At the recent meeting of the TTC Board, Vice-Chair Alan Heisey proposed that the TTC and Metrolinx Boards should meet regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest. Such a meeting took place a year ago, but despite the best intentions at the time, nothing further came out of this. As Heisey said “It’s not as if we don’t have things to talk about” citing fare integration, Presto, the Crosstown project and SmartTrack. Using fare integration as an example, with some discussion already afoot about just what this entails, it will be better to have these discussions earlier rather than later, said Heisey. The TTC should be in front of discussions on how an integrated system will be structured in Toronto.
Heisey went on to mention that at a recent meeting of the Toronto Railway Club, of which he is a member, he learned things about the Crosstown contract he did not know such as that the operation of the Mount Dennis yard will not be done by the TTC, and that although the TTC is supposed to be operating the line, the company delivering the project would really like to do this work. This is the sort of information Heisey hopes would come out in a joint meeting, and he proposes that the TTC host the event (as Metrolinx did in 2016).
It is no secret that far more information is available outside of formal Board meetings at both TTC and Metrolinx than one ever hears on the record. Those of us who attend Metrolinx meetings regularly know that “information” is thin on the ground at these events where the primary function appears to be telling the staff how wonderful they are and luxuriating in the ongoing success of everything Metrolinx, and by extension the Government of Ontario, touches. “Seldom is heard a discouraging word” could be the Metrolinx motto.
Indeed the TTC has become infected with a similar problem recently where whatever new award(s) they manage to win take pride of place at meetings while serious discussion about ridership and service quality await reports that never quite seem to appear. Budgets do not offer options conflicting with Mayor Tory’s insistence on modest tax increases. Getting an award for the “We Move You” marketing campaign is cold comfort to people who cannot even get on a bus or train because there is no room.
Oddly enough, when TTC Chair Josh Colle contacted his opposite number at Metrolinx, Rob Prichard, the word back was that such a meeting might have to await the appointment of a new CEO. The position is now held on an acting basis with the departure of Bruce McCuaig to greener pastures in Ottawa. That is a rather odd position to take. Is Metrolinx policy and strategy so beyond discussion that without a CEO, they cannot have a meeting? How is the organization managing to push trains out the door, let along host an almost endless stream of photo ops for their Minister?
Commissioner De Laurentiis agreed that there are many issues, and warmed to the idea, but suggested an information sharing/exchange session as opposed to a formal meeting. She concurred that the type of information Heisey is gathering “accidentally” should come the Board’s way formally.
Vice-Chair Heisey noted that he was told he could not see the Crosstown’s Operating Agreement because it was confidential. For what they’re worth, here are a few handy links:
- Master Agreement for Transit City, November 2012 (Metrolinx Site)
- Eglinton Crosstown LRT Project Agreement, July 2015 (Infrastructure Ontario Site)
These do not include the operating agreement for the line because, I believe, it does not yet exist beyond a draft format and the intention is not to formalize it until a few years before the line opens in 2021. However, aspects of the proposed agreement are certainly known to TTC staff. Whether their interpretation matches Metrolinx’ intent is quite another issue.
Other topics for a joint meeting suggested by Commissioner Byers included Accessibility, and the working relationship between Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario including the topic of risk transfer.
For those who have trouble sleeping, the Crosstown agreement makes interesting, if tedious, reading. One section deals for pages on end with the contractual arrangements between Metrolinx who will procure and provide the fleet, and the project provider who must test, accept and operate (or at least maintain) the cars. This is a perfect example of the complexity introduced by multi-party agreements with the 3P model. Each party must define at length its roles and responsibilities where a consolidated organization would deal with the whole thing in house. Of course some would argue that this simply shows how keeping parts of the overall procurement within Metrolinx adds layers of complexity that a turnkey solution might avoid. That’s a debate for another day, but an important part of any future project design.
Chair Colle observed that just because you invite someone over to your house, they don’t necessarily accept, and the TTC could find itself without a dance partner. Heisey replied that we should invite Metrolinx to dinner and tell them what the menu will be. Dinner invitations are often accepted. Colle observed that any one or two of the suggested items could “keep us well nourished”.
