The TTC Board met on February 10 with a thicker-than-usual agenda including:
- A review of the Five Year Corporate Plan Status & CEO’s Report
- A report on liquidated damage provisions within the contract for additional streetcars
- Proposed asbestos removal projects at St. Patrick and Queen’s Park Stations
- An update on the Presto contract with Metrolinx, and on the TTC’s pursuit of information on a possible replacement system from other vendors
- An update on the Fair Pass program
The Board spent considerable time on the proposed shutdown of the SRT. Please see my original article Bye, Bye Scarborough RT on this issue which has been updated to reflect their debate and decision.
The Transit Network Expansion report also deserves its own article and will be reviewed separately.
Five Year Plan Review & CEO’s Report
The TTC is half way through the period of its 2018-2022 Five Year Plan. CEO Rick Leary gave an extended presentation which dwelt rather longer on past events than current work and plans. For the full remarks and slide deck, please follow the links below.
In what might be called revisionist history, Leary claimed that when he became Acting CEO in December 2017 (following Andy Byford’s departure to New York City), there was a gap between the TTC’s efforts and what customers wanted. This was supposedly addressed by Leary’s first Five Year Plan.
That is quite a statement to make – it implies that the Byford regime (many of whom departed after Leary’s ascension) really was out of touch with what Toronto needed and wanted.
Among the 2018 accomplishments touted were:
- Enhanced Express Bus Network: Almost all of the new 900-series express routes were simply rebranded from existing “E” branches of existing routes without change. There have been some enhancements and additions since, but the overwhelming majority of the “network” already existed.
- 2-hour Transfer: This was an idea that had been dismissed by TTC as too expensive even though Presto was perfectly able to implement it and systems in the 905 already used this scheme. Some problems with Presto arose specifically from the TTC’s choice to embed their legacy transfer rules rather than change to time-based fares. The 2-hour transfer was implemented when Mayor Tory decided he needed to “do something” about fares, not because of advocacy from the TTC.
- Fair Pass Discount: Again, this was a City initiative implemented after much advocacy outside of the TTC.
- Run as Directed Subway Trains: Standby trains (aka “gap trains”) have been used on the subway for many years. At one point they were cut from the schedule as a budget saving, but were restored to deal with crowding crises. This is not something new, but rather the restoration of badly-needed service.
- Green Bus Technology Plan: This came about due to rather unseemly lobbying that had clearly been orchestrated at the political level. To management’s credit, a head-to-head comparison was conducted rather than simply giving a contract in response to a sales pitch.
2019 started off with a bang – the publication of a 15 Year capital plan that, for the first time, acknowledged the depth of the hole in TTC funding and the huge backlog of work needed just to keep the existing system operating. In past years, the TTC’s budget was artificially constrained so that the City’s future capital borrowing needs appeared to be manageable. This allowed various megaprojects to gain approval while the debt load stayed within City targets. However, it hid from both local politicians and from potential funding partners the real needs of the transit system.
After suppressing the spending backlog for years, the potential for new funding, especially from the federal government, was paramount. If you say “I’m getting by just fine”, nobody is going to give you a handout, much less embrace your desires as a potential economic stimulus package.
Even in this context, the TTC low-balled its needs. In particular, some of the planned improvements for Line 2 Bloor-Danforth were shuffled off sine die with a scheme to overhaul the existing T-1 fleet so that it could operate to 2040. Toronto has enough experience with vehicles running past their prime, and this was a bone-headed idea. It would also have compromised the timing of the Line 2 ATC project and capacity expansion, not to mention complicating signal design for the Scarborough Subway extension.
The Line 2 projects appear to be back in the hopper, and Line 2 capacity is in the list of project reports for 2021. However, until we see what is actually proposed (let alone how it would be funded), skepticism would be in order. As a matter of record, a Line 2 master plan was promised during Andy Byford’s era, but it never reached the TTC Board even though it was, as I understand it, substantially complete. The problem? Too expensive.
Another 2019 initiative was the Five Year Service Plan. It is good that the TTC is actually doing some planning, and that this has public visibility, but there is a gaping hole in the process. Like so many TTC schemes, the service plan is constrained by funding, and tends to propose small, incremental changes that will not trigger substantial capital or operating costs. There is little talk of aspirational change to build service faster than a bare-bones inflationary level.
