Toronto’s Board of Trade Contemplates Transportation

Prologue: When I started to write this story, John Tory was still Mayor of Toronto and the dynamics of City-Province relations assumed he was in charge. The context for these discussions was soon to change.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade holds a yearly “transportation summit”, and on February 8, 2023, this focused on the Greater Toronto Area’s transit, plans for the future, and the aftermath of the covid pandemic.

The TRBoT is no wild-eyed radical institution. The regional economy and businesses are at the heart of causes it advocates.

Both in the introductory remarks and in comments by speakers sprinkled through the day, the economic effect of traffic congestion was a mantra. This sets the framework for the importance of both transit and road projects, depending on who is speaking. The latest factoid describing Toronto’s problems is that we have the third worst congestion in North America and the seventh worst in the world.

CBC: Toronto ranks 3rd most congested city in North America. Here are the city’s worst traffic spots

A problem with this hand-wringing is that there is little acknowledgement that some particularly bad locations are related to major infrastructure projects such as the Gardiner Expressway rebuild and various rapid transit lines. Moreover, goods movement has severe problems in areas that historically have poor transit and show little chance of seeing any in the near future. No single project will solve the problem of many-to-many trips patterns that now depend almost totally on roads and private vehicles.

The Minister’s Outdated Campaign

The first presenter was Caroline Mulroney, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation. Although billed for a “fireside chat”, she delivered an extended campaign speech sounding like a rerun of the 2018 election. After decades of gridlock, “we” led the way. While opponents try to disrupt our projects from the sidelines, they cannot disrupt this key infrastructure.

But we are in the second Ford mandate. Blaming the “previous government” for 15 years of inaction is not just a tired argument, it simply is not true.

  • The Spadina subway extension to Vaughan opened in December 2017.
  • Work on the Relief Line design was already underway by both the City of Toronto and Metrolinx well before the 2018 election.
  • David Miller’s Transit City plan progressed to the point that Ford inherited the Crosstown project already under construction since 2011, and the Finch West project was ready to go. It was the late Rob Ford who scuttled Transit City in his first days of office as Mayor in 2010.

Both highways and transit are needed, Mulroney argued, and the right mix is needed. Both goods and people have to be moved. Transportation is an economic driver supporting both construction and investment, housing and employment.

Mulroney neglected to mention the friends of Ford lining their pockets with well-timed, well-chosen land purchases.

She spoke of transforming GO rail to an all-day regional system with service as often as 15 minutes in key segments. From comments during breaks later, several in the audience were wondering “only 15?” when Metrolinx has touted much better service.

(Later in the day, a Metrolinx VP, Stephanie Davies, said that Metrolinx hopes to improve on this and get down to 10 minute headways, maybe. Those of us with long memories know that even more frequent service was promised once upon a time.)

Rather sad was Mulroney’s citation of London service as an achievement. One train a day each way, at terribly inconvenient times and a glacial schedule, is only a line on a map, not a useful service that will divert drivers out of their cars. The Niagara Falls service has the same failing. She continued by touching briefly on hydrogen trains and the Northlander’s possible resurrection. There was a sense of stepping through talking points with neither substance nor understanding.

Oh yes, Ontario has a responsibility to build roads, Mulroney said, and “our opposition” would refuse to do this. She felt at home among a supportive Board of Trade who supports road expansion.

There was a real sense of “us and them” in The Minister’s speech, revealing a dark, combative fuck you attitude in the Ford government. When we finally got to a “chat”, Jan De Silva, President & CEO of the Board, asked about the Osgoode Hall trees. Mulroney replied that Toronto Council had supported the plan, as did governments at all levels. There was much consultation, she claimed.

Conveniently ignored was the fact that fine details of neighbourhood effects were not available in 2019 thanks to Metrolinx’ secrecy when Council signed on. They were getting four new rapid transit lines, and the Premier would pay for them. That is all that mattered. Claiming that Council’s approval endorsed every detail of these projects is utter nonsense.