Mihevc added to the list by suggesting both the Finch and Sheppard LRT projects. That should be an amusing discussion considering that Metrolinx and City Planning have gone out of their way to be agnostic on the subject of Sheppard East’s technology considering that there are Councillors and (Liberal) MPPs who would love to see a subway extension there, not LRT. Both Boards, not to mention their respective management teams, would go to great lengths to avoid implying any sort of commitment beyond the next announcement of another GO parking lot or a long-anticipated subway extension’s opening date.
The biggest problem with the Metrolinx-TTC relationship is the province’s heavy-handed approach whereby any move away from the “official” way of doing things will be met with a cut in subsidy. Indeed, despite increasing outlays from Queen’s Park on transit, they keep finding more ways to charge Toronto for their services. The City gets more money on paper for transit, but spends some of it to buy provincial services in a monopoly market. Even if Metrolinx invites Toronto to dinner, they will expect the City to foot the bill.
As a public service, if only to forestall imminent starvation of the TTC Board, the balance of this article explores some of the issues raised by Commissioners.
The video record of the TTC debate is available online.
[For readers in the 905, please note that this is a Toronto-centric article because it deals with issues between the TTC and Metrolinx. Municipalities outside of Toronto have their own problems with the provincial agency, not least of which is its undue focus on moving people to and from Union Station.]
Presuming that a meeting is actually arranged, the greatest challenge for members of either Board who actually want to learn something lies with Management’s love for presentations. These are the enemy of real dialogue because they usually consume well over half of the available time, and are structured to point discussion in a way that favours established policies. It’s rather like a chef who spends hours telling you about the wonderful meal you are going to have, only for you to discover that there’s no time to eat it, and you leave after a few bread rolls and a half-finished bottle of wine.
Whatever the topics to be discussed, background materials (extant reports, etc.) should be provided in advance with the expectation that at least some of the Board members will actually read them. This will be a challenge for some, I know, but we can hope for the best. Discussion and questions should arise from an informed beginning rather than treating the meeting as a “Regional Transit 101” session. Indeed, nothing should prevent the submission of questions in advance much as City Councillors routinely make inquiries of staff for response in Council agendas. (The only danger here is the inundation of members with reports on the assumption they will never be read, a not uncommon bureaucratic technique.)
This is not to say that there is no role for management, but getting at information sometimes requires asking questions they would prefer not to answer, possibly because there are political issues beyond the purely technical side of things, or because they are more deeply committed to specific policies than they would like to admit.
There are three long-standing issues regarding fare integration:
- Nobody knows exactly what it will look like,
- Metrolinx has long favoured some variation on fare-by-distance, and
- Queen’s Park does not appear to be open to any scheme that will increase provincial subsidy.
Leaving aside, briefly, the question of just what scheme might be implemented, the gaping hole in all of Metrolinx’ published work to date is the absence of any details on how a new system would affect riders. That is not to say “riders” taken globally by the millions, but at the detailed level where some might pay more, some less. We hear a lot about “fairness”, but this concentrates on a small minority of GTHA transit riders who cross the 416/905 boundary on “local” services such as YRT and MiWay, not those on GO Transit.
Metrolinx concocted a hybrid scheme where “rapid transit” would be considered a premium fare service with fares charged by distance (possibly with a flat rate for short hops), and this would include both GO and TTC Subway operations. More recently, “LRT” has come into the list, although nobody has managed to explain why “BRT” is still absent. In short, the question is just what makes a service “rapid transit” and deserving of a higher tariff.
A pure fare-by-distance scheme also lurks in Metrolinx plans, and this would affect all journeys regardless of mode or quality.
But can any rider find out how these schemes would affect them? Is there a menu of typical journeys with before and after farecards for comparison? Certainly not in public, and I suspect that such a document would terrify any politician representing suburban ridings and wards.
Meanwhile on the TTC side, there may be a working paper on new fare options such as time-based transfers (the “two hour” fare), but this never sees the light of day because TTC Chair Colle (and by implication Mayor Tory) think that it would cost too much. The trade offs such as simplification (particularly for Presto) and benefits to riders who take many short-hop trips are obvious, but they are submerged beneath the usual rhetoric about fare subsidies and tax fighting.