This is particularly important in a post-covid world where the concept of transit service and acceptable crowding will remain issues for some years. The TTC routinely denies that its vehicles are crowded, but this relies on stats that are averaged over many routes on an all-day basis. Riders complain regularly, but management’s position is that these events are rare and are dealt with promptly. The situation is complicated by erratic vehicle spacing and by reporting metrics that do not reflect the quality of service at the rider level.
Leary is particularly proud of getting rid of short turns, but this has been achieved at the expense of reduced vehicle utilization and wider headways while little or nothing is done to address reliability.
A revised set of metrics is due to appear in the April CEO’s Report.
Among the achievements claimed is “alternate sourcing”, code for contracting out. There are definitely cases when specialized work that is not part of the TTC’s day-to-day operations is legitimately contracted to a company with the needed expertise. The question is which functions fit into this category. Labour relations are not discussed publicly, but it is no secret that there are open grievances and arbitrations on jurisdictional issues. Whether this is productive, especially in terms of rider benefits and employee relations, is up for debate.
McNicoll Garage will open at the end of March 2021. It was designed and built for a conventional fleet, not eBuses, because the project was underway well before they were an option.
Coming in 2021 are:
- Reports on the head-to-head competition between eBus suppliers and on bus procurement will come to the April Board meeting. One point of interest is that NovaBus was not part of the comparison because it required vehicles with long-range (all day) capability. During the testing the TTC has found that an all-day charge is not what they had hoped, and that on-route charging may be needed. This also affects scheduling because if a bus must return to the garage to recharge, this is non-productive mileage and driving hours.
- A “Non-Fare Revenue Strategy” could include revival of a scheme to upgrade subway station news stands with greater capabilities, although there are limits to where that would fit in many places. Another piece of “non-fare revenue” is commuter parking. A question for the TTC and for the City is whether this is an appropriate use of land and TTC resources.
- A “Real Estate Investment Strategy” begs the question of why the TTC should be “investing” as opposed to simply consolidating its many leased premises into a new principal office. Work on this is supposed to be underway already as part of the City’s office space planning. Another land requirement the TTC will face will be for its next bus garage. Land for a new subway yard at Kipling is already being acquired by the City.
- The Capital Investment Plan will be updated to reflect changing times and the provincial takeover of major projects.
- The long-awaited question of Line 2 Capacity will come before the Board. This must address issues such as increased storage and maintenance capacity for a larger fleet of trains, automatic train control, power supply and station capacity. Bloor-Yonge already has a massive project to add a second platform on the lower (Line 2) level, but other stations, notably St. George, will face problems from increased demand.
- The next steps in Transit Priority Lane planning and implementation will face a more difficult acceptance and approval because the streets which are top candidates are narrower than the Eglinton-UTSC corridor, and the design does not easily transfer from one place to another.
- There will be a “reset” of the Five Year Service Plan taking into account the effects of Covid on future ridership patterns.
There was no mention of the budget challenges from new lines (5 Crosstown and 6 Finch) which will add to operating costs including yet-unknown bills from the province.
Fare policy will affect overall revenue as well as the attractiveness of transit to riders. This is the subject of a separate study, and the big unknown lies in the stance Metrolinx could take forcing their model of “integration” on all agencies in the region. There has been no discussion at the TTC Board of the models TTC and Metrolinx staff are considering, or what their effect on riders might be. Yes, 11% of (pre-pandemic) TTC riders made cross-border trips and the double fare is onerous, but nobody talks about what the effect will be on the other 89%.
Finally, in the CEO’s Report there are charts showing how riding and revenue have been affected by the pandemic. After the initial effect of the spring 2020 lockdown, ridership built gradually to early fall, but has since fallen again thanks to the combined effect of the stay-at-home order and winter weather. The TTC hit a high of 39% in September 2020, but this has dropped back to about 25% in January 2021.
The chart below tracks the shift by mode. Bus ridership remains the strongest in the network, but even that has dropped below 40% of former levels. Note that the percentages shown in the chart on the right refer to total rides (fares, in black) and boardings. The latter number is higher because exch transfer counts as a new boarding. In planning lingo, these are “linked” versus “unlinked” trips.
