The recent TTC Board meeting was over quickly, but contained a few nuggets of interest in the agenda.
The TTC Board met on July 11, and the public agenda contained little that prompted extensive debate. The entire meeting was over in 75 minutes, a quite unusual situation reflecting the onset of the summer break at City Hall.
The status of the streetcar order from Bombardier prompted a spin-off discussion of the subway. CEO Andy Byford had noted that reliability on the Yonge line’s fleet of TR (Toronto Rocket) trains has reached a world-class level, and it is quite substantially better than that of the T1 trains operating on Bloor-Danforth, although their performance is reasonable for cars of their age (about 15 years) and technology.
This prompted a question from Vice Chair Alan Heisey who asked when the TTC should be making plans to replace the T1 fleet. Chief Operating Officer Mike Palmer replied that “we probably had to order the cars last week”. (See YouTube video of meeting.) This came as something of a surprise to the Board thanks to the way that planning for the Scarborough Subway Estension (SSE) and Line 2 BD in general have been handled, with information dribbling out bit by bit, and with plans in the TTC Capital Budget not fully reflecting future needs.
I wrote about this in a previous article, but as an update, here is the status of various projects related to the BD line’s future.
There are four major components to upgrades facing the TTC for subway expansion on Line 2 Bloor Danforth. Here is their status:
- Replace T1 subway car fleet
- Estimated cost: $1.737 billion
- “Below the line” in the City Budget (i.e. not funded)
- Current replacement schedule is out of step with plans for other projects
- New subway yard at Kipling
- Approximate cost: $500 million
- Only $7m for planning work is included in the Capital Budget, but nothing for construction
- Carhouse and yard are a prerequisite for the T1 replacement fleet
- Automatic Train Control
- Estimated cost: $431 million
- Only about $250m currently allocated in the City’s approved Capital Budget
- Current signal system dates from 1966-69 when the BD line was built and it uses obsolete technology
- Bloor-Yonge Station capacity relief
- Estimated cost: $1.117 billion
- Only $6m for planning work is included in the Capital Budget, but nothing for construction
- Scope of work and feasibility have not been published
This is not simply a matter of TTC management providing a rosy view of capital needs, or of the City choosing to ignore the scope of the problem. When projects of this scale don’t appear in the “to do list”, they are not considered any time another government comes calling with a funding offer. Many projects that will receive money from Ottawa’s infrastructure fund (PTIF) are on that list because they were acknowledged as part of the TTC’s outstanding requirements.
Keeping the full needs of the Bloor-Danforth subway out of view short-changes the TTC system and the riding public, and politicians are surprised to find that the “ask” for transit spending is a lot bigger than they thought. Meanwhile new projects make claims on “spending room” that might exist only because needs of the existing system have been downplayed.
TTC management plans to bring a consolidated report on the renewal of the Bloor-Danforth line to the Board in September 2017.
Metrolinx has published ridership stats for the Union Pearson Express to the end of March 2017.
These do not break down trips between various points on the line to show what portion of ridership is end-to-end Union-Airport traffic, and what portion travels to or from stations along the way.
In this chart the blue line traces daily counts and these show a regular weekly cycle. The total ridership grows after the fare reduction of early 2016 and peaked in September 2016. Except for that peak, and a winter dip from Christmas 2016 to mid-February 2017, the average number of daily riders (on a weekly rolling average, orange) has remained slightly below 8,000. This appears to be the new stable level of ridership with the current fares and service pattern. A related issue is that with some trips on busy days reporting standees, growth during certain periods will be constrained by available capacity.
The original projection for UPX was that it would reach 5,000 daily riders after a year’s operation. This it would have abjectly failed to achieve but for the revised tariff. The gray line prorates that projection from the opening week to the first anniversary in June 2016, and then continues on the same rate of increase until March 2017.
In the Metrolinx financial statements (to be discussed in a separate post), it is not possible to separate out information for the UPX division, and for management and accounting purposes, this has now been rolled into GO Transit.
A note to anyone at Metrolinx who is reading this: When you publish data like this, make it available as a spreadsheet (as well as PDF for general consumption) so that the numbers can easily be extracted and analysed without the need to “scrape” the PDF.