Metrolinx treats time-based transfers as a local option, not as a fundamental part of its fare models, even though this is used throughout the 905’s local systems and the change would be a big selling point for Presto. But this does not fit into their bias for distance-based fares.
This is a good example of a topic where the problem of getting information lies as much with what is not “on the menu”.
“Do you have steak?”
“Steak is too expensive. We have only studied fish.”
“But I want steak. How much will it cost?”
“You really should try the fish.”
This is a central problem in many public agencies – policy debates are difficult if the underlying information never appears. Back in the days when David Miller was on the TTC Board (before he was Mayor), he attempted to get a report on how the TTC might encourage ridership. It took quite a long time for the “Ridership Growth Strategy” to appear, and, amazingly, it turned out that improving the TTC was not going to bankrupt the City. Actual implementation took quite a while too as there was always some other priority that got in the way, including budgets. Maybe next year. All that vanished with Rob Ford, and improvements are only now gradually reappearing under John Tory, albeit on a more modest scale than his press statements claim.
The public, transit riders and taxpayers alike, cannot assess whether a fare scheme is reasonable and acceptable unless they understand the options. We often hear about “fair” fares, but this generally translates to two fundamental points:
- My fare is too high, and
- Let’s make transit cheaper for the poor (but not if it costs too much).
Toronto will implement a “fair fare” program, but its target market is small initially. Even as (and if) this grows it will be of no benefit to students or seniors whose existing fare discount will be extended to new groups of subsidized riders. There is no additional discount for poor seniors and students.
In a back-handed way of saying that distance-based fares might not be a bad thing, there are claims by some that poor riders tend to make shorter trips and they would benefit from the resulting cheaper fare. This superficial analysis ignores a basic, long-standing request from advocates, that the high cost of multi-hop trips be reduced by changes to the transfer rules. The behaviour is called “trip chaining” and the idea is that someone should not be penalized for a stopover or for doubling back provided that this happens in a short period. A basic question nobody seems to ask: are more short trips (and trip chains) taken by the poor because they don’t have a car?
The flip side of this is the problem that poorer riders are forced to live further from their common destinations such as jobs and schools. This is an issue not just in Toronto but in all cities with a prosperous core area. It is ironic that a distance-based fare would be a great benefit to the comparatively well-off “downtowners” who can afford to live close to work.
Meanwhile, GO claims to have fares made up of a base charge plus a distance fare. However, their actual fares are greater for shorter trips than such a formula would actually produce, and substantially cheaper for long ones. There are valid (or at least defensible) reasons for this, but GO continues to subsidize most heavily those who travel the greatest distance. And they get free parking too!
Bureaucrats (and I say this as a retired public sector manager) are loathe to give out too many options because this “confuses” the politicians. A further problem is that bureaucrats are often told not to present certain options and to downplay their viability if anyone asks.
Both the TTC and Metrolinx Boards deserve a full public airing of transit fare structure options. The Metrolinx study has been underway for years, and the TTC has cited a “cost” of time-based transfers for at least two years. The options, however, never surface for real debate.
Can we be honest here? SmartTrack does not exist. The Emperor’s new clothes are at best a few rags with a faded blue and green logo. However, far be it for either Metrolinx or TTC staff to say this, and a joint Board meeting is unlikely to hear this sort of thing out loud either. Both agencies continue to pretend that SmartTrack is a real thing, and Council has even “committed” a chunk of change to building several new GO stations that will have the SmartTrack brand.
There will not, however, be SmartTrack trains, only the already-planned GO service level stopping, maybe, at Toronto’s stations, which are rather fewer in number than claimed in mayoral election literature.
That’s assuming the stations can actually be built, and Metrolinx reports on this warn of difficulties at some sites. Other locations have low forecast demand, and City Council may face hard decisions about capital spending when the final designs come in. The City is, of course, on the hook for any extra operating costs GO will face thanks to the extra stations.