De Silva’s only other question was what the government would do for underutilized transit and the need for better fare integration. Mulroney said her government was committed to fare integration, but with no details. She was silent on the need to fund service, not just lower fares.

The lies just piled up around Mulroney, but nobody called her out for an utterly inappropriate lead-off to the this gabfest. They lapped it up.

The contrast in tone with the collegiality emphasized in following presentations was quite marked. Frankly, I could not have endured an entire afternoon of Ford Fest love in. The Minister had other calls on her time, and fortunately this was the end of her contribution.

Bechtel and Crossrail

John Williams, President of Bechtel Corporation, gave a presentation about London’s Crossrail project, a huge undertaking to build a new tunnel under central London linking rail networks east and west of the city. His theme was not to recount the project’s eventual success, but to talk about the project’s structure.

If a project is not well designed, it can bog down in layers of review with checks and rechecks to ensure that each partner is doing their job. Williams spoke of “governance theatre” where multi-party contracts and layers of responsibility give the impression of management control while actually undermining what should be a well-oiled, co-operative venture.

There is a need for expertise in running big projects, and the competition for talent is fierce. Different leadership skills are needed at different times. Williams cited former TTC CEO Andy Byford’s “transformational difference” to Crossrail with a drive to solving problems and getting the project done.

(Byford’s successor at the TTC, Rick Leary, was also present and would speak later in the day. He has dismantled almost all of the changes, along with the senior staff, that Byford implemented in Toronto.)

The test of a healthy project, Williams said, is how an organizational culture responds when things go wrong. It is critically important to be close to a project, not to watch it from afar. When problems arise people get defensive, performance denial sets in together with a “carry on regardless” attitude. There is a risk of appearing to follow a plan in spite of changes.

That is precisely what happened with the Ottawa LRT project.

Any project needs to price in risk, but there are problems due the size of demand for large project management and competition for skills. The construction sector is undercapitalized and is in no shape to handle risks formerly backstopped by the public sector. Williams characterized the level of risk transfer possible according to some agencies and their lawyers as “fantasies”.

The echo of both Ottawa and of P3 schemes in Toronto was loud and clear. This was the first part of what would become an unspoken requiem for the P3 as we know it, and the rise of a modified approach, the “alliance” model.

Building Regional Rail

Panel moderated by Josh Colle, former TTC Chair and Toronto Councillor, Senior VP, EY [Ernst & Young]

  • Anthony Simmons, Major Stations Planning Lead, Caltrain
  • Stephanie Davies, Chief Capital Officer (GO & UP), Metrolinx
  • Jennifer Verellen, Senior Vice President, Transportation Systems, Canada, WSP
  • Souheil Abihanna, President, Alstom Canada

Josh Colle began the session with an audience poll: what is most important to you when a new transit service is announced? The top ranked choices were service frequency, speed and the closeness to a station. No big surprise here, and this scales all the way from local to regional transit. Without good frequency, transit is a line on a map, not a service. Speed is important, particularly for long trips, but a major component of “speed” includes access and wait time, or the lack of it.

As noted earlier, Stephanie Davies amended the Minister’s remarks by saying that Metrolinx hopes to better the 15 minute headway target, maybe getting down to 10. I remember presentations to Toronto Council in the context of SmartTrack with much lower numbers, but Metrolinx has always been cagey about whether they ever agreed to that.

Colle asked about the electrification of GO. Souheil Abihanna cited the poll results and the importance of electrification to frequent service, good acceleration and reliability. Shorter headways are easier to accomplish with electric trains.

Challenges lie in this being a big network brownfield where overhead, power distribution and substations need to be fitted into an existing lines and available real estate. The work is necessarily incremental with project phasing and risk management.

Jennifer Verellen noted that the focus has been on the structure and contracts for a P3 project. However, the team is important. Behavioural assessment was part of the scoring system for proposals. Social aspects of projects have been missed in the past. Oncorr, the consortium delivering the GO expansion, is six major companies, but the contract between them does not deliver projects.