After a recent Metrolinx Board Meeting (about which more in a separate article), reporters the Star and the Globe peppered Chair Robert Prichard about decisions to approve two future GO stations against original staff recommendations.
Ben Spurr wrote in the Star about the Kirby station in Vaughan that leapt from an initial review to part of GO’s plans thanks to political intervention at Queen’s Park. In between the detailed station reviews and the final recommendations to the Metrolinx Board, a summary report consolidated the detailed reviews. This report, which has not been published by Metrolinx, has different recommendations that those presented to the Board, according to Spurr’s article.
I wrote extensively about the reviews of proposed stations within the City of Toronto in these articles:
Another station that found its way onto the approved list in spite of a negative review was Lawrence East. This station is critical to plans for the Scarborough Subway providing a replacement for service in an area the subway will bypass.
The future of stations that would be added through the SmartTrack scheme is rather cloudy. Even though Lawrence East, for example, is “approved”, this is subject to operational reviews and intensification of land use by the City of Toronto to build demand. Talking of the Kirby station, Spurr reported:
Prichard said the board’s decision was “conditional” and that Metrolinx will continue to update its analysis based on development in Vaughan. If the greater density doesn’t materialize “we can back off,” he said.
For the stations in the City of Toronto, the situation begs more questions. First, Metrolinx required Council to sign on guaranteeing that they would fund added stations for SmartTrack in November 2016. Council was told that Metrolinx was going into design and construction, and that a commitment was needed “now” for this work to stay on schedule. Second, the total cost of the six proposed stations approved by Council was more than twice the cost estimates in the Metrolinx station reviews.
Metrolinx station review cost estimates:
- Lawrence East: $22.7 million
- Finch East: $108.9 million
- Liberty Village: $30.8 million
- St. Clair: $27.4 million
- East Harbour (Unilever): $118.9 million
- Gerrard: $251.7 million
- Total: $560.4 million
City Council estimate: $1,251.8 million
With total costs much higher than in the original evaluations, the business cases for these stations are even weaker than have been stated. The City is not strictly on the hook for these costs yet, whatever they might be, because there will be a final approval point when more detailed estimates are available prior to tendering the construction work. This point is unlikely to be reached before the municipal election in fall 2018.
Several of the proposed stations pose construction challenges, and it is not clear how well all of them can be fitted into the corridor. Liberty Village station is particularly tight for space.
Lawrence East poses a delicate political problem because it cannot be built while the SRT remains in operation. However, the Scarborough Subway will not open until late 2026 leaving the possibility of an early shutdown of the SRT, or a delay in the provision of a SmartTrack station. Intensification at Lawrence East could be a hard sell given Toronto’s intention to focus substantial development on the Scarborough Town Centre and uncertainty about the type and cost of transit service that would be available.
A related issue came up in discussion of the fall 2017 GO Transit fare increase. This will see fares rise by 3% except those for short-distance trips that will be frozen at $5.65. Metrolinx has recently discovered the importance of short-distance travel on its network as an untapped market after years of deliberately overpricing these trips to discourage demand. Keeping inside-Toronto trips at a fixed cost would allow GO fares to gradually become more attractive to TTC riders, although that would take many, many years. Clearly Metrolinx is rethinking the role of its network both for in-Toronto trips and for shorter trips in the 905 that could become more attractive as service improves.
All of this leaves the question of which stations might be built up in the air subject to future considerations in spite of Toronto Council’s support in 2016.
Toronto Council recently approved further study on both the “Relief” subway line, and the Yonge Subway Extension north to Richmond Hill. This approval came with several caveats about the timing of projects and the sharing of both capital and operating costs for the YSE.
Meanwhile riders who attempt to use the system as it is are expected to take hope from the fact that “Relief” might appear in only 15 years.
The entire debate about subway capacity in Toronto has, for many years, taken place in among incomplete information, policy directions that looked outward from the core to the suburbs, and in some cases blatant misrepresentation of the complexity of problems the City of Toronto faces.
A major issue throughout the debates has been that individual projects, or even components of projects, are discussed as if they are free-standing “solutions” to the problem when they are only one of many necessary components. Costs are low-balled by omission of critical parts of an overall plan, and the pressures on capital spending are understated by artificially planning major projects beyond the 10-year funding window used for City budgets. This gives the impression that money is “available” for other projects within the City’s financial capacity by stealing headroom in future plans to pay for things that, strictly speaking, should have a lower priority.
