Metrolinx Board Meeting September 12, 2019

The Metrolinx Board met on September 12, 2019, but there was not much of substance on the public agenda. Presentations consisted as much of rehashing old news (including he oft-announced service improvements on GO Transit), but almost no substantive policy discussions.

Links here to the Agenda and Video for the meeting.

Ontario Line Initial Business Case (Video at 23:35)

This report was presented by a team of four from Metrolinx:

  • Mathieu Goetzke, Chief Planning Officer (Acting)
  • Malcolm Mackay, Project Sponsor for the Ontario Line, and until 13 days ago an engineer at TTC with 13 years experience, now transferred to Metrolinx. His previous major TTC projects included the Relief Line and the Union Station second platform.
  • Duncan Law, Head Sponsor for the subway program
  • Becca Nagorsky, Director for Project Planning

As I have already reviewed the Initial Business Case (IBC) in some detail, I will not dwell on that here, but will flag comments during the presentation and discussion of particular interest.

There were two threads on which nobody remarked, but which were significant given the way that the Ontario Line was announced:

  • The project details are far less advanced than the bluster of the original announcement might have indicated, and Metrolinx acknowledges that significant technical challenges remain for the design.
  • Language implying the general incompetence of the TTC to build a “modern” rapid transit line is much reduced if not eliminated from the discussion.

These are welcome changes, but we now face the need to build something because the Premier announced it.

Mathieu Goetzke introduced the presentation saying that although the Initial Business Case (IBC) was published in July, they are now going into more details. The Preliminary Business Case (PBC), the next step in the process, must resolve some issues and Metrolinx needs to “activate all possible levels” to address project costs. (See video at 27:00.)

Duncan Law continued in this vein saying that it was important to recognize that the IBC is an early stage of the project. Both the Relief and Ontario Lines are underpinned by the recognition that more capacity is needed. With roughly 50 per cent of the Ontario Line being at or above grade, there would be cost savings. Moreover, with the line separate from the existing subway system, there is an opportunity for technology change that would not otherwise be possible. There is a big difference in this outlook from saying that the TTC uses out of date technology.

Becca Nagorsky echoed the remark that the IBC is a first phase saying that its purpose is to define the project’s goals that must be preserved through the life cycle of more detailed design. She continued what has become a standard Metrolinx comparison of the original Relief Line project to the Ontario Line considering only the Relief Line South. This works from the assumption that the Ontario Line’s technology change will save so much money that the Relief Line North, as a conventional subway, does not even come into the discussion. This precludes the possibility that future design work might discover that the Ontario Line could be more expensive than originally thought, but by then the idea of going back to a subway project will be difficult, if only for political reasons. (There are parallels with the now-entrenched concept of a Scarborough Subway.)

The capital cost projections include anticipated savings due to “risk transfer” to a private sector partner in a Design-Build-Finance-Maintain (DBFM) P3 arrangement, but as with so many P3 schemes, there is little explanation of how exactly this is achieved. In particular, there is always the possibility that circumstances and designs will change, and the private sector “partner” will not assume this risk.

Note that none of the Benefit-Cost ratios exceeds “1” indicating that any version of the project does not produce a “profit” within the Metrolinx benefit-cost methodology. This came up in discussion a bit later (see below). The important issue here is that a large project such as the Ontario or Relief Line has benefits (and possibly costs) that the methodology does not capture notably the value of increasing resiliency in the rapid transit network by provision of alternate routes, and the enabling of projects such as the Richmond Hill extension that would otherwise overload the system.

A new addition to the discussion is a map showing the supposed benefit of the Ontario Line to residents of low income areas. It is no surprise that the OL (and the full RL to Eglinton that preceded it) benefit low income areas such as Thorncliffe Park and Moss Park, but there is a bizarre problem with the map which shows a reduced access to low-income jobs for residents between the Spadina Subway and the Barrie GO corridor south of Eglinton, far from the Ontario Line, not to mention Flemingdon Park north of Eglinton. There is something wrong here with the underlying model, but nobody at the meeting picked up on this.