Davies continued on this note saying that new practices started with the “alliance” model, an evolution from the traditional P3 to what she called a “progressive P3”. People need to be able to work together to build and design the solution. The mindset is moving to working outside the contract structure.

Not mentioned here is that Metrolinx was forced to abandon their original scheme for P3 contracts with large scale risk transfer to contractors because the industry was unwilling to accept their terms.

Anthony Simmons noted that Caltrain is delivering its own electrification project similar to Metrolinx. There have been problems along the way with delays in the design build process. He warned that infrastructure is nice to have, but we also need people to run it. He cited his home city of Brisbane which did not have enough staff to deliver service. It is not enough to attract riders to a new transit service: when they do come they should stay.

Colle asked if there are obstacles on the horizon, such as trees [the Osgoode Hall legal challenge was still in progress at the time]. 

Are there obstacles on the horizon? Trees?

Davies, diplomatically replied that these are challenges, not obstacles. More important are supply chain and labour issues for the scale of work, and the future doubling of the work level in active corridors.

The segment ended with another poll: how did the audience members get to the Board of Trade offices which are on Queens Quay just west of Jarvis? Roughly 30 percent walked from Union Station, while only 7 percent took the bus. This says something about the reliability and frequency of bus service in the eastern waterfront.

Waterfront Transit

Panel moderated by Tim Kocur, Executive Director, Waterfront BIA

  • Pina Mallozzi, Senior Vice President, Design, Waterfront Toronto
  • Ana Bailão, Head of Affordable Housing and Public Affairs, Dream REIT
  • Jennifer Quinn, Chief Strategy & Development Officer, Nieuport Aviation [operators of the Island Airport]

Tim Kocur began by asking what are the plans for the waterfront.

Pina Mallozzi talked about cycling infrastructure and the over 8-fold increase in cycling with the Martin Goodman Trail. Still to come are north-south pedestrian connections in the western waterfront and the outcome of Toronto’s Marine Use Strategy report including a possible role for water taxis.

Ana Bailão spoke of the challenges of getting new housing and the opportunity the waterfront presents. She stressed the need to identify the players (developers, politicians, public) needed and establish common ground among them. Transit is part of the community that needs to be built. The fact that so much waterfront land is in government hands brings opportunities that might not exist otherwise.

Jennifer Quinn said that the airport sees itself as a critical transportation hub for the region. US preclearance will open up ten new destinations. She noted that the airport lease expires in ten years and Nieuport needs this extended now.

40 percent of airport passengers come via transit. Other modes might be possible in the future such as gondolas. Freight is another part of airport operations.

(A personal aside to would be transit pundits: the moment I hear the word “gondola”, I downgrade a speaker’s credibility to someone easily wowed by gimmicks.)

Kocur asked about the Waterfront East LRT which is in the project queue, but is not funded. How can we get movement on this?

Bailão replied this is a perfect project to appeal to federal government for infrastructure due to the link between housing and transit. The LRT would also bring land value uplift and access to new public spaces. Transit is a smart investment, and we need to start being “facts oriented” about its value.

Mallozzi note that the project is funded to 30 percent design for the first phase, and an implemetation strategy and business case are coming soon.

Where are people coming from to the waterfront? From everywhere by both TTC and GO. Quinn chimed in that access from airport to waterfront destinations is important.

What opportunities exist for using GO to enhance access? The LRT will eventually connect to East Harbour station. It is a network to the waterfront to city. Bailão noted that we should review extra density and how everything will fit together.

What role does active transportation have? Mallozzi echoed her earlier remark that the Martin Goodman Trail was a huge accomplishment, and that it is a great way to commute to the waterfront. We need north-south connections plus an upgraded east side trail to be built with the LRT construction.

What can we, or have we learned from other cities? Mallozzi asked how do we get ourselves in Top 10 lists. Look at what we do now. Could there be a cultural centre? Design review is important to the quality of what will be built. On Quayside, Waterfront Toronto set ambitious goals. Their new development partners are using major architects, and pursuing design excellence including the use of tall wood buildings.