The situation is not helped one bit by the lack of strategic planning at the TTC and City where serving the political philosophy of the day often takes precedence over taking a wider view. Indeed the TTC Board, at times, almost prefers to be ignorant of the details because this would force a re-examination of cherished political stances. At Council, although Toronto now has its “Feeling Congested” study and an attempt at prioritization of projects, efforts continue to advance schemes near and dear to individual Councillors who simply will not accept that their wards are not the centre of the known universe.
What Toronto desperately needs is a thorough review of its rapid transit plans and the funding needed to achieve them. This must take into account, and modify where needed, the historical reasons we are in the current situation, and examine what can be done for the future, when this can be achieved and at what cost. The cost question must come second, in the sense that determining what the City needs is an essential first step. Only then can we examine possible alternative ways to address the issues, the cost this will bring and the funding mechanisms that might be used.
Toronto’s Executive Committee will consider a report from the City Manager at its meeting of May 15, 2017 regarding the preferred alignment for the southern end of the “Relief Line” subway, as well as the current status of the Yonge Subway Extension to Richmond Hill.
This report has taken on a more political context with Mayor Tory’s recent statements that unless Queen’s Park coughs up financial support for the RL, he will block any further work on the YSE. Needless to say, this stance did not play well in York Region or at Queen’s Park.
The two lines, as they currently are proposed, look like this:
One might cast a though back only a few years to Tory’s election campaign in which he claimed that SmartTrack would eliminate the need for a Relief Line, that it would have frequent service with many new stops, that it would operate with TTC fares, and that it would be self-financing. Most of these claims were demonstrably false or impossible at the time, and the project scope has changed dramatically. Even the question of a “TTC fare” is tangled up in the Metrolinx Fare Integration study which could well bring higher rapid transit fares to the TTC as a way of “integrating” them with regional systems.
Tory’s convoluted evolution into a Relief Line supporter undermines his credibility on many issues not the least of which is an understanding of when money he demands might actually be spent. There is no point in getting a “commitment” from Queen’s Park when the government will be unrecognizable by the time the bills come due. Toronto has far more pressing demands in the short and medium term, and meanwhile there is $150 million of provincial money going into design work for the RL.
As for the YSE, it has been on York Region’s wish list for years, and is more advanced than the Scarborough Subway which is mired in debates about the alignment and number of stations. The problem for Toronto is that there is no capacity for additional riders from an extension on the Yonge line, and indeed it is already over capacity according to a CBC interview with TTC Deputy CEO Chris Upfold on May 10.
In a report to the City of Toronto’s Budget Committee meeting for May 11, 2017, City Manager Peter Wallace makes two recommendations that will have a major effect on transit planning and operations in Toronto:
- All spending for the 2018 Operating Budget would be frozen at 2017 levels. For the TTC, this would mean flat-lining the operating subsidy at its current level ($560.8 million for the “conventional” system, and $142.7 million for Wheel-Trans).
- No new projects would be approved within the Ten Year Capital Budget and Plan until 2027 when there is borrowing headroom available to the City to fund additional works.
If a project is on the favoured list that is tagged for federal infrastructure subsidy, then finding a way to pay for the City’s share would be a priority in budgeting. However, it is not yet clear just which items in the TTC’s long shopping list will attain this status. Those that are excluded have only a faint hope of going forward.
A related problem here is that Toronto does not yet know how much, exactly, it will receive in Federal infrastructure grants, and it is quite likely that the money available will not stretch far enough to cover the entire list. Moreover, Queen’s Park is an uncertain partner because (a) the province feels it is already showering Toronto with money for projects now underway, and (b) the current government is unlikely to survive the 2018 election, and the policies of a successor regime could be hostile to large-scale transit spending commitments for Toronto.
Although there is much focus on Capital projects, the real challenge in the short term will be for the Operating budget. In the City’s report, the “opening pressures” for the TTC budget are substantial:
- In 2017, $18 million was used from the TTC Stabilization Reserve fund to offset the budget shortfall and some new services. This was one-time money that must be replaced in 2018 and beyond. The reserve fund is now empty and cannot be used as a source to “fix” 2018 problems.
