Toronto’s Omnibus Transit Report: Part II

On April 9, Toronto’s Executive Committee will consider a massive set of reports on the many transit projects at various stages of design and construction in Toronto.

In Part I of this series, I reviewed the financing scheme for four major projects as well as details of the Scarborough Subway Extension, aka the Line 2 East Extension. In this article, I will review the Relief Line, SmartTrack and the Bloor-Yonge Station Expansion project.

The reports applicable to this article are:

  • Main Report: Toronto’s Transit Expansion Program – Update and Next Steps
  • Attachment 1: A status update on all projects

There are related reports about signalling and capacity expansion of Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina in the TTC Board’s agenda for their April 11 meeting. I will deal with these in a separate article.

After decades in which the focus of transit planning looked outward to the 905 beyond the bounds of Toronto, there is now a political realization that capacity into the core is a major issue for the region’s economy. Politicians and planners may show optimistic studies of suburban centres and growth, but the development industry, a bastion of free enterprise thinking, persists in building downtown because that’s where they can sell at the greatest profit.

The Relief Line, SmartTrack, Automatic Train Control, subway station expansions and even surface transit projects like the King Street Pilot all attempt to address the demand for travel to and through the core area. Looking beyond the city boundaries, there are subway and GO Transit extensions and service improvements. Some of these schemes are more successful than others, and some have very long lead times before any benefit will be seen. Political attention has shifted from the fights over which one project will be built each decade to the recognition that many projects must occur in parallel so that capacity can catch up with latent and growing demand.

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Toronto’s Omnibus Transit Report: Part I

Planning for many transit projects in Toronto has been underway for years, but the public face of this work took a long holiday in 2018 thanks to elections at both the provincial and municipal levels.

In coming weeks, Toronto’s Executive Committee and then Council will consider an omnibus report that provides updates on many transit projects and recommends a path forward.

Today, that path is murky given uncertainty about provincial intentions and the degree to which consultation between the city and province is actually in good faith. Premier Ford’s approach on other portfolios, coupled with the breezy confidence of his Transportation Minister (seen recently on TVO’s The Agenda), do not bode well. With the arrival of Doug Ford at Queen’s Park, the provincial goal on transit is more about settling old scores with Toronto Council and proving that Ford’s transit vision is correct than it is about good planning. Recent correspondence between the province’s special advisor on a proposed subway takeover revealed just how much the province does not know, or chooses to ignore. This was not a good start and the province wounded its credibility on basic technical points, never mind the political context.

But for a moment, let us consider Toronto’s future from the point of view of what the city hopes to do, if only they have the control and the money to pull this off.

The report is long, and to break this article into digestible pieces, I will focus on groups of issues. This article covers overall financing of the transit expansion project and specific details for the Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE), now known as the Line 2 East Extension (L2EE). I will turn to other components of the plan in further articles.

Many reports are available on the City’s website (scroll down to the end for all of the links). The principal reports are:

Financing Transit Expansion

The most challenging part of any transit project, let alone a complex program, is to obtain funding from governments whose priorities do not necessarily align and which may talk at least as much about the sanctity of “taxpayer dollars” as they do about investment in public infrastructure.

In a media briefing, city staff were quite clear that no project can proceed to the stage of contract tendering and awards unless the contribution agreements underpinning a project are in place.

At the federal level, the primary funding source will be the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF) which has two phases. An initial phase was time-limited, and was used in Toronto mainly to fund the purchase of hundreds of new buses. The second, longer-lived phase of PTIF will be used for transit construction projects. There is some urgency to nail down PTIF contributions given the fall 2019 election and uncertainty about this program under a new government.

Note that this entire discussion relates only to projects that would be funded in part through PTIF, not to many others such as the Eglinton LRT extensions or the Waterfront LRT.

Federal funding of $4.897 billion will be allocated by the city, assuming government approval, as below [Main Report, p. 2]:

  • $0.660 billion for the Line 2 East Extension project
  • $0.585 billion for the SmartTrack Stations Program
  • $3.151 billion for the Relief Line South
  • $0.500 billion for the Bloor-Yonge Capacity Improvement project

Negotiations with Ontario are ongoing, and the status of projects and associated $4.04 billion in provincial funding is unclear. This could be clarified in the provincial budget to be announced on April 11, 2019. Provincial interest in and plans for the Scarborough extension and the Relief Line will affect both of these projects.

City funding comes from a variety of sources:

  • Development charges
  • The Scarborough Subway levy
  • The City Building Fund levy
  • Interest on accumulated reserves from the levies

Financial projections are also affected by factors that have changed since projections made in past years:

  • Higher growth rates in development
  • Lower interest rates

PTIF2 has an assumed split of 40-33-27% for the federal, provincial and municipal governments respectively. This creates a breakdown of responsibilities as shown below.

The provincial share is supposed to be “new funding” and the amount here does not include prior commitments to Scarborough transit which originally were for the proposed LRT line, later for a subway. Exactly how much Ontario will contribute remains to be seen given discussions about ownership and the scope of the Scarborough subway project. I will return to this in more detail later.

