$33 Billion and Counting (Part II)

In the first article in this series, I reviewed the Capital Budget and Plan that covers the years 2019-2033 for the TTC. There are three reports on the January 24 Board agenda related to this subject:

This article concentrates on the “Making Headway” report which is a glossy overview of the 15 Year Capital Plan. It is a generally good report, although there are annoying omissions of detail that would flesh out its argument.

This report deals mainly with “state of good repair” (SOGR) projects that involve rejuvenation of existing infrastructure and expansion necessary to handle growing demand. New lines are not, for the most part, included in the report although plans for them are reflected in SOGR planning where they trigger expansion of existing capacity. Leaving out new projects like the Richmond Hill extension may be a political decision, but this means that the context for some recommendations is incomplete. A useful update would be to produce a consolidated plan showing the “new” projects and the time-critical events they trigger (such as fleet expansion or replacement and station capacity issues).

For many years, the TTC, the City of Toronto and its so-called funding partners have been content for the official SOGR backlog to stay out of sight. This has the triple benefit of reducing the projected borrowing TTC projects will require, making the benefit of capital funding the TTC does receive (mainly from gas tax) appear larger than what is needed, and avoiding difficult questions about spending on new projects in the face of a gaping hole for existing maintenance. This must stop, and the “Making Headway” report certainly puts the TTC’s needs in a different, and far more critical, light.

A backlog of deferred maintenance has grown, putting the safety, accessibility and sustainability of our transit system at risk despite the need to move more customers more reliably than ever before. [p. 7]

One cannot help remembering the soothing words of TTC management in the early 1990s when recession-starved governments cut back on transit maintenance, and the TTC said they could get by on the money they received without compromising the system. Then there was the fatal crash at Russell Hill and, bit by bit, Toronto learned just how badly the TTC’s condition had fallen. The CEO at the time (a position then called “Chief General Manager”) went on to become a Minister in the Harris government that slashed provincial transit funding completely. Things appear to be different today with the TTC calling out for better funding, although at a time when the last thing any politician wants to hear is a plea for more spending.

One page should be burned into the souls of anyone who claims to support transit’s vital role:

It is easy for the need to invest in our base transit system to be overshadowed by the need to fund transit expansion. But investing to properly maintain and increase the capacity of our current system is arguably even more important.

Population growth and planned transit expansion projects such as SmartTrack, the Relief Line South, the Line 2 East Extension to Scarborough and new LRT lines on Eglinton and Finch West will add hundreds of thousands more customers to Toronto’s transit network.

The result will dramatically increase pressure on a system already grappling with an aging fleet, outdated signals on key subway lines, inadequate maintenance and storage capacity, and tracks and infrastructure in need of constant repair.

Without the investments outlined in this Plan, service reliability and crowding will worsen, as the maintenance backlog grows and becomes more difficult and costlier to fix. This is the fate now faced by some other major transit systems in North America that allowed their assets to badly deteriorate.

Our customers, our city, our province and our nation can’t afford to let that happen. [p. 8]

This is not the message recent and current leaders in Toronto and Ontario wanted to hear, and they collectively are to blame for the mess we are in today.

Although some items, particularly those in the second decade of the plan, are not fully costed, the items are included to raise awareness that they exist.

Given the scale of the investment required, however, it would be irresponsible to delay conversations about funding until estimates are exact. [p. 9]

There is a mythology about transit assets, particularly subways, that they last a century. This is nowhere near the truth, and those who push such claims as a justification for subways as a preferred mode are flat out liars. Only the physical structure lasts many decades, and even that requires ongoing repair. Components such as trains, track, escalators, electrical systems, signals, tunnels, pumps and station buildings require repair and replacement at regular intervals. The Yonge subway, now over 60 years old, is on its third set of trains, and the Bloor-Danforth line on its second. All of the track has been replaced two or three times. Stations do not have their original escalators, and the ones now in place are coming due for major overhaul or replacement. The list is endless. A subway is not a “build it and forget it” project any more than a new car or a new house.

When the existing system is asked to carry far more riders, more is needed than a new coat of paint. More trains and bigger stations are just a start, and the analogy would be trading up to a family SUV or moving to a bigger house. If Toronto were a stagnant city with little population or job growth, this would be less of an issue, but Toronto is instead a booming area facing problems of growth it cannot serve or chooses not to serve adequately.