Duncan Law bravely observed that “we are trained to challenge how things have been done” and this will lead to cost avoidance in the design (video at 38:00). He noted that early works on the route would be accelerated, although this is a tactic already in place (after much political fighting with Mayor Tory who eventually embraced it) for the Relief Line. At this point, Metrolinx is considering what their options for the OL design are before they take them to the public for comment, and they are still at an early stage.

In other words, they have a line on a map, but even that may change, and they fear alarming the locals with designs that are not yet definitive.

Malcolm Mackay spoke about the early works and the importance of co-ordination with large programs in the corridor to “leverage” contracts and consultants for other projects such as delivery of the (now) six track structure from East Harbour to Gerrard (four GO tracks plus two for the OL). There is also the potential role of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) works where some OL work could be combined with private development. However, it is not clear whether the likely construction timeframes of East Harbour and other projects would mesh with the schedule for construction of the OL.

In a marvellous piece of bafflegab, the presentation notes:

To demonstrate visible progress and to de-risk the schedule, a progressive works program is being contemplated with a ground breaking target of 2020 – 2021. [p 20 of the PDF]

What this means is that if Metrolinx actually undertakes some work soon, there will be political benefits of “progress” (shovels in the ground) and would-be bidders for the larger project will see that it has progressed beyond a political slogan and a line on a map. It is unclear just how much will actually be achieved by 2020 when the requests for qualifications and proposals (see chart below) occur.

Among the potential early works is design work the Don Valley crossing and possible launch sites for tunnel boring machines (TBMs). The decision to place some of the OL at or above grade means that there are more transitions in and out of tunnels than would be the case with an all-underground line, and launch sites at the transitions are required. These have significant effects on their locations as recent experience on the Eglinton Crosstown shows.

Mathieu Goetzke observed that the Queen Street corridor has challenges, but of course that would also have applied to the RL at least as far west as Osgoode Station. There is the larger question of the choice by the RL project of Queen versus a route further south, and again that is both a technical and political decision that is now set in stone.

The Next Steps slide below contains the troubling observation that Metrolinx will work to “understand community engagement” as if somehow Metrolinx has been operating in the dark while the Relief Line project went through its assessment and consultation stages. In a telling, but common, misuse, Metrolinx describes what they will undertake as “fulsome” intending to imply “copious” or “substantial”, but the word can also mean “excessive and insincere”, the fawning behaviour of one who insults by being overly complimentary. Metrolinx and GO before them have a long history of insincere public participation.

Discussion by the Board raised various questions starting with one from Michael Kraljevic who asked how much of the work already done on the Relief Line can be used for the Ontario Line? Mathieu Goetzke replied that work on the Queen Street corridor “feeds in” to the OL project, and Queen is “incredibly complicated”. The northern branch of the OL was built in part on the Relief Line North study. Malcolm Mackay stated that all of the work done so far will still be used giving the example of an underground station where geological information would inform design for a nearby structure. Some strategies that were “not successful” will not be pursued for the OL.

Regarding the construction challenges listed in the IBC, Vice-Chair Bryan Davies asked about “showstoppers” in the project. Duncan Law stated that there are none in the project “at this stage”, and he claimed that the benefit is that we see the risks now. Undoubtedly there will be several challenges, but the team will work through them, he said. The objective is to get people to jobs and home. Integration with GO for local and regional travel is important, Low continued. Environmental Assessment amendments will be required including a review of technical options for the OL. There is a “significant mountain to climb”.

Consultants have been engaged for the EA process, but subways tend to be environmentally positive, said Mackay, Metrolinx claims, and challenges with the elevated sections will be overcome.

These comments really are a dodge of the main question about the ability to reuse work already completed. The basic fact is that the OL alignment diverges considerably from the RL in places, and the detailed RL work, including public consultation, does not reflect the OL plan as it now stands. Again, we hear that this is a complex, challenging project, a rather different characterization than the self-confidence of the line’s announcement.

Director Paul Tsparis asked how the OL project helps to alleviate pressure on Line 1, and how is the TTC helping on that front.