Whither the TTC?

Giles Gershon of the Board of Trade introduced TTC CEO Rick Leary. Gershon spoke of the TTC’s being taken for granted, that it is woven into the fabric of the city. With a fare hike and service changes coming, and reports of violence on the TTC and the wider city, what is the TTC doing?

Rick Leary began by talking about safety and security, a primary concern for the TTC. Operators and customers have real concerns. There have been discussions among TTC and city agencies, but there is no one solution. Police and Streets-to-home staff are making a difference, “bringing down the temperature”. Leary claimed that the TTC does not put people out of stations at night, although this might not accord with some videos posted online.

Getting ridership back to pre-pandemic levels is a challenge in part because farebox recovery on the TTC was historically quite high, and therefore revenue from lost riding has a big effect. So far, the TTC has received $1.7 billion in covid-related subsidies.

Leary claimed that new technology, unspecified, would allow the TTC to provide better service. Busways would improve vehicle flow. New signals plus more trains would provide greater capacity on the subway. Indeed, the TTC has achieved 32 trains/hour through Bloor-Yonge station, up from 26/hour possible with the old signal system on Line 1. (He neglected to mention that the actual scheduled service today is only 21 trains/hour at peak, and the higher level would only be achieved through a backlog of service as well as supplemental “gap” trains. This is a measure of what can be, not the level of service funded today.)

Restrictions on which agency can provide service where are being relaxed thanks to Provincial legislative changes that will allow Mississauga and York Region buses to carry local traffic within Toronto.

The big issue facing the TTC is work-from-home.

Gershon observed that Toronto is fortunate to have a growing population base to backfill demand. He noted that public perception is that reliability is an issue, that TTC funding is inadequate and there is a high dependency on the farebox.

Leary replied that transit has problems in mixed traffic. This is not exactly news. He then turned to long term capital costs where there is a $27 billion shortfall in coming years. Both the capital and operating budgets are an issue for Toronto.

Gershon asked about fare integration – what is the biggest obstacle to getting this?

Leary replied that legal changes in the City of Toronto Act, plus new software support in Presto, will make better integration possible. There are ongoing discussions about integration generally. About 11 percent of TTC riders come from outside of Toronto, and transit in the 905 is as important to them as to us.

I would take issue here on three counts. First, “integration” means different things to different people, and so far the only movement appears to be on cross-border travel, not on full elimination of the double-fare boundary. Second, the matter of using GO for local trips within Toronto with free transfers to and from the TTC did not come up at all. Any estimate of benefits and costs will depend on assumptions about just how “integrated” the networks really will be. Finally, the transit mode share in the 905 is much lower than in Toronto, and it is hard to believe that transit funding has a similar level of political urgency in both areas.

Gershon asked what efforts are made to keep service strong? Do cuts undermine transit leading to a downward spiral?

Leary replied that the TTC provides about 95 percent of pre-covid service for a lower demand, and they are running buses where nobody is riding. They are budgeting to serve 75 percent of pre-covid demand by reallocating resources. As to operational improvements, the TTC is working with the City to make changes.

There was no discussion of improved management by TTC of its own service.

Gershon wondered what the main differences are between Toronto and other cities like Boston and New York. Leary replied that the intermodal links, the integration between surface routes and the subway without extra fares, is important. Toronto has the 3rd largest ridership (pre-pandemic) after New York and Mexico City.

Finally, Gershon asked whether service integration with GO could relive the Yonge line. Leary replied that this is part of the fare integration team’s work, but that it would be expensive.

With that we came to the end of the formal session.

8 thoughts on “Toronto’s Board of Trade Contemplates Transportation

  1. Great post, thanks!

    Quick q – do you dismiss the gondola transit idea outright because you think it’s a ludicrous idea for Toronto specifically, or in general? It seems to me gondola public transit has been used to great effects in cities like Medellín, Portland, Berlin, etc. And while the Edmonton gondola project (private, but integrated with ETS) didn’t ultimately pan out because of the Indigenous burial ground, TransLink seems to be going full steam ahead on the Burnaby Mountain Gondola from a SkyTrain Station to SFU’s main campus. I’ve never heard of a non-recreative gondola for Toronto being pitched before so I’m not sure how that would work here and why it’s a good or bad idea.