The chart below shows how many aspects of a transit system are linked together. We cannot simply say “buy more buses” or “run more trains” and think that every problem is solved. This problem is compounded when any “improvement” we make vanishes into the black hole of deferred maintenance, making up for what we should have done years ago.

Seen from a high level, the $33.5 billion plan breaks down like this:

Of the “funded” portion, about one third depends on assumptions regarding available funds from various sources in the second decade of the plan, and the remainder is based on the current known commitments of various government. This is less than certain with provincial plans to take over ownership of the subway system and responsibility for funding its capital maintenance. Note that in the chart above, 65% of the total is subway related. This would leave Queen’s Park on the hook for $22 billion over 15 years, and that does not pay for system expansion.

(For clarity, some of the spending included above is on works in progress such as the ATC signalling on Line 1 YUS, and the delivery of new streetcars. Only the costs in 2019 and forward are included in the figures here.)

Funding vs Financing

This report deals with the funding needs of the transit system. The distinction is often blurred between getting the money (funding) and paying for it (financing). The distinction is that if you buy a car, somebody (you, or more likely your bank) pays for the vehicle. The dealer and the automaker are happy, but you now have a debt. That’s “financing”. A slightly more creative scheme would be for you to rent the car so that someone else (a leasing company) actually owns it, but this is still “financing”. Real money changed hands somewhere, although the leasing company would get a better price on a fleet purchase, and they have tax write-off opportunities that you probably don’t.

Money could come from outside investors who may simply provide financing secured by future revenues (taxes on new development, for example), or might build or buy and even operate assets on our behalf. But one way or another, we have to pay for them unless new money with no strings attached appears out of thin air. That’s how one-time grants for major projects like subway extensions work. Governments give the TTC money with which to build new lines, but the cost stays on the government’s books and is not a future charge against the transit system. That’s a system the province doesn’t like one bit, and that is why Ontario wants to own and finance projects if only because the accounting looks better without that “gift” to Toronto.

There is a great debate over where we will find $33.5 billion, but there is no way to make that number vanish short of simply not undertaking the projects it will fund.

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$33 Billion and Counting

A political tremour ran through the transit world in Toronto recently with the TTC’s release of a 15-year projection of capital spending requirements at $33.5 billion. This does not include funding for most system expansion projects beyond the already-approved Scarborough Subway.

That number is big, but it’s no surprise to those who have been following TTC budgets for years. A major issue has been that “unfunded” or “below the line” projects don’t get the attention they deserve and are deliberately kept off of the books to reduce the apparent size of the City’s financial problems. Common tactics included omitting projects from the overall budget, or projecting their spending in a period just beyond the rolling ten-year horizon of capital planning.

Transit planning in Toronto and at Queen’s Park is reckless when it downplays the backlog of spending and associated subsidies facing public agencies. New spending and the inevitable photo ops for grinning, back-patting politicians are easier to fit into plans when you can ignore the transit system crumbling in the background.

Several budget reports will be before the TTC Board (and later at City Council) at its next meeting on January 24, 2019.

There is far too much material here to review in a single article, and so I will break this up over multiple posts. Some of the details behind individual projects will not be available until I obtain the full version of the Capital Budget known as the “Blue Books” which expand the line items from the “Blue Pages” into project descriptions and schedules.

A vital part of the new reports is a shift to a longer time frame (15 years) and the inclusion of all projects in the Capital Plan whether they have funding or not. The extent of the problem is quite evident in the following chart. The purple hatched area shows the requirements for coming years while the sold areas show known funding amounts in the medium term and hoped-for income thereafter.

The big drop in the City’s funding share in the early 2020s arises from the lack of borrowing headroom in the overall City budget. A big problem here is the crowding by major projects such as the Scarborough Subway Extension and the Gardiner Expressway rebuild within the overall borrowing plan. Current City policy dictates that the average debt servicing cost should not exceed 15% of City tax revenue over a ten year period. Planned spending in the next few years will eliminate the headroom for additional borrowing. This exactly coincides with the bulge in TTC capital requirements beginning in 2022. To put it another way, if funding continued at 2019 levels across the chart, there would still be a shortfall, but against a much higher base.

Even this chart does not tell the full story because the Capital Plan continues to push major projects beyond the ten-year line, and the financial pressures from system expansion are not fully accounted for here. As things stand today, less than 30% of the ten-year program is funded. Beyond 2028, the level of assumed funding is still well below historical levels.

