At the February TTC Board meeting, Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat took the Board through the road show presentation she and her staff have been taking around Toronto with the proposed new Toronto transit plan. This issue was held over to the March Board meeting because, for procedural reasons, there were limited questions in February.
One major issue here is that the body actually charged with setting transit policy, the TTC Board, was being briefed on a plan they had not seen before, and to which they had given no input or direction. This is only partly explainable by the fact that any long-term transportation plan would form part of the city’s Official Plan, and the Planning Department “owns” that document. However, one would hope that members of the TTC Board would have at least a passing familiarity with what was in the works. This situation is complicated by the presence of “citizen” members who are not also Councillors and are not part of the information flow, such as it is, at City Hall.
The plan and supporting reports will go to City Council a week after the TTC meeting.
A major problem, of course, is that “planning” in Toronto consists of catering to the whims of the Mayor, influential Councillors, the Minister of Transportation (and his government), and senior members of the government caucus. To describe planning in this context as unbiased and purely “evidence based” is something of a stretch.
That said, the situation is better today than in recent years because, at least, all of the proposals are on the table at once, and it is more difficult to dress up a bad proposal when it must compete for attention and analysis with many others at the same time. This does not prevent Councillors from making the attempt at advancing their pet projects, but some degree of comparative evaluation might keep them in check.
I have written on the new plan before, and this article is intended only to review the major questions that need asking now. In a few months, a “final” decision will be before Council and the plan will have an air of inevitability.
SmartTrack and Fare Integration
The heart of our current transit debates is SmartTrack both because it is the Mayor’s signature project, and because it interacts with other network proposals in terms of demand flow and potential relief of subway congestion. During the election campaign, ST was sold as the one project that would solve every problem, and I mean every problem the city could imagine. Claims for ST have been walked back, and there is now a recognition that multiple projects will be required to address a variety of travel demands. Moreover, ST as proposed is now clearly unworkable except at immense expense and disruption.
SmartTrack is now little more than a campaign slogan and possibly a scheme to add a few stations for GO services that were already planned, but with nothing additional.
The other important factor, but one that has never been debated by the TTC or Council to the point of passing a definitive policy statement, is the matter of “regional fare integration” and just how this might affect fares on the TTC. As I have written previously, the Metrolinx proposal is clearly heading to a situation where the subway and possibly the new LRT lines would be hived off into a separate fare structure from the rest of the TTC system, fares would be distance-based, and the cost of travelling on the TTC would go up for most riders in the name of regional fairness.
The TTC passed a motion saying that further study of fare-by-distance would not be the subject of further study “at this time”, but the Board has not explicitly ruled out this option. TTC management are evasive about just what they might have committed to on inter-agency working committees, or what Metrolinx might be trying to steamroller Toronto into regardless of what the TTC or Council might think.
Both SmartTrack and Fare Integration are key to the transit plan because:
- Demand modelling for the network shows that SmartTrack’s attractiveness is strongly influenced by the frequency of service and by integration with the basic TTC fare structure.
- The actual service to be provided by SmartTrack will not be as frequent as in the most successful of three modelled scenarios, especially in Scarborough.
- The attractiveness of SmartTrack and of the proposed Scarborough Subway depend on station locations, but the model runs to date do not reflect the proposed configurations.
- There has been no modelling of an alternate fare structure beyond GO Transit pricing which is strongly biased against inside-416 travel.
A vital first step is to stop talking about a SmartTrack train every 5 minutes stopping at stations a few kilometres apart and with a convenient free transfer to and from TTC feeder services. That is not anywhere near what is planned, and touting the benefits of the overall “plan” on this basis is, as they say in parliamentary circles, misleading.
The Relief Line Study
This has effects beyond the comparison of benefits for the Scarborough Subway and SmartTrack.
If SmartTrack does not have as frequent service as originally hoped, and if it does not stop at as many stations, then its attractiveness will also change in the Souffville, Lake Shore and Weston corridors. This affects the relative benefits of ST and the proposed Relief Line.
The Relief Line deserves better comparative information. Because the terms of reference for the Relief Line study specified a geographic boundary at Danforth Avenue, the possible extension northward to Eglinton and beyond has not been considered in detail, nor has it been modelled.
All claims made to date for the relative benefits of ST over an RL are based on better ST service than will actually be operated, and on an RL shorter than what is already known to be needed for true “relief”. Metrolinx estimated an RL to Sheppard would lop about 1/3 off of the peak demand on the Yonge line south of Bloor, and moreover would have benefits further north. However, the extended RL project remains on the back burner with the claim that various pending subway improvements plus SmartTrack will suffice. That is a dangerous assumption. The TTC, Council and the city as a whole should understand what is possible with the extended version of the Relief Line.
Finally, the Relief Line has been touted in the past as possibly serving both the Great Gulf Unilever site at the Don River and a possible satellite Union Station station at Front & Spadina. Neither of these is supported by the “Pape via Queen” alignment that appears to be dominant in the City’s considerations. What is the effect of placing the RL along Queen, especially in the absence of a frequent SmartTrack service in the rail corridor?
Recent changes to the transit plan have attempted a “zero sum” game where funding “commitments” and the scope of projects are shuffled around so that, at the end of the day, the total cost of a plan stays the same. This is the logic behind the new Scarborough transit plan in which a shorter subway with only one station saves money that is ploughed into the Crosstown East LRT line.