- TTC ridership is forecast to come in below the budgeted level for 2017, and on a budget-to-budget basis, this represents a loss of $10 million in revenue. When the TTC Board passed its 2017 budget, it also decided that there would be no 2018 fare increase. Quite bluntly, that was a political stunt that simply cannot be implemented without new revenue or cuts to the operating budget. Fare revenue in 2017 is about $1.1 billion, and so each 1% increase would generate about $11 million, less whatever is lost to elasticity (riders lost by higher pricing).
- The base operating costs of the TTC are forecast to rise by $102 million, not including the operating effects of Capital projects (see below). This covers wage and material cost increases, as well as the cost of any new service (none is currently planned thanks to the ridership situation).
- The opening of the TYSSE to Vaughan will add $26 million to the TTC’s costs. Most of the riders projected for this line already pay a TTC fare, and so the marginal revenue will be much less than the operating cost. Riders transferring from York Region services to the subway for a journey to York University will not pay an extra TTC fare (this will be implemented via a Presto tap-out).
- Other increases arising from past decisions (i.e. the full year effects of changes made in the 2017 budget year) add $6 million.
- With more riders using Presto, fees to that provider will rise by $38 million. In the City Manager’s report, this is offset by a saving of $45 through the elimination of station collectors (about which more below).
- Elimination of legacy fare gates and other old equipment will reduce costs by $5 million.
Lost Revenue Stabilization Reserve $ 18 million Ridership Shortfall 10 Subtotal $ 28 million Additional Costs Maintain Existing Service $ 102 million Open TYSSE 26 Eliminate Station Collectors - 45 Presto Fees 38 Fare gate & other savings - 5 Other Increases 6 Subtotal $ 122 million Total $ 150 million
The savings from Station Collectors arise because, from the City’s point of view, the TTC “Station Transformation Program” constitutes a new “service”, not a continuation of an existing practice. This includes conversion of the Collectors (or an equivalent headcount) into roving Customer Service agents. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the cost of this group of employees might have been included as a saving in the cost justification for Presto (or any other fare card).
I asked the TTC for the breakdown of savings and costs of the Presto transition, and received the following non-answer from Brad Ross:
The short answer from the TTC is that we continue to assess the timing of all of this – moving collectors out of the booth and transitioning to customer service agents, the costs associated continued fare collection and distribution, and the costs we will bear with being 100% Presto-enabled.
The 2018 budget process will flesh all of that out, but we’re not there yet. [Email of May 9, 2017]
That’s a rather odd state of affairs considering that the TTC based its criterion for Presto fees on what they expected to save in fare collection costs. Like so much about Presto, this is a very murky subject.
As for the Station Transformation project, the City Manager’s report states:
It is important to note that the projected 2018 net pressure or “gap” does not account for any additional service investments or priorities approved or identified by Council. For example, the $126 million forecasted pressure for TTC is based on maintaining current service levels. This excludes an additional $59 million identified by the TTC for initiatives such as Station Transformation which would be categorized as a new request and will be considered separately, subject to funding availability. [pp. 12-13]
[Note: The City’s total of $126 million does not match the total shown above of $150 million for reasons that are unclear. I have asked the City to reconcile this.]
One can well argue that the idea of getting rid of all Collectors is unworkable (even GO Transit, an all-Presto system, has station agents), and that the many duties the new Customer Service staff would take on are logically inconsistent (being available at a booth to answer questions and provide general directions, but also roaming the stations). Whatever the intent, the TTC has not yet produced a clear explanation of whether savings on Collectors were part of the justification for paying Presto to handle fares.
In any event, this $45 million is not included in the TTC base budget requirement for 2018 from the City’s point of view. If it is to be approved, that will be an additional expense on top of the other pressures.
Completely missing is any discussion of a Ridership Growth Strategy. Although the TTC tells everyone that ridership is down for various reasons, they also have stated that both the St. Clair and King streetcar lines are currently running over capacity during peak periods. This does not square with the claim that the TTC does not require more service, and suggests that one source of ridership “loss” is the inability of people to actually use the service.