The TTC proposes to acquire 60 additional streetcars from Bombardier, now Alstom, of the same design as the current 204-strong fleet of Flexitys. Funding for 13 of these has been secured from the City of Toronto, and contributions are being sought from the provincial and federal governments.
Delivery of the original Flexitys was problematic. The vehicles were late, and there were severe problems with the first third of the order due to poorly manufactured frames. The affected cars are now cycling through a retrofit program. Many other problems have been addressed through warranty repairs, and the TTC is taking advantage of the lower ridership and interruption of streetcar service for major construction projects to accelerate this work with the intent that the fleet will be fully available by the end of 2021.
Some TTC Board members have pressed for tighter contract terms on the new order. Management reports that this has been done, although details are in the confidential section of the report. (They will be made public after the contract is signed.)
An outside review of the proposed terms was conducted to reassure the Board:
TTC staff engaged Hatch LTK as an independent advisor during contract negotiations with Bombardier. Based on industry benchmark comparisons, Hatch LTK confirmed that the LD terms proposed by TTC staff for the supply of additional streetcars, as set out in the Confidential Attachment, are among the strictest in North America. [p. 4]
Ideally, Bombardier learned how to build better cars during the later part of their contract, and Alstom as the new proprietor has the technical skill and management ability to avoid triggering liquidated damage claims. Given the lead time to re-establish the production line and begin producing vehicles, we will not know if they succeed until the mid-2020s.
For some time, the TTC has been removing asbestos from subway tunnel walls. This is tedious process which requires strict controls to avoid contamination outside a work zone, to protect those within it, and to ensure a thorough cleanup afterwards. Asbestos was once used as part of a spray-on treatment to dampen noise.
Much of this work has concentrated on the North Yonge subway between Eglinton and Finch Stations including a recent extended shutdown north of Sheppard. However, there is a large amount of asbestos on the University subway notably in St. Patrick and Queen’s Park stations.
TTC management plan to let a contract to an outside firm to remove all asbestos from the northbound platform area at St. Patrick which is in the worst shape of the four (each station has two separate tunnels and platforms, one for each direction).
The works to be performed under this contract would be the removal of friable asbestos behind the suspended ceilings on the northbound platform, as well as the removal of the suspended ceiling at St Patrick Station. The work at St Patrick Station on the northbound platform is the most critical and therefore prioritized. This represents a potential total of approximately 11,000 square feet of friable asbestos to be abated,and 7,000 square feet of ceiling material. This is believed to be reasonable in terms of what can safely be abated during the closure based on industry feedback.
Due to leaks deteriorating the condition of the material, there are concerns that the asbestos could fall onto the tunnel impacting service. There have been several occasions in the past where asbestos material from the tunnel structure has fallen through the ceiling to platform level in this area. [p. 3]Note: “Friable” refers to asbestos that is in a material where it could be crumbled and, thereby, airborne as opposed non “non-friable” where it is a component of something like a floor tile.
The work would be done during the period from March 15 to 24, 2021 which was originally the planned “March Break” period for schools. That break has now been shifted to the second week of April, but the TTC has not announced whether it will adjust the work period to match.
The work will require the complete shutdown of the University Subway between St. George and St. Andrew Stations for the ten-day period. Shuttle buses would operate to provide replacement service, but many riders are likely to divert to the Yonge line. The report is silent on the operational issues for the subway including the limits on turnback frequency from St. Andrew and the effect of added riding on the Yonge line.
It is clear that the TTC contemplates finishing the other three platforms while riding is still below normal. Follow-on work would restore the station finishes, but this would only require weekend service interruptions.
The work of this RFP will be a proof of concept, whereby a future RFP and associated closure(s) can be planned subject to low ridership levels. This will mitigate the impact to customer service and operations of the associated station platform(s). [p. 4]
Management are still reviewing risk issues for this project, but due to the tight timelines have requested the Board’s authority to proceed now. (The Board will not meet again until mid-April.) Based on the outcome of this work, management will report in the second quarter on plans for the remaining platforms.