To the west, the estimated cost of getting SmartTrack as a heavy rail corridor from Mount Dennis to the Airport Corporate Centre was so outrageously high that anything else is credible as an alternative. This brought back the Crosstown West LRT.
SmartTrack was priced at about $8 billion, and on this basis the Harper government “committed” $2.6b (about 1/3). That estimate was derived on the back of a very small envelope where the total length of SmartTrack from Unionville to the Airport was multiplied by a notional price/kilometre (itself adapted from projects in London and Berlin). There was no detailed engineering, only a ballpark price. (Queen’s Park never committed any real money to ST claiming that their contribution would be the corridor upgrades to enable the GO/RER services.)
We now know that “SmartTrack” will consist of little more than a few extra stations on the GO corridor, possibly some form of fare subsidy, and maybe the odd sticker here and there preserving the Mayor’s campaign colours in a world that is otherwise all GO all the time. There should be a lot of change left over from that $8b considering how little SmartTrack will build in its own name.
This begs two questions. First, is the money from Ottawa “real” and could it be applied to other projects. Second, does the City actually have to reserve its own $2.6b to pay for a “SmartTrack” that by now is much less expensive? Can this funding be redirected to other projects? (Crosstown West will consume some, but nowhere near all of the combined $5.2b. Crosstown East is to be funded with reallocated Scarborough Subway money.) We don’t have a definitive estimate for whatever the SmartTrack budget will end up funding, but knowing how much is left over is essential to planning and staging the network’s expansion.
Finally, the money behind SmartTrack (whatever it might be) was supposed to be based on Tax Increment Financing. However, this presumes that there actually is a distinct ST service and its effects on land values and development can be determined separate from other changes, notably to GO/RER. As ST becomes only a shadow of the original proposal, the basis for collecting marginal new tax revenue also fades.
Effects of a New Fare System
Without retracing all of my previous arguments, there are a few key points that should be answered by City and TTC staff:
- What, at least on a preliminary basis, do the fare scenarios contemplated by Metrolinx look like, and how do they affect the fares of various groups of riders (location, trip length, etc.)?
- Is the intent to meet GO “halfway” on fares for “rapid transit” within the City of Toronto? What are the implications for the relative attractiveness of and demand on GO and on the TTC subway?
- What is the effect on suburban riders from the outer 416 and the inner 905? Would the new fare structure negate the benefit of a single TTC fare currently expected by 905 residents once the subway pierces the 416 boundary?
- If SmartTrack is nothing more than GO trains stopping at a few extra Toronto stations, this begs the question of why a lower, integrated fare should be offered on only two GO corridors rather than at all stations within Toronto. What is the difference between the Stouffville corridor and the Lake Shore or Richmond Hill corridors? Should “fare integration” really be a study of all GO service within Toronto, not just the two SmartTrack corridors?
- The TTC Board has voted to make no further analysis “at this time” on fare by distance, zones, and a time-limited transfer. How can the Board and Council evaluate potential fare changes without background information on the effects? What conditions would trigger further analysis?
Any new fare system has opportunities for much chest-beating and photo ops for simplification and lowering of fares, but equally for the “torches and pitchforks” scenario where a much-displeased 416 populace learns that their fares will go up to placate voters in the 905.
An essential foundation of any debate about the transit network is a clear understanding of subway capacity, the constraints and the options for improvement. Much has been made of the Automatic Train Control system that will go into operation in 2019 over the full YUS (Line 1), but this is only one part of a larger problem.
The full benefit of ATC cannot be achieved without a substantial reduction in “dwell times” (train stop to train start) at key stations such as Bloor, Union and St. George. Even with ATC, there is a limit to the number of trains/hour that can be pushed through these pinch points if trains take too long to serve passengers due to crowding on platforms and on board.
A further constraint lies at terminals. If all of the service runs through to the terminal (Finch, say), the track geometry, train size and terminal service time combine to limit the throughput. Although possible in theory, the target headway (time between trains) that the TTC seeks would challenge operations at Finch in all but absolutely ideal conditions.
This brings us to various projects such as platform doors, new terminal layouts, and expanded platforms at interchanges. The degree to which each of these will contribute to solving the capacity problem is not fully understood, and some of them are not “quick fixes”.
On the Bloor-Danforth line (Line 2), the Scarborough extension will trigger the need for an ATC-capable fleet sooner than the TTC has planned, and other projects such as resignalling the full line will likely be advanced. There is also a plan for a new yard at the west end of Line 2 to handle an expanding fleet. The capital budget as it stands is not in sync with the level of spending implied by the timing of various Line 2 projects.
Any new project such as the Relief Line would compete for funding with expansion requirements on the existing subway which, ironically, the RL might make obsolete or at least enable deferral well into the future.
Yes, the TTC Board certainly needs to have a robust discussion of policy options, and to date too much has been presented as a fait accompli. There is nothing wrong with the premise that professional staff go away and contemplate plans based on expert, unbiased evidence. Sadly, while the 2016 plan may be better than those of past years, it is still heavily coloured by political considerations.
Oddly enough, the TTC has just cancelled a special meeting planned for early April where it would discuss broad policy issues. The new transportation plan is precisely the type of issue that deserves to break out of the formal debating structure of regular meetings, but who knows whether this will ever happen.