($ billion) 2019-2028 2029-2033 Total 2019-2033
Funded $6.4 $3.4 $9.8
Unfunded $17.5 $6.2 $23.7
Total $23.9 $9.6 $33.5

System expansion projects will add a further $3.8 billion over the first ten years of the plan:

  • Line 2 Extension (formerly known as the SSE): $3.4 billion (subject to revision when an updated cost report is presented to Council in April 2019).
    • “While the 10-Year Capital Plan includes $3.360 billion in funding for this project (between 2019 to 2028), this project has an overall budget of $3.560 billion. This estimate, which includes $132 million to extend the life of the SRT until the Line 2 East Extension commences operation and a further $123 million to decommission and demolish the SRT, was based on 0% design. The project budget and schedule will be re-baselined in Stage Gate 3 report to City Council in April 2019, factoring in delivery strategy and schedule risk analysis.”
  • Relief Line South: $385 million will be spent in 2019-20 to support early works on this project. Some of this is already funded, but $325 million is being advanced into the current ten-year budget. Of this, the City proposes to provide half and looks to other levels of government for a contribution. The actual RL construction project is a separate entity which is not yet in the budget.
    • “The 10-Year Capital Plan includes funding of $385 million to complete current work only, which includes completing the preliminary design and engineering to between 15% and 30% complete, including developing a project budget and schedule.”
  • Waterfront Transit: The ten-year budget includes only $27 million in 2019-21 for design work on the planned extension from Exhibition Loop to the Dufferin Gate. Design work on any other Waterfront projects, let alone any construction, remains beyond the ten-year window.
  • Spadina Vaughan extension: Outstanding work on this project including close-out costs amount to $60 million in 2019, but this will be funded within the existing project.

[Quotations above are from the 15 Year Capital Investment Plan and 2019-2028 Budget, pp 12-13.]

The Relief Line work includes tasks such as property acquisition, utility relocation and design for the tunnel boring equipment. Now that the line has political support, spending sooner rather than later is on the agenda, and about two years can be shaved from the original project schedule by doing the preliminary work now. This is a major change from the position taken by Mayor Tory during the election campaign, and the need to “do something” as soon as possible is now evident.

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Express Buses: Real Change or Photo Ops?

Among the accomplishments listed by CEO Rick Leary in his recent presentation to the TTC Board was the implementation of an Express Bus Network. With the exception of one route, all of this is now in place.

Despite the attention this receives as an “accomplishment”, the fact is that almost all of this network is nothing more than a rebranded version of the “E” branches on various routes it replaced. The list linked below shows the history of express service headways including the “before” values for affected routes.

20182019_ExpressNetworkService

The only new services are on 902 Markham Road, 929 Dufferin, 937 Islington, 952 Lawrence West, 984A Sheppard West (to Weston), 985B Sheppard East (to Meadowvale) and 989 Weston. Most of these are peak only additions. That was the intent of the Express Bus Network Study in the short term.

The real challenge for the TTC and for Council will be whether they will build on this as the study proposes for 2019 and following years. This includes both additional service and transit priority measures.

New and improved services were proposed in the study. Many changes listed for future years have already been rolled out. Some of the new services were obtained by removing buses from existing local branches of the routes. What remains are the changes that require the TTC to operate more service.

Transit priority measures include both traffic signal priority (something that benefits both local and express buses) as well as “queue jump lanes” at selected locations. Whether any of these will be built soon, if at all, remains to be seen.

There is a larger issue in that many routes that do not include express service also encounter traffic delays. The focus should not simply be on the express routes, but on the network as a whole wherever there are bottlenecks.

TTC Updates Junction Area Route Study (Corrected, With Map)

In May 2018, I reported on a proposed set of route changes in the Junction area. TTC management has revised their proposals and plans to take a report to the Board in spring 2019 aiming for a fall implementation.

They are seeking a final round of input on their new scheme through a survey.

Updated: The original version of this post included some incorrect routing information because of the absence of a visible map on the TTC’s website. Thanks to Sean Marshall who pointed out that the map was “there”, but hiding in a file format that did not display in a browser session. A .jpg version is included below.