An RGS report was supposed to come before the TTC Board earlier in 2017, but it was held back pending resolution of budget issues. Clearly this problem has not gone away, and yet if the report continues to be hidden, we will have no idea what might be possible and at what cost. Advocacy is not the TTC’s strong suit, and we have no idea of just how badly the system will be crammed thanks to the shortage of vehicles and the lack of sufficient revenue to operate them.
Not to be ignored is the status of Wheel-Trans where demand is growing very quickly thanks to improved eligibility requirements from the province. Freezing the Wheel-Trans subsidy (which provides almost all of its operating funding) will not allow growth, and the TTC could find itself in violation of accessibility targets if the City does not come up with the cash.
On the Capital side, the inability to add projects to the “approved” list could punch a big hole in plans for the Bloor-Danforth Subway’s revival. A collection of projects is to be presented to the Board for the renovation of Line 2 BD including:
- A new signal system with Automatic Train Control
- A new fleet replacing the T-1 trains which were built from 1995-2001
- A new subway yard near Kipling Station
The ATC project is “funded” in the capital budget at an estimated cost of $431 million of which $131 million currently appears under post-2026 spending. Whether money for that is actually available in the City’s financial plans is unclear, but this will obviously be a case of “in for a penny, in for a pound”. The budgetary timing is odd because 1/3 of the total is post-2026 after the new system is supposed to be enabled and the old system decommissioned.
Neither the new fleet nor the new carhouse are funded projects in the budget. However, there is a timing issue for this project and a new fleet because the Scarborough Subway Extension will use ATC signalling, and this forces the issue because there is no point in retrofitting ATC gear to cars that will be at or near retirement age when the extension opens. There will be some cost offset in other budget lines including the SSE because storage for the new Line 2 fleet will be consolidated. (Greenwood’s layout is unsuited to the new unit trains now operating on Line 1 YUS, although it could be reconfigured and used for a future DRL with a track connection via Danforth.)
Another unfunded project is the purchase of an additional 60 new streetcars required to handle growing demand in the early 2020s, plus a further 15 (a placeholder number, probably) for the Waterfront transit project.
Putting any unfunded project “on hold” for 2018 might work as a way to avoid a capital planning crisis before the municipal election, but it will not do for the long term.
During the 2017 budget discussions, City Staff appealed to Council to set its service priorities as an integral part of building the budget:
Staff advised Council that it should first establish its collective vision for the City to determine the level and quality of services it wishes to deliver, determine and prioritize the City-building investments required to achieve this vision and consider the associated expenditures necessary to carry this out. In order to fund this expenditure level and any resultant gap, City Council would have to raise revenues and should look to all of its revenue-generating authorities and tools to do so, including property tax rate increases. This would be especially necessary if Council chose not to reduce its services and service levels. [p. 6]
For 2018, the City Manager warns:
Further expense reductions in 2018 will require strong action and a willingness to both reduce and sustain reductions in service levels if residential tax increases are to be kept at the rate of inflation. As recently made evident in the 2016 and 2017 Budget processes, there has been a reluctance by Council to embrace service level or service model changes; creating a mismatch between service aspirations and revenue generation. [p. 13]
There has been a fair amount of discussion by Council and input from the public (Long Term Financial Plan public consultation) that across the board budget targets do not reflect Council priorities, and therefore, should be differential. The current challenge to establish differential targets is the lack of stated relative Council priorities and implementation plans. A key issue is not that priorities are lacking but rather that there are many – many Council approved strategies, plans and service demand initiatives – some of which have been considered in relation to one another with their respective financial impacts within a priority-setting process that links service and policy planning to the City’s budget process and considered within the City’s financial capacity. [p. 14]
The priorities endorsed by Council for 2017 amounted to cherry picking a few very expensive capital projects, and demanding that staff find “efficiencies” with which to pay for any service improvements, indeed simply to keep the lights on. In the case of the TTC, a bit of last-minute hocus pocus avoided a large funding gap by boosting the assumed revenue from the land transfer tax. That particular hat does not have an endless supply of rabbits.
