The PC Ontario Transit Platform: Real Change or Smoke & Mirrors?

The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario released its campaign platform that will take them into the 2018 election on November 25. This contains three pages on “Change that works for Transit Users”. How much of this voters will actually care about when the real headlines are tax breaks remains to be seen, but a review of these pledges is worthwhile to see what’s really involved and how it could affect transit in the GTHA.

The concept of “Change” is hard to grasp when, in many cases, the Tories simply claim that they will do what the Liberals have planned all along anyhow. The platform implies that the Libs really don’t mean to carry through, but that the new gang, given the chance, will make sure all of the promised chickens actually turn up on every pot.

Each of the bullets quoted below begins with the text “Patrick Brown and the Ontario PCs will …” as if Brown and his party were the government. L’état, c’est moi! This is precisely the sort of characterization for which the Liberals have been so rightly criticized.

Fulfill the existing commitments to two-way, all day GO train service and complete major transit projects already under construction, including those in Ottawa, Hamilton, and Kitchener-Waterloo. [p. 52]

Note that this is the “existing commitments”, not any new ones, nor is there any guarantee of service frequency. Many cities longing for full GO service will stay right where they are looking down the track and hoping for more trains to appear. The words “GO RER” do not appear in the platform, no doubt because that is a Liberal program, and it incites the same reaction in the PCPO that “Transit City” did for former Mayor Ford.

The text accompanying this bullet contains a few oddities:

  • The Finch West LRT project is among those the Tories will complete, although there is no mention of the extension to Pearson Airport. By analogy to other items in the platform, this should really be a city project, not a provincial one because it is not a subway.
  • The Hamilton LRT project is included, although some of the local Tories oppose it, and again this is not a subway.
  • The portion of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT now under construction is not mentioned, nor is the planned extension westward to the airport.
  • There is no mention of Waterfront transit which is mired in the “Reset” plan whose report has now been delayed to January 2018. Once upon a time, then Minister Murray “committed” that the sale of the LCBO lands on Queens Quay would go to transit, but that was long ago and commitments evaporate with a minister’s departure.

This point strikes me as avoidance of derailing works that are some ways “down the track” without making any commitments beyond them.

Commit an additional $5 billion to build new subways in the Greater Toronto Area. [p. 52]

This bullet follows a long section of text which trots out some of the usual complaints, and cites Mayor Tory’s desire to get on with actual building rather than endless debate. “Shovels in the ground” is the aim, although this is selectively applied to subway projects: Scarborough, Sheppard East (Don Mills to STC), the Relief Line (unclear as to the short, medium or long versions) and the Richmond Hill extension of the Yonge subway. These are cited as “prime candidates for development”, but to that end, the Tories ante up only “an additional $5 billion” and are quite clear that they expect matching money from Ottawa.

Ottawa already has an infrastructure program, although you would never know it from the Tories’ platform. The main questions here are how much of the national program is earmarked for Toronto, and will Ontario build new subways fast enough to qualify under that scheme.

This brings us to the obvious point that new subways, with the possible exception of Scarborough’s, could only barely be under construction before the 2022 election, and there is no guarantee of the Tories being around to deliver on their “commitment”. Meanwhile, there are Liberal spending plans, although these are equally vague thanks in part to the dereliction by Metrolinx in giving any sense of priorities for, benefits of or costs related to the new Regional Transportation Plan’s components.

The platform cites “the combination of insufficient capital, antiquated municipal accounting rules, and a lack of political leadership at the provincial level” for the long delays in provision of new transit. Physician heal thyself. Two decades ago, the Tories walked away from municipal transit, and the Liberals have been slow to return. Transit continues to be a contest among politicians that their one favoured project might be blessed rather than a collaborative effort to fund and build a network.

The choice of projects is geographically skewed and omits large areas from the catchment of new lines. How the list addresses needs in the GTA overall is a mystery. As for the $5 billion (or $10b if the feds come to the table), the first bite out of this will be consumed by the proposed provincial assumption of the Scarborough subway’s cost (see below), and whatever is left over will be used on other projects. That won’t get those tunnel borers very far, and certainly will not build all of the lines cited in the platform.