The Board considered a management report that included updates on the status of the Presto contract, the Request for Information (RFI) issued in 2020 by the TTC to potential vendors of fare technology, and a roadmap showing the expected activity over coming years.
First the roadmap.
Both the TTC and Metrolinx will pursue study of fare systems and technology in parallel over coming years. In theory, this is a waste, or would be if Metrolinx/Presto had not been such an arrogant vendor who not only failed, but refused to deliver on contracted requirements. Unless Queen’s Park is prepared to foist an updated version of Presto on the TTC when the contract expires in 2027, the TTC wants to be in a position to send Presto and Metrolinx packing. This of course assumes that there will still be a semblance of independence left in the TTC, or if it will have been swallowed by a regional agency.
The events are driven by various expiry dates in the TTC/Presto contract. The base contract ends in November 2027 although it could be extended at Metrolinx’ option for another year. Whenever the end does come, there is a possible 4-year renewal, but more importantly, there is a critical decision in November 2025 whether the TTC intends to stay with Presto.
By the time that happens, several other decisions and studies will progress to inform the TTC’s choice:
- The TTC’s fare policy and fare collection outlook now in progress will inform the requirements for any new fare system. This work is expected to complete by the end of 2021.
- The TTC’s RFI process will progress through a refining stage in late 2022 followed by a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) in May 2023.
- Metrolinx’ own process will move through the RFI, RFQ and Request for Proposals (RFP) stages during 2021, a considerably shorter period than the TTC’s own sequence. Metrolinx intends to award a contract in early 2022 in anticipation of the end of their contract with Accenture, who now provide the services underlying Presto, in fall 2022.
- Existing equipment on the TTC will be refreshed over 2021-22 in anticipation both of Open Payment support on Presto and the move to an account-based system with Metrolinx’ new supplier in 2023.
Assuming that Metrolinx hits its targets, we will know whether the “new” Presto will meet TTC requirements in 2022 before the TTC has even progressed to the second stage of their own RFI process. Realistically, this means that the TTC will have to decide sometime in 2022 whether they will stay with Presto or follow their own path. 2022 is an election year, and at least part of the TTC Board will be pre-occupied with that during the latter part of the year. It will also be a provincial election year which could bring its own changes, or maybe not. What is reasonably certain is that if the TTC attempts to implement its own system, they will have to do this without provincial support.
The TTC and Metrolinx are supposed to be working closely on a new specification. Metrolinx understands the importance of addressing their largest client’s needs, and the TTC has a “seat at the table” in the procurement process. If this is for more than show, that will be a change from the formerly contentious relationship between the two organizations.
Deputy Mayor and TTC Board member Denzil Minnan-Wong pressed staff for information on the state of the RFI.
- Had it closed yet? Yes, with 21 replies. There will be a report to the Board in May including information learned from the responses and a list of interested vendors.
- Would there be financial information? No, this is just a capabilities survey.
- Will the RFI results set the framework for the RFP. No, but the TTC’s RFI will better inform their position and what the TTC might do when the Presto agreement ends in 2027.
It was clear that Minnan-Wong was fishing for information, and one cannot help remembering his role in facilitating a sales pitch masquerading as a “deputation” to a TTC Board meeting by BYD for their battery buses.
He went on to propose a “vendor day” at the TTC where the proponents could show their wares. A vendor day with 21 participants, some of whom can easily be expected to show up with little more than a recently-printed brochure, is a waste of time except as theatre.
This is nothing but an excuse to show off the shiny toys and lobby without going through a formal review, and the process violates many of the procurement principles that arose from the Bellamy Inquiry years ago. Meanwhile, visits to the lobbyist registry should prove illuminating if only to see which vendors try hardest to swing which Board members and staff to look favourably on their products.
Although the timeframe charted above is long, many of the major decisions will be made by the end of 2022, some within 2021. After that, all that is left is to plan and manage the transition to whatever comes next. I will be astounded if the TTC moves away from Presto. However, I am guardedly hopeful that Metrolinx will take a more enlightened view of fare collection technology than in years past, and will not simply allow their incumbent provider to add more patches to their old system.
At a recent meeting, City Council requested that the TTC make improvements to the “Fair Pass” program that provides reduced fares to low-income residents as part of their current review of fare policy and collection:
- to identify, streamline and reduce barriers for residents to fully apply for the Toronto Transit Commission’s fare concessions and the Fair Pass discount
- review fare measures to assist seniors.