The overwhelming demand is to keep property taxes at the rate of inflation. That is an interesting concept as the City Manager explores in some detail both by reference to practices in other cities, and in the question of just what level of “inflation” should be used. Toronto has aimed at the CPI with a 2% increase in residential tax rates,but when the rebalancing effects for non-residential are factored in, the overall tax increase was only 1.39% for 2017. Moreover, there is a separate cost index measuring those items typically consumed by a municipal government, not by a private household. The municipal index has been running at over 3%, and it is no wonder that the City is unable to keep up with costs.
In addition to the “regular” property tax increases, there have been special levies to fund transit capital projects. The first, introduced during Mayor Ford’s term, is a 1.6% tax that will fund the City’s portion of the Scarborough Subway Extension. This tax will remain in place as long as needed to pay off whatever that share of the total cost is, eventually. The second, is a 0.5% tax building gradually to 2.5% to fund Mayor Tory’s capital projects. The situation is explained in the report:
Under current Council policy, debt servicing costs cannot exceed 15 percent of property tax revenues in any given year. In 2017, the 15% debt service ratio policy was relaxed to an average of 15% over the 10-year capital plan period as a result of the increased debt capacity made available to fund key capital priorities in 2017. $5.8 billion in new capital investments was made possible by adding $3.3 billion in increased debt capacity, based on the following actions:
- $134 million debt room made available by better matching cashflow funding estimates to actual project timelines and activities
- $2.2 billion in debt capacity was added in the latter 5 year years of the capital plan period by adding new projects that filled unoccupied debt room reflective of a 14.75% debt servicing ratio; and
- $1 billion in additional debt borrowing capacity was made possible with Council’s approval of a 0.5% levy for each of 5 years as a contribution to a capital City Building Fund for transit and housing priorities.
The added debt capacity enabled the City to fund critical, unfunded capital priorities such as the added costs for the Gardiner Expressway Rehabilitation Project, the SmartTrack transit expansion project; Port Lands Flood Protection; the City’s required matching funds for TTC and non-TTC critical state of good repair projects eligible under the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF); Toronto Public Library state of good repair and various transformation and modernization investments.
While this added debt capacity allowed the City to fund key projects included in the $33 billion of unfunded capital projects, doing so has maximized the City’s debt capacity based on its current, yet now relaxed, debt servicing policy. [p. 19]
In brief, if there is to be any new capital borrowing within the next decade for projects that are not already in the “funded” list, then these will require new revenue to service the debt. Even beyond 2026, the debt “mountain” will not recede quickly.
The only glimmer of hope within these recommendations is that:
Priority be placed on completing transit, transportation and social infrastructure projects funded through intergovernmental agreements in order to meet program conditions and deadlines to mitigate risk to the City, and
Should any funding become available, that capital funding priorities be limited to projects that address:
- Critical State of Good Repair, including energy retrofits
- AODA Compliance
- Transformation, modernization and innovation projects with financial benefits
- High-needs social infrastructure [p. 20]
Notably absent from that list is “rapid transit expansion”, or indeed transit expansion of any kind.
2018 will be a grim year for the City’s budget for all portfolios. Transit might get by, again, through some fiddling with figures, but that will not represent a real commitment to better transit, only to prevent its complete collapse while Councillors and the Mayor are trolling for votes.
With the release of Ontario’s budget for 2017, City Hall launched into predictable hand-wringing about all the things Toronto didn’t get with the two big-ticket portfolios, transit and housing, taking centre stage. Claims and counterclaims echo between Queen Street and Queen’s Park, and the situation is not helped by the provincial trick of constantly re-announcing money from past budgets while adding comparatively little with new ones.
There was a time when budgets came with projections of three to five years into the future, the life of one government plus some promise of the next mandate, but over time the amounts included within that period simply were not enough to be impressive. Moreover, in a constrained financial environment, much new spending (or at least promises) lies in the “out years” where “commitment” is a difficult thing to pin down, especially if there is a change in government.
Toronto has “out year” problems, but it has even more pressing concerns right now, today and for the next few years. Very little in the provincial budget addresses this beyond the authority to levy a hotel tax, and a gradual doubling of gas tax grants for transit over the next five years. These add tens, not hundreds, of millions to a City budget that runs at $12 billion.