As for those “antiquated municipal accounting rules”, possibly the PCPO could enlighten us as to how they would change these rules to free up additional spending capacity for cities across Ontario, not just in Toronto. Those rules exist to require cities to use a more [ahem] conservative set of accounting rules to ensure that they don’t get too deeply in debt, a constraint by which parties of all stripes at Queen’s Park are not subject.

Provide help for commuters across the Greater Toronto Area by ensuring that the provincial government assumes responsibility for maintenance and investments in Toronto’s subway infrastructure. [p. 53]

This is a truly bizarre statement because commuters across the GTA depend on far more than the Toronto subway system to get them to work. Indeed, Toronto shells out considerable dollars through operating and capital subsidies to keep what is really a regional asset operating. The portion of the Vaughan extension north of Steeles will add about $10 million to Toronto’s annual costs with almost no return via new fare revenue or subsidy from York Region. Making Ontario responsible for “maintenance and investments” would certainly be welcome as an upload, but this would be a very large new cost for Queen’s Park.

As I discussed in a previous article, the subway system accounts for about a third of the TTC’s Operating Budget and about half of the Capital Budget. Net of provincial contributions Ontario already pays (gas tax), this would leave Queen’s Park with about $1 billion in new annual costs just to keep the existing system running, and no offsetting revenue because the platform commits to leaving all of the fares in Toronto.

Part of Queen’s Park’s new responsibility would involve the greater use of private sector design-build-finance-maintain contracts which, the platform claims, would accelerate the rate of construction on new lines. This would also, as the Provincial Auditor has complained, add to cost and create the need to manage contracts that would not exist if the assets were kept in house. This is part of the creative accounting we have seen under the Liberals and clearly favoured by the Conservatives which converts traditional debt to a long term lease arrangement with the physical property (i.e. a new subway line) as an offsetting asset. Presto! The provincial debt stays down, even though there is an unavoidable long term payment commitment.

The platform states that the government “will assume responsibility for the physical subway infrastructure – tracks, tunnels and stations”, although there is more to infrastructure (notably vehicles, yards and shops) than this list. The TTC would remain as the operator/maintainer under contract, and fare revenue would stay with Toronto. I will return to the issue of fares later.

This would be done “in partnership with the Mayor of Toronto”. It may have escaped the Tories that such agreements are made with the City of Toronto through Council, not the Mayor’s office.

The existing subway system is an asset of the city paid for with municipal, provincial and federal dollars. It is one thing to assume the cost of routine and capital maintenance and operations, but quite another to transfer the asset to the province merely to suit accounting trickery, or worse, to enable future resale.

All of this is intended to “create a structure that takes advantage of the province’s balance sheet to maximize provincial investments”. That goobledygook brings us back to provincial accounting rules and debt transformed into DBFM contracts. Would it be churlish of me to point out how often the PCPO has pilloried the Liberals for creative accounting?

This is all explained as a regional benefit through co-ordinated planning, ensuring that Toronto gets long-awaited subways, relieving commute times across the GTA and increasing economic growth while reducing red tape and arbitrary delays. This is pure doctrinaire BS. Commute times might improve, but mainly for riders in certain sections of Toronto and central York Region, not “across the GTA”. We do not suffer from an excess of red tape, but of the lack of will to spend region-wide on transit.

Enter into discussions with the City of Toronto about air rights over future subway stations that it builds. These air rights should be used to increase housing supply, which in turn promotes housing affordability, and increases economic activity. [p. 53]

In the middle of a discussion of new subway lines, this bullet appears. In that text “subway stations that it builds” actually refers to the province even though the text could imply that they are built by the city. This idea appears out of nowhere as if somehow the housing crisis will be solved by building over subway stations. In fact, only one future station, the one at Scarborough Town Centre, is even in the pipeline, and development around it is already planned. If the Tories were serious about this policy, they would turn their attention to existing stations throughout the network, including the GO stations now surrounded by parking lots.