    Steve: There are specific cases, typically where there is a geographic barrier, where a gondola could provide a link that is difficult otherwise, such as the Skytrain to SFU connection. However, too often I have the sense of a “Gondola Salesman” with his bag of tricks and a pitch guaranteed to snare the rubes into buying something they do not need. A technology looking for an application. It is particularly galling to see illustrations of cars gliding through the air, but no discussion of how stations would work or how rapid transit-level demands would be handled. Oddly enough, some of the same issues came up in the early discussions of the maglev train system for Toronto that would have required multi-track elevated stations and complex vertical access paths to street level. There was a draft design book for them that MTO didn’t want people to see because they preferred the image of a light, unobtrusive guideway.

    A few years back, there was a scheme to link the Brickworks to the park at the east end of the Viaduct (quite near where I live) that would have required pylons in the valley and station structures at both ends. The proposed fare was over $10 on the basis of it being a tourist ride in the valley, not a day-to-day transit link. Meanwhile, there is a free bus that runs from Broadview Station to the Brickworks every half hour all year long. People shopping at the Brickworks are not going to pay $10 for the privilege. The idea sank without a trace, but not before attracting some ill-informed political support.

    The most recent gondola proposal is for a link between the Ontario Line’s Exhibition Station and whatever monstrosity will be built at Ontario Place. It’s a challenge to link the two, but its financial viability will depend on what is actually built and how many people will go to it – a spa, a casino, whatever – from the transit station rather than driving to the 2000+ car parking garage that is proposed.


  2. Awesome read. This is the issue with congestion and gridlock in the city, another reason why it is stupid to cut any TTC service. And will contribute to gridlock continuing to choke Toronto.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Steve,

    You mentioned Rick Leary dismantling “almost all of the changes, along with the senior staff, that Byford implemented in Toronto”. Can you elaborate a bit? I’m somewhat aware of Leary being problematic for overseeing operations and future planning, but I didn’t know he actively made things worse post Byford.

    Steve: Several senior staff have been fired or have departed under pressure.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The gondola in Berlin is not a part of the public transit system. It requires a separate ticket which is double the price of a regular transit ticket. It plays basically no role in the transit system. And this in a system that does include regional trains, short-distance passenger ferries, and what’s basically an interurban that hasn’t changed in a hundred years (the line to Schöneiche and Rüdersdorf) as part of its regularly ticketed network.

    The Toronto equivalent to Berlin’s gondola route would be a connection between Downsview Park the subway station and Downsview Park the park near Keele Street. Or between a putative subway/LRT station with service every five minutes at Sheppard and Morningside to the Pan Am site at UTSC. Or, as Steve mentions, from Exhibition station to the casino, I mean the spa…


  5. So…”The big issue facing the TTC is work-from-home”. Given that the projects of the Ford government are dubious to begin with, where Stephen Wickens has estimated every other billion isn’t good value, should we not be adjusting these projects to something more sensible ie. upgrading them to investments? Are computers going away? Do the politicians who support these clunkers have even a dime of their own money involved? Should we not be re-assessing most all of the projects, along with a reformation of Metrolinx, which given the bad politricks of Con-tario, means we should pause all the major works maybe, till the agency becomes far more neutral/arms-length, maybe best done with the federal level refusing to participate in these big projects until there is a set of changes, not that the federal level is that brave.


  6. Because of its unique geography resulting in a split-level city, a gondola has been part of Hamilton’s Transportation Master Plan since 2015. One may note that there has not been a lot of construction upon this project in the last eight years.

    My own view is that I am technology-agnostic. Every technology has its advantages and disadvantages that make it appropriate in some situations and not in others… or at all.