The transit tax credit for seniors will cover eligible public transit costs beginning in July 2017 with a refundable benefit of 15 percent. Whether all seniors actually deserve this credit is a matter for debate, but an important difference from the soon-to-disappear federal credit is that Ontario’s is “refundable”. This means that even if someone does not have enough income to pay tax, they can still receive the credit. The devil is in the details, however, and the degree to which this will be available to casual, as opposed to regular transit users remains to be seen. The term “eligible costs” is key. (The federal credit includes restrictions on eligibility.) In any event, a tax credit does nothing for transit budgets because it adds no revenue either directly to the transit agency or to the City which provides operating subsidies.
There are two major problems with both Ontario’s support for transit and Toronto’s politically-motivated budgets:
- In both cases, the focus is on capital projects, building and buying infrastructure, with little regard for the cost of operating new and existing assets.
- Past decisions on transportation spending have locked billions of dollars into a few projects for short-term political benefit at the expense of long-term flexibility.
Toronto perennially assumes that there will be new money somewhere to backfill the shortage in its capital budget. The Trudeau economic stimulus plan was the most recent magical relief Toronto expected, but it came with dual constraints: Toronto gets a fixed amount over the life of the program, and Ottawa will not contribute more than 40% to any individual project. Toronto had hoped that Ontario would chip in, possibly at the 30% or even 40% level, leaving the City with a manageable, if challenging, task of finding money to pay its share for the backlog of projects. The Ontario budget is quite clear – Toronto is already getting lots of provincial money and at least for now, there’s nothing new to spend.
Ontario is hardly innocent in this whole exercise having meddled for years with Toronto’s transit plans, most notoriously in Scarborough where the whole subway extension debate was twisted to suit political aims. After leading Toronto down the garden path on the SSE, Ontario has capped its project funding leaving Toronto to handle the cost of its ever-changing plans.
Queen’s Park loves to tell Toronto how much provincial money is already spent for Toronto, if not in Toronto, and the distinction gets blurry. GO Transit improvements, for example, will bring more service into Toronto benefiting the core area business district, but they will also improve commuting options for people outside of the City itself.
Before the fiscal crash of 2008, when Ontario was running surpluses, the typical way to handle project funding was to hive off surplus funds at year end into a trust account. That is how the provincial share of the TYSSE was handled. By contrast, Ottawa operates on the pay-as-you-play basis, and only turns over subsidies after work has been done. Each approach suits the spending and accounting goals of the respective governments. In a surplus situation, one wants the money “off the books” right away, but in a deficit, the spending is delayed as long as possible. Further accounting legerdemain arises by making the assets provincial to offset the debt raised to pay for them.
To put all of this into context, here is a review of projects proposed or underway in Toronto.
At the recent meeting of the TTC Board, Vice-Chair Alan Heisey proposed that the TTC and Metrolinx Boards should meet regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest. Such a meeting took place a year ago, but despite the best intentions at the time, nothing further came out of this. As Heisey said “It’s not as if we don’t have things to talk about” citing fare integration, Presto, the Crosstown project and SmartTrack. Using fare integration as an example, with some discussion already afoot about just what this entails, it will be better to have these discussions earlier rather than later, said Heisey. The TTC should be in front of discussions on how an integrated system will be structured in Toronto.
Heisey went on to mention that at a recent meeting of the Toronto Railway Club, of which he is a member, he learned things about the Crosstown contract he did not know such as that the operation of the Mount Dennis yard will not be done by the TTC, and that although the TTC is supposed to be operating the line, the company delivering the project would really like to do this work. This is the sort of information Heisey hopes would come out in a joint meeting, and he proposes that the TTC host the event (as Metrolinx did in 2016).
It is no secret that far more information is available outside of formal Board meetings at both TTC and Metrolinx than one ever hears on the record. Those of us who attend Metrolinx meetings regularly know that “information” is thin on the ground at these events where the primary function appears to be telling the staff how wonderful they are and luxuriating in the ongoing success of everything Metrolinx, and by extension the Government of Ontario, touches. “Seldom is heard a discouraging word” could be the Metrolinx motto.
