John Tory Has (Another) Transit Plan

On September 20, 2022, Mayor John Tory announced his transit platform as part of his re-election campaign. It contains little new but rests mainly on completing works already in progress.

He pledges to be “laser-focused” on four key projects that just happen to be provincial undertakings. How exactly Tory, or any other municipal politician can advance these, other than standing out of Premier Ford’s way, is something of a mystery.

The projects are, of course, the Scarborough Subway extension, the Ontario line, the Eglinton Crosstown extension “towards” the airport and the Yonge North extension to Richmond Hill. Collectively they represent a $28 billion provincial commitment that will keep the construction industry humming along for the next decade, but an unknown call on future city budgets to aid in their operation.

They also represent “investments” that will crowd other projects off of the table when Toronto calls on provincial and federal governments for more transit support. Toronto and Mayor Tory are thrilled to get such a huge transit investment, but whether this is the right investment is quite another matter.

The remainder of his platform focuses more on past achievements than new programs, and is silent on the question of how we will actually pay for much of this.

In the following text, the quoted items come from John Tory’s campaign website linked above. The order has been slightly changed to group related items.

  • Moving forward with the Crosstown LRT and Finch LRT, both of which will open soon.
  • Securing funding for the expansion of Bloor-Yonge station to meet current and future ridership demand.
  • Planning underway for the Eglinton East and Waterfront transit lines.
  • Investing in 60 new streetcars for the TTC through a $568 million funding commitment from all three levels of government.

Notable by their absence are the Eglinton East and Waterfront LRT lines for which the only mention is that planning is underway. I spoke with candidate Tory at the TTC’s August 20 open house, and he replied forcefully about his support for the Waterfront LRT and desire to see it built. Strange, then, that actual construction does not appear in his platform.

Many other items are works in progress or nearly completed including the original section of Eglinton Crosstown and the Finch LRT both expected to open fairly soon. Others include securing funding for Bloor-Yonge station’s expansion (a second platform in Yonge Station plus expanded circulation space between the Yonge and Bloor lines) and funding for 60 additional streetcars.

  • Introducing the City’s first-ever RapidTO corridor – a priority bus-only lane – on Eglinton East.
  • Creating the King Street Transit Priority Corridor to ensure more reliable and efficient streetcar service along the busiest surface transit route in the city.

The King Street transitway is a fait acompli as are the RapidTO bus lanes in Scarborough. The much greater challenge, on which Tory’s platform is silent, will be wresting transit’s priority back on King Street from the “wild west” that has evolved since the scheme was introduced. This is only one aspect of the need for much more aggressive enforcement of traffic laws and regulations so badly needed in Toronto.

As for RapidTO, many proposed bus lanes have encountered political headwinds because they would be on streets where space is much less easily set aside for transit. The Scarborough project was low hanging fruit.

  • Increasing subway service on Line 1 and 2 during peak periods to support return to office plans.
  • Increasing investment on 17 bus and streetcar routes this year, and increasing service on 29 bus routes and two streetcar routes beginning in September as riders return to work.

John Tory takes credit for recent service improvements in response to riding growth. What his platform does not mention is that service is still below pre-pandemic levels especially on the subway. Running more service, both to get back to January 2020 levels and to grow in the future will require money, and it is not clear where this will come from as provincial and federal governments are expected to reduce or cease their Covid budget supplements to cities in the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2023. The issue is not what the TTC managed to achieve for Fall 2022, but how long this can be sustained.

  • Rolling out the Automated Train Control signalling system on all of Line 1 and expansion of the Wi-Fi on buses pilot program this fall.

The rollout of ATC on Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina will be substantially complete on the weekend of September 24, 2022, when the final segment from Eglinton to Finch switches over. There will be a clean-up phase to deal with changes identified since the project went live, but the main work is at last finished. It should be remembered that this project had a checkered life with a botched original implementation plan that was rescued by former CEO Andy Byford. The status of ATC for Line 2 Bloor-Danforth is not yet known, but is essential as part of the Scarborough Subway extension plans. (More about LIne 2 overall below.)

  • Bringing in the Fair Pass, a first-ever TTC discount for low-income residents, as well as free two-hour transfers on the TTC.

Worth remembering is that the Fair Pass and the Two-Hour Transfer were both products of community activism, not proposals that originated in the Mayor’s office. Both were hard-won in the face of budget hawks who saw them as added rider subsidies, not as investments in a better city.

The Fair Pass is still not fully implemented because the cost of extending it to the full projected market is not funded in the City’s budget. John Tory’s platform is silent on this.

  • Ensuring that the TTC continues to have the largest fleet of electric buses in all of North America. 

The City of Toronto has a Net Zero plan which sounds impressive, but only a portion of it has been endorsed by Council. Even the planned purchase of 300 battery-electric buses is not yet a fully funded project even though the TTC has been through a vendor evaluation and was expected to award contracts in September 2022.

The TTC will also require at least one more bus garage to handle the growing bus fleet assuming that plans to continue service expansion are not sandbagged. This type of change requires co-ordination of vehicle, plant and staffing many years in advance.

  • Implementing the SmartTrack program, with an agreement signed between all three levels of government and with Metrolinx now hiring builders for five new urban rapid transit stations.

SmartTrack, announced two elections ago when John Tory was first staking his claim to having a transit program, is a shadow of the original proposal. It is now a handful of new GO stations that will be built at the City’s cost, and marginal improvements in GO service that Metrolinx planned to operate whether SmartTrack existed or not.

Still to be settled is the question of GO and TTC fare integration.

SmartTrack was announced in 2014 as a plan that would solve every transit problem. In the intervening years, the program shrank, and Mayor rather than candidate Tory learned that there is more to transit than one commuter rail / surface rapid transit corridor including simple things like more buses for better service.

Ironically, the SmartTracker website telling us how much time we will all save in our travels is still active with the full proposed network for all to see.

  • Significantly upgrading the TTC system as part of the five and 10-year plan to improve customer experience and accommodate expected growth in ridership.

To say that this is a key investment made, as if it were a done deal, is a real stretch. The TTC has a huge backlog of capital projects many of which are not funded. A substantial collection of these are part of a Line 2 renewal plan that was first proposed, but not published, while Andy Byford was still CEO. It was pushed to the back burner because of the substantial cost. The plan includes:

  • New trains for Line 2 including vehicles for service improvements and the Scarborough extension
  • Automatic Train Control implementation
  • Station upgrades
  • A new storage and maintenance facility west of Kipling Station

The TTC plans to publish an updated Line 2 plan in 2023. There is no sense of how we will pay for it, nor how strong a commitment we will see from City Hall and other governments for special funding beyond their regular contributions.

Vital to any plan that will improve the TTC and handle growing ridership is a recognition that carrying more riders on a more attractive service requires more operating subsidies. These are not small scale investments in a demonstration project here or there, but a system-wide effort that will be invisible without significant new resources. Moreover, TTC management must be held accountable for operating and maintaining their system well rather than the lacklustre operation that passes for transit service on many routes today.

I am not convinced that Mayor Tory is even aware of the calls on City funding that the transit improvements he touts will require. If he is, then he owes voters an explanation of what we can actually afford to do and when. If he is in the dark, just spouting feel-good slogans like “SmartTrack”, then Toronto will wait a long time for substantially better transit.