The wild card in all of this is the idea that SmartTrack will operate with a “TTC” fare. The deeply cynical among us might observe that by the time ST actually begins running, that “TTC” fare may not be what it looks like today, and that’s where the Fare Integration discussion comes in. If GO, ST and the subway are all part of a new “rapid transit” fare zone, then ST might be a TTC fare in name only.
Related to this is the matter of how much Metrolinx will charge Toronto if there is any sort of cross-system fare subsidy. There has been no discussion of this problem with all reports focusing on capital costs, not ongoing operations.
While the two Boards are mulling the ephemeral SmartTrack concept, they should also understand how GO’s Regional Express Rail (RER) and electrification plans fit into the overall rail network’s planning.
Just because there is a line on a map doesn’t turn it into a high capacity corridor. Part of SmartTrack’s folly was to assume substantially greater available rail corridor capacity than actually exists, or at least exists at a price Queen’s Park is willing to pay. These constraints, both on a corridor-by-corridor basis, and for the major node at Union Station, are poorly understood (consider how much debate there has been on the topic just on this site).
Meanwhile, the perceived importance of a “Relief” subway line adding capacity into the core crawls slowly upward in the political agenda. Even with RER and SmartTrack, whatever it might be, there are severe capacity issues on the subway system, and these will only worsen with demand growth inside Toronto and added by a planned extension to Richmond Hill. The “Downtown” label on a Relief Line was always misleading, artificially reducing the importance of more rapid transit to the core as a regional challenge and benefit.
These are fundamental issues in network planning for the updated “Big Move” and for any assumptions about subway “relief” using the rail network.
Metrolinx is supposed to be working on a revised Regional Plan, and claims to have been meeting with various interested groups. However, there is no published plan yet, let alone the political hot potato of a map showing which projects have implicit provincial support and which are consigned to oblivion.
Again, even assuming that the Metrolinx Board knows any of the details, they are unlikely to discuss them in a public joint meeting with the TTC.
The Presto fare card system is a classic “built in Ontario” piece of technology that duplicates functionality already in use in other markets. When it was originally implemented, as the official story goes, an alternative was not available, but the same cannot be said for the most recent refresh to “Presto Next Generation”.
Both the TTC and Metrolinx Boards need to understand the capabilities and constraints of Presto including the types of fare structure it can handle, and the capabilities of adapting to new payment schemes in the near future.
Presto plans to support contactless systems such as credit cards and smartphone apps, probably in 2018. This begs the question of the role for a proprietary card, or whether the medium term goal should be to provide a robust, flexible “back end” transaction processing system. This ties directly into the Fare Integration issue because “the computer can’t do it” should not be a phrase uttered in any discussion of new fare schemes. Presto is a technology to enable fare systems more sophisticated than the token+transfer scheme, but Presto should not be an end, or worse, a constraint, on its own.
For example, the concept of a “transit fare account” where usage is accumulated and then charged based on available discounts and promotions (much like a phone bill), should not be restricted to Presto card holders. The card (or device) one uses should be an identifier, nothing more, that links your travel to your account whether this is a Presto card, a bank card, or an app.
The current billing scheme on Presto depends on keeping track of usage on the card itself, and this limits discounts such as monthly fare capping to riders with real Presto cards. Credit card users pay a full fare for every trip. The “on card” storage is also responsible for the annoying delay between an online reload and the appearance of a credit for users because the update is staged, on a daily basis, through the Presto readers which will, in turn, update info on the card.
For its part, the TTC’s implementation includes an attempt to impose its transfer rules on a system that cannot possibly deal with all permutations. Leaving aside the not-uncommon situation where GPS data tells Presto that someone is paying a fare miles away from their actual location, there are many valid conditions that are valid transfer connections, but Presto will not deal properly with them. Riders should not be expected to fathom the rules and exceptions to when they should “tap on” at a connecting station or vehicle.
With systems in the 905 already using a time-based fare, it is clear that Presto “knows” how to manage this for transit riders, and extension into the 416 would be straightforward. This would also simplify cross-border integration if all systems used the same rules for the validity of a “fare”. Presto, for its part, would offer a truly new function for TTC riders who, until now, have little incentive to change, and are in fact actively discouraged from doing so by the TTC if they are passholders.