The updated proposal includes these changes:

  • Route 40 Junction, which now operates between Dundas West Station and Runnymede Loop via Dundas would be renamed 40 Dundas West. It would have two branches: 40B would terminate at Jane looping via Jane, St. Clair and Runnymede, and 40A would run to Kipling Station replacing service now provided by 30 Lambton.
  • Route 71 Runnymede now operates with two branches: 71B operates north to Mount Dennis, and 71A east on St. Clair to Gunn’s Loop. The branch to Mount Dennis would remain, but the service on St. Clair would be replaced.
  • A new 189 Stockyards route would operate from High Park Station east to Keele, then north and west to Scarlett Road via St. Clair. This would replace the 71A St. Clair branch of Runnymede.
  • The 30 Lambton bus would operate only to Runnymede Loop instead of to Kipling, and it would retain its summer-only extension south into High Park.

Route 79 Scarlett Road is not affected.

TTC Service Changes Effective February 17, 2019

The TTC service changes for mid-February 2019 include few major revisions to service, but much tweaking of vehicle allocations and headways. Where there are small improvements, these are usually offset by small cuts in a process the TTC describes as “rebalancing” so that vehicle hours are allocated where and when they are needed on routes.

The major revision in streetcar service that was expected in February for the King-Queen-Roncesvalles project will not be implemented until the end of March.

Items of note in the February changes include:

  • One PM peak gap train will be added on Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina for a total of two trains.
  • 7 Bathurst will switch from articulated to standard bus operation on weekdays to free up vehicles for a capital repair program on the artic bus fleet. The replacement standard-sized bus service will provide less capacity than the service now operating. At the same time, running times will be increased to compensate for expected delays and diversions at Forest Hill Station (Bathurst & Eglinton) construction which will also affect 33 Forest Hill.
  • 32 Eglinton West will have longer scheduled running times and wider weekday headways to compensate for construction delays along Eglinton.
  • 512 St. Clair will have wider headways and a substantial increase in recovery time. This is an odd situation considering that St. Clair operates entirely on protected lanes. The new recovery times are longer than those allowed on any of the mixed-traffic streetcar routes most of which are longer than the 512. I will review the operation of the St. Clair route on a before-and-after basis later this year.

2019.02.17_Service_Changes_v3

TTC Board Meeting: January 10, 2019

The January 10 meeting of the TTC Board was primarily an organizational one with introduction of new members, plus a few management presentations on Board responsibilities and an overview of the system today.

Alan Heisey was re-elected as Vice-Chair of the Board continuing a role he has held ever since May 2015. This position is earmarked for so-called “citizen members” who are not also Councillors.

Most Board members, speaking of why they wanted to be at the TTC, cited an interest in transit and its role, but one, Councillor Karygiannis, was quite brief in saying “Sheppard Subway”. It will be ironic if Premier Ford is successful in taking over subway planning and construction because this project will no longer be one for the TTC or City Council to approve or build. Subway parochialism is alive and well at the TTC.

The Board discussed revisions to its meeting procedure including a proposal from the Vice-Chair that public deputations be limited. Anyone wishing to speak on multiple agenda items would get only five minutes in total, not five minutes per item. The idea has been referred to staff for review. Because any change in the meeting procedure would amend a bylaw that must obtain Council approval, this cannot take effect immediately.

The idea arises from frustration with a few regular deputants who address multiple reports, sometimes contentiously. However, it would be a short step from this scheme to one in which organized groups were only given five minutes in total rather than for each member wishing to address the Board.

A related procedural problem is that some reports where debate and action should be the order of the day, notably the CEO’s regular update, are classified as “Information” items. This hogties not just public deputations who can speak only to reports where the Board will approve some action, but even Board members who cannot make motions. The very report which should be the focus of each month’s review of operations and plans is insulated from substantive debate, criticism and action by the Board which is supposed to provide strategic guidance and policy.

At a time when “transparency” is the watchword and the sense that governments and their agencies should listen more, not less, to the public, this is a counterproductive proposal. If TTC Board  members don’t want to hear deputations, they should get themselves appointed to the Metrolinx Board where self-congratulation is the primary order of business and pesky members of the public sit quietly in the gallery if they bother attending at all.

CEO Rick Leary presented a system overview “Advancing to the Next Level”. This goal will be a real challenge for the TTC where just making do with existing resources has hamstrung real growth and improvement on the transit system. This presentation contains substantial errors of fact about the degree to which service has improved from 2017 to 2018. As an introduction for the new Board, it implies that the past year has been better than actual experience. TTC management spends too much time “polishing their halos” and this gets in the way of substantive discussion about real system needs.