    A gondola is a niche technology that is appropriate where there is a sudden and extreme change in elevation. Such as at a ski resort, or the Niagara Escarpment cutting through Hamilton.


  7. Hamilton did once upon a time have a funicular running from the south end of James St to the north end of Upper James St. Alas, long gone (though many lost personal items from that era have been found at its former site).

    As much as I personally would stand to benefit from a gondola running from the West Mountain to Westdale, it really isn’t that necessary. What would be more advantageous is more frequent service and better connectivity on the HSR, especially down the less popular Mountain accesses (i.e. not the Jolley Cut or James Mountain Rd). To get from the West Mountain to Downtown is a 25 minute one seat ride; the trip to Westdale or Dundas would be close to double that, despite being a similar length by car, 10-15 minutes. Hamilton is blessed with a grid, yet all paths from the Mountain must go sideways, creating two solid but barely connected transit grids. Small tweaks to the network would really make dramatic improvements here.

    Hopefully the LRT actually (hopefully, maybe this time?) gets built without another gotcha from Dougie and his rather mum Hamilton area MPPs, Donna Skelly and Neil Lumsden.


  8. Steve wrote:

    Giles Gershon of the Board of Trade observed that Toronto is fortunate to have a growing population base to backfill demand. He noted that public perception is that reliability is an issue,that TTC funding is inadequate and there is a high dependency on the farebox.

    Gershon asked what efforts are made to keep service strong? Do cuts undermine transit leading to a downward spiral?

    Wow, Steve, according to your report of The Toronto Region Board of Trade’s annual “transportation summit”, Giles Gershon appears to understand transit from the customers’ perspective.

    I recently had the terrible misfortune to need to use not just the TTC, but also public transit through Mississauga and Brampton on a daily, regular basis.

    After a while, I figured out the best “tactics” for my commutes. The online schedulers & maps are garbage! For example, I needed to go to Steeles & Keele. Online help kept giving me convoluted routes that would have left me walking up to a distance of a kilometer. Frustrated, I called the TTC for help, and I reached a gentleman who told me about the 60 Steeles bus that stops right on the corner, and I can catch this bus from either Pioneer Village or Finch subway stations. Same issue with the Burbs.

    In car country, it is no surprise about frequency of bus service. 20-minute waits in morning rush hour in the freezing wind in drafty bus shelters, I caught one humdinger of a cold, despite my mask. These are routes on major streets such as 103 Hurontario and 26 Burnhamthorpe. Sometimes there are stops every 250 meters, and sometimes there is no stop within 750 meters of a major destination point, as was my case.

    Most users are students and men that appear to me to be recently arrived in Canada, no offense intended. In other words, people without a car, yet. The bus drivers are maniacs! As a senior, the fare is only one dollar vs. $2.25 on the TTC.

    Overall, I rate MiWay and Zum as “good”. Construction of the Hurontario LRT is well underway; rails have already been installed in places. Better integration of MiWay and Zum would be nice (Peel Region Police as an example).
    Oh, does anyone remember the big snowstorm of Wednesday, January 25th? I will never forget it. The Bloor subway got shut down between Keele and Ossington, apparently a jumper.

    At Keele, there were NO shuttle buses, thousands milling about. Well, I wasn’t going to walk to Ossington in the storm, and I cannot walk very well, so I thought to backtrack to Jane and get the 26 Dupont bus. Huge mistake.
    First, it got bogged down in stand-still traffic. Perhaps there ought to be a law that private vehicles must make way for buses same as for ambulances and fire trucks?

    Second, the route is Dupont to Bedford Road, and St. George station. However, there were three buses stuck on the ice on the incline on Bedford. They were towing one out. Eventually, the driver took us to Avenue Road and around.

    Question: is there not a “Transit Control” to warn bus drivers of situations like this? We could have easily taken Davenport to Bedford and avoid the 90-minute delay! Took me 7 hours to get home.

    I shudder to think of another 9% decrease in TTC service.

    Liked by 1 person

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