs and they’re still expanding it right now. But at the same time, they’re suffering derailments due to lack of track maintenance, they have outdated trains that are smelly and awful, and they often have such low frequency during off-peak times, that I don’t know why they even bother running the service then at all sometimes. San Francisco’s bus and light-rail services are regularly excoriated for poor service due to lack of regular investment in newer and more reliable vehicles.

    San Jose doesn’t even have enough demand to justify frequent bus service, yet they keep building expensive light rail lines that rarely come due to a combination of lack of demand and cost-cutting.

    Los Angeles builds hugely expensive subways that carry fewer people than some of Toronto’s buses. LA historically had so few riders on its subways that it only recently decided to offer late night service and to actually enforce the payment of fares.

    Toronto always seems to have a decades old backlog of needed infrastructure, but they do seem to make good use of whatever they build.


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