Indeed the TTC has become infected with a similar problem recently where whatever new award(s) they manage to win take pride of place at meetings while serious discussion about ridership and service quality await reports that never quite seem to appear. Budgets do not offer options conflicting with Mayor Tory’s insistence on modest tax increases. Getting an award for the “We Move You” marketing campaign is cold comfort to people who cannot even get on a bus or train because there is no room.
Oddly enough, when TTC Chair Josh Colle contacted his opposite number at Metrolinx, Rob Prichard, the word back was that such a meeting might have to await the appointment of a new CEO. The position is now held on an acting basis with the departure of Bruce McCuaig to greener pastures in Ottawa. That is a rather odd position to take. Is Metrolinx policy and strategy so beyond discussion that without a CEO, they cannot have a meeting? How is the organization managing to push trains out the door, let along host an almost endless stream of photo ops for their Minister?
Commissioner De Laurentiis agreed that there are many issues, and warmed to the idea, but suggested an information sharing/exchange session as opposed to a formal meeting. She concurred that the type of information Heisey is gathering “accidentally” should come the Board’s way formally.
Vice-Chair Heisey noted that he was told he could not see the Crosstown’s Operating Agreement because it was confidential. For what they’re worth, here are a few handy links:
- Master Agreement for Transit City, November 2012 (Metrolinx Site)
- Eglinton Crosstown LRT Project Agreement, July 2015 (Infrastructure Ontario Site)
These do not include the operating agreement for the line because, I believe, it does not yet exist beyond a draft format and the intention is not to formalize it until a few years before the line opens in 2021. However, aspects of the proposed agreement are certainly known to TTC staff. Whether their interpretation matches Metrolinx’ intent is quite another issue.
Other topics for a joint meeting suggested by Commissioner Byers included Accessibility, and the working relationship between Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario including the topic of risk transfer.
For those who have trouble sleeping, the Crosstown agreement makes interesting, if tedious, reading. One section deals for pages on end with the contractual arrangements between Metrolinx who will procure and provide the fleet, and the project provider who must test, accept and operate (or at least maintain) the cars. This is a perfect example of the complexity introduced by multi-party agreements with the 3P model. Each party must define at length its roles and responsibilities where a consolidated organization would deal with the whole thing in house. Of course some would argue that this simply shows how keeping parts of the overall procurement within Metrolinx adds layers of complexity that a turnkey solution might avoid. That’s a debate for another day, but an important part of any future project design.
Chair Colle observed that just because you invite someone over to your house, they don’t necessarily accept, and the TTC could find itself without a dance partner. Heisey replied that we should invite Metrolinx to dinner and tell them what the menu will be. Dinner invitations are often accepted. Colle observed that any one or two of the suggested items could “keep us well nourished”.
Mihevc added to the list by suggesting both the Finch and Sheppard LRT projects. That should be an amusing discussion considering that Metrolinx and City Planning have gone out of their way to be agnostic on the subject of Sheppard East’s technology considering that there are Councillors and (Liberal) MPPs who would love to see a subway extension there, not LRT. Both Boards, not to mention their respective management teams, would go to great lengths to avoid implying any sort of commitment beyond the next announcement of another GO parking lot or a long-anticipated subway extension’s opening date.
The biggest problem with the Metrolinx-TTC relationship is the province’s heavy-handed approach whereby any move away from the “official” way of doing things will be met with a cut in subsidy. Indeed, despite increasing outlays from Queen’s Park on transit, they keep finding more ways to charge Toronto for their services. The City gets more money on paper for transit, but spends some of it to buy provincial services in a monopoly market. Even if Metrolinx invites Toronto to dinner, they will expect the City to foot the bill.
As a public service, if only to forestall imminent starvation of the TTC Board, the balance of this article explores some of the issues raised by Commissioners.
The video record of the TTC debate is available online.
[For readers in the 905, please note that this is a Toronto-centric article because it deals with issues between the TTC and Metrolinx. Municipalities outside of Toronto have their own problems with the provincial agency, not least of which is its undue focus on moving people to and from Union Station.]
The TTC Board will meet on April 20, 2017. Items of interest on the agenda include:
- The monthly CEO’s Report
- Repair of SRT Vehicles
- Disposition of Bay Street Bus Terminal
This article has been updated with a commentary on subway and surface route performance statistics presented at the Board meeting. (Scroll down to the end of the CEO’s Report.)