Within the city share, $2.42 billion is unfunded (no revenue sources have been committed to fund/finance the expense), and only $885 million of the SmartTrack Stations Program has city funding. The report recommends that the city’s CFO and Treasurer report prior to the 2020 budget process on strategies for addressing the shortfall.

The project cost estimates for these are broken down below. In the chart, the acronyms are:

  • LTD: Life To Date
  • PDE: Preliminary Design & Engineering

The possible funding arrangements vary for each project, and these are complicated both by past history and by the uncertainty of early “class 5” estimates. A tentative breakdown is shown below, but this must be taken with a grain (or more) of salt due to technical and political uncertainties. For example, the assumed provincial contribution to the Line 2 Scarborough project is based on inflation of a commitment made in 2010 dollars where the city and province do not agree on the appropriate inflation factor.

Two separate numbers have been used for the Relief Line cost estimate: $6.8 billion in Table 2 above, and $7.2 billion in Table 3 below. In the media briefing, TTC staff explained that the change was due to an alignment revision (Carlaw vs Pape) and changes in construction techniques (mining vs cut-and-cover) at some locations. That may be so, but to have two different numbers for the same project so close together within a report makes one wonder about the care taken in other aspects. On top of that is almost $2 billion as a “provision” for the Relief Line to guard against potential cost increase as the estimate is refined from class 5 to class 3.

This sort of uncertainty is not unusual, but the constant variation in quoted “estimates” makes for no end of problems. The converse is seen with the Scarborough project where the “estimate” for the subway’s cost has remained fixed since 2014 despite major changes in project scope.

The report explains the difference between initial class 5 estimates and the class 3 estimates to be used in setting project budgets:

As a project moves through the three phases, project definition becomes more refined and the information used as the basis for developing a cost estimate is more mature.

  • A Class 5 cost estimate is typical when starting the initiation and development phase, where the project is conceptual (0-2% design level). This an order of magnitude estimate to inform the decision of whether or not to continue to study an option.
  • A Class 3 cost estimate is based on PDE work (10-40% design level), and is the estimate class recommended when establishing a project budget for procurement and construction. A Class 3 estimate should be used to inform full funding commitment decisions. [p. 16]

Note that the term “order of magnitude” has considerable leeway, and a change from one order to the next is a factor of 10. Saying that costs “A” and “B” are in “the same order of magnitude” gives huge scope which on projects of this nature is measured in billions of dollars. Too much past debate has assumed that minor swings in estimates might occur as designs are refined, but this is more wishful thinking and the political hope that a project will not get out of hand even before shovels hit the ground.

Overall Project Status

The map below shows the location of all projects in the transit network plan.

Projects will advance from stage to stage on their own timetables which are summarized in the chart below.

Line 2 East Extension (aka Scarborough Subway Extension)

This section reviews the status of the Scarborough extension as it is presented in the city reports. Obviously this is subject to major change given provincial announcements of support for taking ownership of the extension and for building a three-stop subway.

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Metropass, Two-Hour Transfer and Presto

With the shift of TTC monthly passes from a dedicated swipe card to the Presto fare card in January 2019, I decided to track usage in detail as a sample size of one rider.

Presto provides tracking data on its site, but I was intrigued to discover:

  • How accurate is the tracking data?
  • What would my riding have cost under three scenarios: monthly passes, two-hour transfer rules and single fares?
  • How often was I unable to tap because readers were not working?

My travel pattern places me firmly in the category of a heavy user of transit. Living at Broadview and Danforth, I have the choice of the Bloor-Danforth subway and several surface routes, most with frequent albeit sometimes unreliable service. Almost all travel is within the “old” City of Toronto where there are many closely-spaced routes. This is very different from the environment riders in the suburbs face for choice, frequency and trip length.

For the first three months of 2019, my travels are summarized here.

Although I travel on an Annual Pass, I have tracked how many fares I would have paid under two transfer rule schemes:

  • In the “New” rules, any tap made within two hours counts as one trip/fare on a Presto card.
  • In the “Old” rules, TTC prohibits stopovers and changes of direction. These would trigger a separate trip/fare.
Month         Taps    Transfer Rules
                       New      Old

January        93       58       75
February       99       68       83
March         120       76      100

Total         312      202      258

The tap count is based on actual taps on fare machines and gates, and does not include transfers within fare paid areas.

Overall, the two-hour fare reduced my “trip” count by about 20%, although some of those “saved” fares are a result of my knowing that I do not face an extra fare, something I have been accustomed to since the Metropass was introduced in May 1980. In other words, I would not have “paid” all 258 fares were I paying by tokens/tickets, and so the reduction to 202 would not represent a “loss” of 56 fares. Moreover, careful choice of transfer locations would shave the single fare cost by adjusting travel to minimize the need to pay a new fare.

Similarly, as a long-time pass user, I have been paying a monthly equivalent of fewer fares than I would have paid with tokens or tickets. Using the fares in effect for this period, the break-even rates for passes versus tickets/tokens are shown below. The “multiple” is the number of tokens/tickets represented by the pass price, and is the trip count at which a rider “breaks even” with a pass.