Malcolm Mackay trotted out the usual list of TTC efforts including:

  • Larger trains
  • Painted tiles on the platforms at St. George and Bloor-Yonge to channel waiting passengers
  • Automatic Train Control
  • Bloor-Yonge Station expansion

The reference to larger trains is getting tiresome whoever cites it because the “new” Toronto Rocket (TR) equipment has been operating for some time now, and their extra capacity was long-ago consumed by latent demand. The painted floor directions may have some effect, but the big problem at busy stations is that platforms become totally filled even with a slight delay and this prevents easy exchange of passengers with trains. As for ATC, Mackay despite his years working at TTC, was unsure of the dates when it will be implemented. He also neglected to mention that more service requires more trains and, eventually, more train storage when the TTC exhausts what it now has. If the province takes ownership of the subway, this problem will land in their lap.

This was capped off with an observation that going north to meet the Eglinton Crosstown is a “beautiful addition to relief” to Line 1. Well, yes, many advocates have been saying this for a very long time while others downplayed the importance of continuing north of Danforth. Even Metrolinx flagged the added relief of the northern extension, and this informed support for work on it by the previous provincial government.

Michael Kraljevic asked about the benefit cost ratio where the value is less than one, although the P3 arrangement is alleged to improve that factor. How does this line up against other subway projects?

Mathieu Goetzke replied that it is hard to get a ratio beyond 1 with brand new infrastructure. GO improvements have good numbers because they build on legacy infrastructure. Moreover other modelling techniques would pick up economic development issues that are not included in the Metrolinx model. Phil Verster explained that Metrolinx does not consider benefits outside of purely transit ones, and the wider economic benefits would make every transit business case a good one. A case will always be touch-and-go for tunnels to get to a ratio of 1. Goetzke added that the OL can enable other works [e.g. the Richmond Hill extension].

This is quite an admission for Metrolinx who have wrestled with their business case analysis for some time. In a political climate where projects must at least break even, the benefits that are balanced against costs have a huge influence on the results. This can include both the scope of benefits (how wide a net is cast to capture benefits) and what payback period is used in the calculation. If the scope is too wide, there is a risk that presumed benefits are not entirely due to the project itself. If the timeframe is too long (Metrolinx uses 60 years), there is a financial problem of substantial expenditure in the short term for savings that might or might not accrue over the very long haul. Moreover, a large proportion of the “benefits” do not capture revenue that can be used to pay off project debt, but rather accrue to transit riders in reduced travel time and increased mobility.

These approaches can be defended on the grounds of “city building” and the long term, cumulative effect of having more transit infrastructure. However, the attempt to make any one project “pay its way” can distort how it is evaluated for political reasons.

Footnote: The Metrolinx Blog includes an article which emphasizes that the Ontario Line will not be built on unproven technology. The ghost of the UTDC and the Scarborough RT still haunts provincial decisions.

Ridership Initiatives (Video at 1:13:19)

Metrolinx ridership for the second quarter of 2019 is up 4.1% over the same period in 2018. However, children did not ride free a year ago, and when they are removed from the “before” numbers, the remaining ridership rose by 5.2%. It is worth noting that the TTC attempts to count children even though they ride free on the system, and so ridership numbers for the two systems are not directly comparable, at least on that basis. There is also the challenge of defining a “ride” when trips can involve a series of transfers and the benefit of the two-hour fare on Presto. The whole question of reporting demand on the GTA network needs work, including granularity about when and where people actually travel.

Statistics reported by APTA show commuter rail up 2.1% among reporting agencies, and bus ridership down 1.0%. GO bus ridership is up 4.5%.

A detailed map (PDF) shows the ridership by station across the rail network. There is no data for the bus network where there has been some controversy about which services should be maintained and which should be cut. Moreover the rail network counts do not distinguish by time of day to break out growth, if any, in off-peak travel as GO moves beyond peak period, peak direction commuting service to downtown Toronto.

Ridership growth varies by corridor and station. The high roller is Barrie with a 10.6% growth in the corridor. Kitchener us up 5.6% and Lakeshore East is up 4.8%.