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Challenges Ahead For The 2019 TTC Board

January 10, 2019 brings the first meeting of a new TTC Board with a new crop of Councillors and a new Chair while, for now, three non-Council or “citizen” members carry over from 2018.

Jaye Robinson, formerly Chair of Toronto’s Public Works and Infrastructure, was appointed as the new Chair of the TTC replacing Josh Colle who did not stand for re-election. She will be joined by Councillors Brad Bradford, Shelley Carroll, Jim Karygiannis, Jennifer McKelvie, and Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong. Of these, only Carroll and Minnan-Wong have sat on the TTC Board before, and two members, Bradford and McKelvie, are new to Council in this term. The geographic distribution of members is unusual in that none of them represents a ward west of Yonge Street.

Three citizen members remain pending a review of these appointments by Council: Alan Heisey (who was Vice-Chair in the previous term), Joanne De Laurentiis and Ron Lalonde.

The first meeting includes housekeeping activities of selecting a Vice-Chair (who must be picked from the citizen members) and setting up the Audit & Risk Management Committee. Two previous committees will be disbanded in the interest of reducing the call on Councillors’ time:

  • Human Resources and Labour Relations: The TTC is at the beginning of a four year labour contract and does not foresee the need for a standing committee to deal with these matters. Any related matters would be brought either to the full Board, or to a committee struck for the purpose.
  • Budget: Although the TTC had a Budget Committee in the past term, it hardly ever met. For the new term a two-member “Working Group” is proposed, and this means that any budget meetings will take place in private except when the finished product comes to the Board for approval.

Also on the agenda for January 10 are:

  • “Richard J. Leary, CEO will give a presentation to the Board about the TTC, its accomplishments, challenges, vision and next steps.” [This presentation is not yet online.]
  • “Brian M. Leck, TTC General Counsel and John O’Grady, Chief Safety Officer will give a presentation to the Board about Member Legal, Safety & Environmental Responsibilities.”

The legal background emphasizes the Board’s role in providing oversight, general direction and strategy, as opposed to micromanagement of the system. However, this does not make for a completely hands-off arrangement as the Board has specific responsibilities and liabilities under legislation notably relating to worker safety and the environment.

Sadly, there is no legislative requirement to ensure high quality transit service.

The Board will meet again on January 24 with a meatier agenda including the Capital and Operating budgets. They are both huge documents, and the Board is unlikely to understand how their components fit together.

With the increased workload for members of the 2019 Council, moves are afoot to trim agendas and shift decisions to lower levels. In the case of the TTC:

In order to manage the number of items being presented to the Board for consideration while simultaneously seeking opportunities to improve decision making efficiency, it is recommended that staff begin to review options where delegated authority from the Board to staff is feasible. [TTC Board Governance at p. 5]

Staff will report on this in the next few months, but it is important that changes do not stifle public debate and that new “policy” does not appear out of thin air from a delegated responsibility.

Important Board roles are strategic planning and oversight of management. For the past two terms, TTC Boards have been less than engaged with overall strategy and the potential future of transit in Toronto. There are the inevitable debates about a few subway lines, but the larger question of the TTC’s purpose goes unanswered. One might argue that Council (or at least the Mayor and his allies) don’t want ideas that will add to costs getting a full airing at the TTC.

The political direction might well be to limit growth in fares and subsidies, but this should not prevent the Board from engaging in “what if” discussions to gauge the possibilities and implications for service levels, fare structures and technology, and large scale planning for system growth and maintenance.

One past example of TTC advocacy was the August 2014 “Opportunities” report produced by former CEO Andy Byford and staff. It contained many proposals including the Two Hour Fare which has only recently been implemented. The 2018 Ridership Growth Strategy contains many principles, but is lighter on specifics.

We cannot, as a city, understand what transit might do if the agency and Board charged with this are content to avoid discussions of what transit could be if only we had the will to pursue a more aggressive outlook on system improvement. The Board needs to actually do its job – be informed and make strategic plans for transit even if, in the short term, we cannot “afford” some options.

This will be a difficult term for the TTC Board who must wrestle with the proposed provincial takeover of the subway system, but this should not divert attention from several major issues affecting the transit system.

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