Pass Type     Adult                     Senior/Student
              Cost     Token  Multiple  Cost    Ticket  Multiple
Annual        $134.00  $3.00  44.7      $107.00  $2.05  52.2
Monthly       $146.25  $3.00  48.8      $116.75  $2.05  57.0

The effect of the severe winter weather is clear above, and my riding increased in March. Three days in January and February were “snow days” where I made no TTC trips. Even so, during the worst month and with the new two-hour transfer rules, I took more trips (measured as fares) than the multiple for any of the available passes. I have a senior’s annual pass and easily crest the break-even point of 52.2.

In TTC budget discussions, some board members (not to mention management) railed against pass holders as freeloaders whose riding was subsidized by other less-frequent travellers and the city. What they completely missed is the fact that were someone like me on a pay-as-you-go basis, many of the trips shown here would not have been taken, or would have “artfully” been made without paying another fare. Optimizing one’s travel is easier where there is a dense network of routes and more choices to credibly use a transfer (e.g. for a stopover), and this technique predates all-door boarding where inspection at entry can be avoided.

If the point of a transit system is to encourage travel and make it more attractive for those who were penalized by the traditional transfer rules to use transit, then the fact that I or anyone else would pay a lower average fare (calculated against those rules) shows that the policy is working. For example, a common weekend shopping outing I make would be, at a minimum, a three-fare trip under the old transfer rules using ticket or tokens. It is now a one-fare trip because it is accomplished within two hours. Moreover, I have the option of additional stopovers and greater flexibility in route choices.

As tokens and tickets are replaced by Presto “Limited Use Media” (LUMs), tickets with one or a few TTC fares rather than a full-function Presto card, the two-hour fare will be available to almost everyone. All that will remain is the ability to issue a receipt for cash fares that confers a two-hour ride to bring this convenience to everyone.

In all of this discussion, the core argument is that paying for transit is changing, and has been changing for years. The system moves away from the nickel and dime approach of charging as often as possible to making transit attractive as a service that is simply “there” to be used, much as auto owners regard their vehicles. Some riders will pay more, some less, and frequent users will probably be better off than those who ride occasionally.

The complementary part, still to come in our low-tax obsessed era, is that transit service across the city will be truly attractive to those who wish to use it as a first choice.

Presto Reliability

The reliability of Presto equipment has improved quite substantially in recent months, and I encountered few cases where I could not “pay” a fare, or as a pass user, get an updated timestamp on my Presto card.

  • On two occasions, subway fare gates were locked open because the entire station’s system appeared to be “down”: Bay Station on January 21, and Union Station on February 2.
  • On one occasion, there was no working Presto device on a vehicle (a CLRV on Queen), but my trip was picked up when I transferred at Humber Loop.
  • On a few occasions, the reported location did not match where I tapped, although these were usually only off by one stop or city block. The most extreme example was a tap near Broadview and Danforth that was reported as being on Roncesvalles Avenue. In another case, a tap reported a location as if the vehicle were still in Leslie Barns. These would have been a problem for “old” transfer rules or for any distance-based fare scheme.
  • On two occasions, there was a forced transfer due to service problems, and one of these required a “walking transfer” from Queen to Dundas. These could have triggered extra fare charges under the old transfer rules, or challenges to the validity of the fare paid if I were not using a pass.

My Presto card was inspected on a few occasions, but at predictable locations: Broadview, Spadina and Union Stations. Only one of these registered as a transaction in my Presto activity summary.

The database of locations for stops, mainly on 504 King, only knows of stops by number, not by name, presumably as these are “temporary” locations for the King Street Pilot. The fact that these have not been updated with real location info over a year after the stops were moved says something about the dedication to clear customer information.

Finally, in all of my travels, I have not seen one rider “tap on” to a vehicle in a paid area. The TTC was pushing the idea of “always tap on” as part of the Metropass/Presto roll out, but riders behave just as they always have in subway stations. The claim is that this would give better planning data, and make fare inspection (if it ever actually occurred on surface vehicles) simpler, but the TTC will just have to make do with the “taps” they do get.

Postscript: A Long Journey on One Fare

Many years ago, before the abolition of “Zone 2” in Toronto’s fare structure, a friend and I set out to test the limits of transfer rules that allowed for a continuous trip in one direction. This rule had an exception that allowed one to avoid payment of an extra fare by staying within a single zone even if this meant travelling out of the way on one’s journey.

We began on the Port Credit Bus, then a TTC operation, a few stops west of Long Branch in Zone 3. There was a zone 3-2 combo fare, and this gave us Zone 2 Port Credit transfers, about as far remote from downtown as possible. Our goal was eastern Scarborough.

The journey took us to Humber Loop, then up to Jane and Bloor, up Jane, across Wilson and York Mills (staying clear of the zone boundary at Yonge and Glen Echo), then down Birchmount to Kingston Road. At that point, many hours after we began, our transfers were finally rejected, and we paid a new fare to ride out to West Hill.