GO is doing a lot of online marketing which they report as being quite successful, and there is an uptake of e-Tickets as a way of purchasing fares. Many of the promotions are for attractions in the off-peak period and for casual users who would be new to the system.

GO regards riders in Toronto as “transit natives”, people familiar with what transit can offer, and markets to them differently than to potential riders in the 905. Whether this is valid all the way out to the 416/905 boundary is hard to say.

The lower base GO fares are driving ridership within Toronto, but there was no discussion of the effect that will occur if the GO-TTC co-fare arrangement ends thanks to lack of funding from Queen’s Park. This has already affected riders on the UPX who no longer get a UPX+TTC discount. All the marketing efforts in the world can be undone by fiscal policies that affect fares and service.

Presto Quarterly Report (Video at 1:28:08)

Director Janet Ecker asked about efforts to minimize TTC criticisms of Presto. From what she is reading, criticisms of the system way off base. She asked how Metrolinx is trying to deal with this.

Phil Verster replied that it is illuminating to see how some comments get headline status and do not reflect what’s happening on the ground. Things are challenging, he said, and Metrolinx continues to work closely with TTC. There are claims that Metrolinx feels are not valid, and they have encouraged the TTC “to put this behind us”, not to go to dispute resolution.

Annaliese Czerny, Executive VP, PRESTO, felt that it was a shame the story is not about new products and better experiences. Verster was optimistic about making progress with TTC to move to a better future – new devices, open payments – and that this will be the story rather than problems. Czerny noted that TTC is an active and positive partner in the process for future developments.

This was the usual positive Metrolinx spin on PRESTO, but it was undone by the TTC when they released their agenda for the Board Meeting to be held on September 24. In it, the CEO’s Report is quite clear that the TTC will pursue arbitration under their PRESTO contract in an attempt to obtain payment of lost revenue due to non-delivery of a working fare system.

With PRESTO readers on every bus, streetcar and fare gate, and with PRESTO fare vending machines and self-serve reload machines at every station, the provincially-led fare card system has given our customers many benefits, but also many challenges.

Over the summer, I met with Metrolinx President and CEO, Phil Verster, to discuss the outstanding claims between the parties and the status of the outstanding deliverables of the contract for the implementation of PRESTO on the TTC. It is clear from our discussions that Metrolinx considers the contract deliverables complete.

So, while these discussions were informative about the positions of each organization, we were not able to reach a common understanding and agreement. We did agree that the next step is to proceed with arbitration, which is the dispute resolution process provided in the contract.

We are working with external counsel to review the process and finalize material and submissions. As we outlined in our report to the Board in June, the TTC does not consider the contract closed. Rather, there are significant deliverables outstanding, including open payment and account-based technology (which includes equipment), equipment to provide PRESTO Tickets on buses and streetcars, an acceptable third-party distribution network and Service Level Agreements for all equipment.

[TTC CEO’s Report at p. 14]

A major problem with Metrolinx’ perception of a “working” system is that they assume that any rider who encounters a fare machine that is out of service will use an alternate just as they would at a GO station. However, on crowded transit vehicles getting to another reader, let alone another fare machine for tokens or cash, can be very difficult and many riders do not bother to try. If they have a Metropass on their card (or a two-hour fare from a previous tap), this really does not matter because they have already paid, but for other riders this represents lost revenue to the TTC. Credit card holders cannot pay at all because this function rarely if ever worked.

Regular riders are familiar with the situation and just shrug when their tap does not register. I personally encounter this problem at least once a week, and see others having the same problems with unresponsive machines even more often. Things may be improving, but perfection is some distance off and Metrolinx has a lot to answer for from the earlier days of their PRESTO implementation.

Metrolinx tests the availability of fare equipment by “pinging” each device (sending a signal to a machine that elicits a response simply saying “I am here”). However, that function takes place at a low level within the hardware and the application software could be hung even though the “ping” gets a positive response.

Metrolinx measures of PRESTO access are likely too rosy because of assumptions about how easily riders can access the machines and about what constitutes a “working” box when tested remotely.