Assume responsibility for the city’s share of the Scarborough Subway Extension, including the more than $200 million cost escalator that the province has refused to fund, provided that the city makes a significant financial investment in extending the Eglinton Crosstown project to Scarborough’s University of Toronto campus. [p. 53]

The eventual cost of the SSE is an unknown quantity today, and if anything is subject to increase beyond mere inflation as detailed design proceeds. It is standard practice for Queen’s Park and Ottawa to cap their contributions at a fixed value for municipal projects, although Ontario is happy to quote its own projects with a base price plus an unspecified allowance for inflation. This allows the province to low-ball its cost estimates by quoting 2020 work in 2010 dollars. Capping contributions is done specifically to avoid scope creep where municipal plans expand by spending “thirty-three cent dollars”. For example, all of the cost overrun on the Vaughan extension has been funded by Toronto and York Region under their cost sharing agreement with no extra money coming from other levels of government.

A provincial commitment to paying the city’s share of the SSE is like writing a blank cheque so that any design problem can be solved just by sending the bill to Uncle Patrick up at the Pink Palace.

As for the LRT line to UTSC, this was originally part of the consolidated “plan” for Scarborough transit, the deal that convinced subway opponents to buy in because the LRT sweetened the pot. All the money, of course, is now dedicated to the subway extension. It is unclear just what the platform means by a “significant contribution” from Toronto, nor where the remainder might come from for this project.

Call on the Federal Government to match the new provincial subway funding commitment. [p. 54]

Yes. Of course. It’s an Ontario program but someone else should help to pay. A nice 50-50 split to spread the load around just as some federal programs like PTIF assume that others will help to pick up the bill. Given that the Tories’ “commitment” is rather small (especially once the SSE takes its share), Ottawa should have little problem matching it. The real problem will be waiting to see whether any of the projects advances far enough to draw on funding from any government.

Make Ontario’s transit systems more customer friendly, starting with free, reliable, consistent WIFI on GO Trains. [p. 54]

The text accompanying this bullet states:

… customer service levels on the GO train lines are not up to par. The government should focus on getting transit built, but it should also focus on making commuting a better experience.

When I read “promises” like this, I have to wonder how they get into platforms, and whether every post-it note from policy conferences simply was swept up from the floor. Without question, there are customer service and friendliness issues at Ontario’s transit systems (plural), but WIFI on GO is hardly the place to begin addressing this. At no point does the platform address any increase in service beyond that already in the GO RER plans, nor is there any “commitment” to improved funding to encourage the buildup of local transit on which all of these new GO services will depend for “last mile” access.

Make Ontario’s transit systems more customer friendly, by harmonizing fares where possible, allowing for online ticket purchases for GO services, and by ensuring all facilities accept the same forms of payment. [p. 54]

More “customer friendliness” including fare “harmonization”, although there is no description of just what this might mean. Online ticket purchases are already possible with Presto, and that system is used in much of the GTHA thanks to the heavy hand of Queen’s Park. “Forms of payment” is a rather broad term that takes us all the way from the simplest of Smart cards up to bank cards and mobile apps. The real issue with “ticketing” is a harmonized back end system that can handle multiple ways a rider might identify themselves and charge rides to their account. This item has the feel of a platform written by someone who rarely uses transit.

Fulfill the existing commitments to complete the environmental assessment for the Southwestern Ontario High Speed Rail project. [p. 54]

That and a few billion will get you a somewhat faster train to London and beyond, but don’t hold your breath. The High Speed Rail project (and a kindred boondoggle, the Hydrogen Train) are great exercises in appearing to be doing something while “committing” to schemes that are either unaffordable or technologically immature. This “commitment” simply avoids the Tories looking like they oppose HSR without actually making any plans to built it.

A much more useful platform, from any party, would be a wider discussion of passenger rail and bus services, and not just in southern Ontario. However, the Tories have written off transit in all but a few markets.

The next section of the platform is entitled “Change that works for Drivers”, and it is a screed against the evils inflicted on motorists by the Wynne government. Oddly, it is less than half the length of the transit section, although clearly the Tories are playing to the idea that too much attention goes to transit riders and projects.

Overall, the PCPO platform share with all such documents a certain lack of editorial rigour having been pieced together from a variety of proposals originating in multiple policy conferences. Some were accepted, some were modified and some were rejected – the result has a stitched-together feel and an assumption that most people will only read the sections they care about. Such is political life. The “money” platform is always key and, as usual, voters will be bribed from their own pocketbooks.

How much of the transit platform will actually be implemented once the complexities and costs become evident? That is quite another question.