Time-based fares, of course, are of little interest to those who now travel with a Metropass because they already have unlimited riding. Alternative schemes for equivalent-to-pass billing include fare capping where the maximum charge per day, week or month is automatically part of the fare system. This would apply whether the “purse” is stored on the card (as at present), or if the trip history is stored centrally for later reconcilliation by a billing system.
The TTC’s plans for Day Passes depend on a shift to fare capping, and the same could be done for other time periods. However, this brings a potential revenue problem because riders who today don’t buy a pass thinking it may not be a “good deal” will get pass-level fare pricing simply by their usage pattern.
There is the small matter of the cost recovery demanded by Queen’s Park for their mandated use of Presto by transit agencies hoping to receive provincial subsidies. As contracts in various cities have come up for renewal, the original loss-leader fees charged for Presto services are going up substantially and cities (such as Mississauga) face higher costs for fare collection. There is no guarantee that TTC’s current fee level will survive the end of their 15-year contract, but then one might hope when that rolls around, better alternatives will be available.
Crosstown and the LRT Projects
One cannot help wondering how truly committed Queen’s Park and Metrolinx are to the concept of “LRT”, a mode Ontario sabotaged decades ago with the RT technology in Scarborough, and then reluctantly embraced during the David Miller years with Transit City. Metrolinx always saw the Crosstown line as an express link from STC to the Airport stopping as infrequently as possible (rather like an urban GO line). Meanwhile Toronto looked at the Crosstown as a primarily local service, an improvement on bus service with full rapid transit capability in selected portions (the central part of Eglinton, and the replacement for the SRT).
When control and 100% financing moved to Queen’s Park, the motivation was not quite as altruistic as some might think. If the province gives Toronto, say, a billion dollars toward the cost of a new subway, that money goes out the door and must be treated as an expense in provincial accounts. Any debt raised to fund the contribution stays on Ontario’s books with no offsetting asset, and adds to the political problem of growing provincial debt.
However, if the province owns a line, then that asset is on provincial, not municipal, books and offsets the capital cost and debt. This is accounting sleight of hand, but it underlies some of Queen’s Park’s funding approaches in recent years.
(A proposed variation is to ask municipalities to borrow in their own name, backed by a provincially guaranteed income stream that would help to pay off the debt. Cities don’t like this because it drives up their own debt load and exposes them to the possibility of funding policy changes. The way Mike Harris walked away from transit is not far distant in city memory.)
These machinations, plus the provincial love for “alternative financing and procurement” (AFP, another name for public-private partnerships or “3Ps”), leave Queen’s park spinning its wheels to appear bullish on funding transit while limiting its exposure to actual spending, at least on paper.
It is ironic that two LRT lines, those in Kitchener-Waterloo and in Ottawa, have been built with little or no Metrolinx participation (except for vehicles in KW, an arrangement of convenience) while Toronto flounders from one plan to another.
The surviving portion of the Crosstown line is the Eglinton LRT from Kennedy to Mount Dennis, with the section west from Brentcliffe underground. (There are also short underground sections at Don Mills and at Kennedy.) Construction is well underway, and this is fully funded by Queen’s Park.
The TTC was unhappy to cede complete control of this line to Metrolinx, and the Operating Agreement, such as might exist, is supposed to vest line and station operation and management with the TTC. Vehicle repairs, carhouse operations, and capital repairs to the line will be handled by a third party. This arrangement will not last forever, and it will come up for renewal periodically with an associated debate about where these responsibilities should lie.
The eastern extension on Eglinton, which will operate as a separate route from the Crosstown, is planned to run from Kennedy Station east and north to the UTSC campus. However, funding for this line has vanished into thin air thanks to the combined efforts of Toronto and Queen’s Park where keeping Scarborough voters (not to mention the owners of Scarborough Town Centre) happy dictates that every penny go to the Scarborough Subway Extension project.
The fate of the Eglinton East line is unknown, although Mayor Tory hopes that some Federal money might come its way. The problem here is that the new infrastructure program is not a bottomless well of support for municipal transit dreams, and Toronto will have to choose which projects to fund with available dollars.