The Fair Pass program has built gradually to include more recipients, and was originally scheduled to roll out fully in 2020. This was interrupted by the pandemic, and is now aimed at 2022. The goal is to make reduced fares available to everyone whose income is below the “Low-Income Measure” (sometimes called LICO for “Low Income Cut Off”) plus 15 per cent.
Scaling up this program has challenges, some of which are complicated by the pandemic. Like so many aspects of “modern” society, online processes create a divide between those who have access to and are comfortable with technology, including possibly language barriers, and those who do not. The application process for the Fair Pass that might have been manageable when few qualified does not necessarily scale up especially if applications must be renewed periodically to establish continued eligibility.
[Update: The following section has been updated to reflect the fact that the Senior/Student and Fair Pass fares are almost the same, but not quite. The Fair Pass is slightly cheaper, fifteen cents less than the senior/student fare.]
The fare structure itself limits the reach of the program because the TTC similar fares for to seniors, students and Fair Pass users. This means that the Fair Pass is of no use to people who already receive a discounted fare.
A further complaint about the pass is that the distinctive light and tone on Presto readers marks its users. To be fair, the same happens with any concession fare, and the intent is to alert fare inspectors and drivers to people who might be paying at a rate to which they are not entitled. This runs headlong into the conflict between “revenue protection” for the transit system and the social goal of improving access to mobility by lowering the cost.
It is fairly easy to visually estimate whether someone is a student or a senior, but things get trickier when people of all ages are entitled to a discount. Conversely, the only way a fair pass user could establish their right to pay at that rate would be to have a separate piece of identification proving this. Leaving aside privacy issues, the obvious question is whether something like this should be issued by the City for use in accessing any programs with similar eligibility requirements.
One step further, once the account-based version of Presto (or its replacement) is in place, would simply be to use this identity card to pay fares. A related problem, regardless of the card used, is the limitations of access for putting money in one’s account for those with technology barriers or who live in a “Presto desert” where opportunities to access an add-fare machine are limited.
Any change to the fare collection scheme need to be evaluated in a framework that applies to all riders, not simply as a quick fix to serve what initially was a small group of Fair Pass holders.
The Board approved the City’s request that staff pursue these issues, and added a few motions of their own.
From Commissioner Brad Bradford:
Direct the TTC CEO to explore opportunities for the relevant TTC divisions, including within the TTC-Metrolinx Joint Advisory Group, to better integrate the City’s Fair Pass Program with the PRESTO system, with consideration for opportunities such as:
- In-person sign-up opportunities and clinics for Fair Pass sign-up
- Adjusting implementation based on the findings of the 2019 Fair Pass Evaluation Report
- Partnership opportunities with municipal and provincial agencies to improve access to the TTC for people with low-income.
From Commissioner Cynthia Lai:
- Examine aligning the current seniors fare discount and the city’s Fair Pass Discount
- Examine senior transit fare policies in other world cities
- Examine senior transit fare policies in other Ontario cities where reduced rates are provided in off-peak hours
- Approach the Ontario Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility to identify funding opportunities for seniors fares
- Report back by the end of the second quarter of 2021 on policies related to seniors fares
Note that the first point of this motion could be redundant as seniors and Fair Pass prices are almost the same, and the Fair Pass is slightly cheaper. It is not clear whether “aligning” the fare discount would imply a second tier discount so that senior Fair Pass uses would pay less than adults.
As for getting money out of Queen’s Park, there is a basic issue here of whether there should be special provincial subsidies for each class of rider, or if any subsidy should simply be passed to the City who would determine how it is spent. There is already a huge gap in that the province mandates accessibility, but contributes nothing to pay for the additional capital and operating costs. The cost of Wheel-Trans exceeds the amount of provincial gas tax transfer that is applied to the TTC’s operating deficit.
A further complication in this debate is that there are arguments made that not all seniors should get subsidized fares. While this could be true, it would extend the need to validate eligibility for discounts to an even larger group.
The debate should really be about the quality of service we provide to everyone, rather than nickel-and-diming access through the fare system.