Eglinton West LRT
In its original form, SmartTrack included a leg from Mount Dennis west via Eglinton to the Airport Corporate Centre south of Pearson Airport. For reasons that do not warrant retelling here, this scheme was dead-on-arrival even before John Tory’s election. The original Transit City proposal for a surface LRT is back on the table, although there are machinations afoot in Etobicoke that could complicate its implementation. The one strong point in this project’s favour is that the concept of a major hub at Pearson has emerged. The airport has decided that having lots of transit might actually help achieve its goals for growth, and so Eglinton West is no longer simply an outlying part of a Toronto transit scheme.
In theory, the money to pay for this line will come from Toronto’s SmartTrack budget, but whether this will actually survive competition from other projects and/or cost overruns on SmartTrack stations remains to be seen.
Finch West LRT
According to the Metrolinx website:
Teams will spend most of 2016 preparing their proposals to deliver the project, with major construction to start in mid-2017.
This page is a tad out of date. Early work on tendering the project is underway, but 2017 construction start is very optimistic.
This project is fully funded by Ontario, subject of course to whether it advances to the point it actually begins before a new government at Queen’s Park cancels it.
Sheppard East LRT
The Sheppard East LRT, had it not been killed off by Rob Ford with Queen’s Park’s acquiescence, would have been open and carrying passengers by now.
It is the target of combined forces of both Scarborough Councillors and of the Liberal caucus at Queen’s Park with strong support for a subway. This would fulfill Scarborough’s manifest destiny as the centre of the known universe. This unshakeable world view is responsible both for the Scarborough Subway Extension and the delay to the point of death of the Sheppard East LRT.
The transit file in Scarborough is so poisoned that any debate about an LRT line will hit a brick wall both locally and at Queen’s Park. It is very difficult to believe that anyone from Metrolinx (or from TTC for that matter) is prepared to be this candid about the situation, and as “dinner fare”, this is likely the most contentious item on any menu.
The great irony in this exercise is that the substantive policy decisions both at the City and Province are not made by the Boards of their respective transit agencies, but by their political masters. At both levels, the focus lies on construction, capital projects with lots of opportunities for photos in front of heavy equipment and empty lands about to become big holes in the ground. Far less is heard about the quality of day-to-day service, or how growing demand for local transit will be funded and operated.
Within Toronto, the TTC faces stagnant ridership, but a good case can be made that a major problem is one of capacity – there simply is no room for more people to board. All the marketing campaigns in the world are undone by one long wait as bus after bus, streetcar after streetcar, train after train pass by with no room for a would-be passenger.
Regionally, growth in transit demand will place a huge burden on municipal governments. The existing market share for transit in the 905 is small, and so growth represents a larger degree of change than it would in Toronto. Moreover, with a small existing market, the political appetite for more transit spending is weak.
There is also the basic issue that “regional” travel is not only aimed at Toronto’s core, important though that is, and that transit’s market share cannot be improved if it ignores a major segment of regional demand going nowhere near downtown.
As GO improves its services, especially with frequent all-day operation, the park-and-ride model with its ratio of two parking spaces for every three commuters will collapse. No station can be a “mobility hub” if there is little mobility in the form of local transit to serve it. Queen’s Park’s attitude is that this is a local problem, and yet, at a minimum, Metrolinx owes everyone detailed projections of how local systems must evolve as the GO/RER network builds out.
Within Toronto, the overlay of a GO network on the TTC brings the question of how the bus network should be oriented. For example, should bus routes in Scarborough force-feed “SmartTrack” services rather than the existing subway/RT? What happens when the SSE opens with its 30+ bay terminal at the Town Centre? Will Agincourt become a ghost station?
This brings us to the challenge that as an informal gathering, the two Boards may choose to meet in private. This would undercut the value of a discussion where public statements can inform public debate. That may not be to Metrolinx’ or TTC’s liking, but if there is information to be “shared” this should take place where we can all hear what is said.
I wish the TTC Board well in their Metrolinx dinner dates, but fear that they are doomed to wait a long time for deep and meaningful conversations.
There will be a lot of fish on the menu.