The Gardiner, SmartTrack and the Scarborough Subway

Three major projects face approvals at Toronto Council and Queen’s Park in coming months.

  • Should we replace the Gardiner Expressway with an at-grade boulevard between Jarvis and the Don River?
  • Should “SmartTrack”, John Tory’s signature campaign plank, form a U-shaped line from Markham to Pearson Airport providing both regional and local service in parallel with GO Transit?
  • Should the Bloor-Danforth subway be extended through Scarborough in place of the once-proposed LRT network, via which route and at what cost?

None of these is a simple problem, and they are linked by a combination of forces: polarized political views of what Toronto’s future transportation network should look like, very substantial present and future capital and operating costs, and competing claims of transportation planning models regarding the behaviour of a new network.

On the political front, Mayor Tory is playing for a trifecta against considerable odds. Winning on all three would cement his influence at Council, but it is far from clear that he will win on any of them. Council is split on the expressway options, SmartTrack has already sprouted an alternative western alignment, and the Scarborough Subway fights for its life with alternative route proposals and the threat of demand canibalized by the Mayor’s own SmartTrack plans.

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UPX Was Never To Break Even

With all the hoopla surrounding the launch of service on the Union-Pearson Express (aka UPX or UP Express), it was refreshing to learn today from no less than the CEO of Metrolinx, Bruce McCuaig, that the line will never cover its costs.

Cast your mind back to the days of Prime Minister Chrétien and his Transport Minister, David Collonette (1997-2003). They had a dream of an express train from Union Station to Pearson Airport, a service that would be built, owned and operated at no cost to the government through the magic of private enterprise. SNC Lavalin was to be the lucky proprietor.

Things didn’t quite work out. SNC Lavalin discovered that the cost recovery for “Blue 22” as it was called in the early days simply didn’t pan out, and they looked for government support. When the Tories came to power, Ottawa’s love for this project waned, and they dumped it … right into the willing lap of Dalton McGuinty who embraced the scheme as a way for Ontario to show the world what we’re made of. Don’t be the last city without an air rail link! The matter was especially crucial as part of the Pan Am Games bid — there would be an express train to the airport.

Alas, the numbers still didn’t work, and SNC Lavalin looked to Queen’s Park for financial support. McGuinty showed them the door, and that might have been the end of things but for the usual Ontario hubris. The project became a public sector job 100%, but there was still the sense that it wouldn’t be a burden on the taxpayer.

On Friday, June 5, 2015, the Star’s Tess Kalinowski had an online Q&A with Bruce McCuaig, and it was quite revealing.

When will the line be electrified?

“The recent provincial budget set aside funding for Regional Express Rail, which includes electrification of the corridors, including UPX. We are folding the UPX electrification into the electrification of the Kitchener corridor as far as Bramalea, and we expect electrification to start being operational on five of the lines in 2023.”

There was a time when electrification was promised for only a few years after UPX began operation. Clearly, this is not going to happen even on a small scale for 8 years, let alone a full buildout. Whether there will even be a government left in office willing to undertake this project remains to be seen.

Back in September 2014, McCuaig claimed that the government’s promised electrification within 10 years was possible. Hmmm. Maybe a few kilometers here and there, but certainly not the full buildout if they’re only going to start in 2023. After a burst of election fever and enthusiasm for electrified GO services, Queen’s Park is getting cool, if not cold feet.

What about additional stations?

“We are building in plans for a new GO station and UPX station into the construction contract for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. The Crosstown phase 1 ends at Mount Dennis and I think it would be a great place to have an interchange to give people more choice. At Woodbine, we have done what transit planners call “protect” for a potential future station.

“More stations connected in to the subway (like Dundas West/Bloor) and a future location at Mount Dennis means you can access the service at a lower cost. The trip from Dundas West/Bloor to the airport will have a fare of $15.20 if you use your PRESTO card”

It’s nice to know that Metrolinx still implies that the Crosstown will have a “phase 2”, although the almost certainly lower fare on this local transit service would make one wonder why one would choose to transfer off of the Crosstown and onto UPX, especially at a premium fare. As for the fare from Dundas West, it might just be a tolerable alternative to the 192 Airport Rocket from Kipling Station once Metrolinx builds a convenient link from the UPX station to the subway. The current arrangement is not exactly a “first class” link the fare would imply.

How many riders will UPX need to break even, and will it pay off its capital costs?

We plan to have the fare box for UPX cover its operating costs within three to five years. As you would expect, it will take a few years to build the ridership, just like any other system. We are not expecting fares to pay back the capital costs at this time. The province has invested the $456 million in the capital and it would be unusual in a North American context to expect customers to pay back the capital cost through their fares. I don’t know off the top of my head how many riders per day will be needed for cost recovery, but we do expect that level of ridership by year three to five.

So let’s get this straight: what started out as a sure thing for the private sector will take maybe three years just to reach a break-even state on operating costs. This also happens to be the period by which Metrolinx expects ridership to stabilize, and one wonders just how much room for growth in demand and revenue there will be beyond that. As for capital costs, oh we could never expect passengers to pay those. No wonder SNC Lavalin wanted a subsidy.

By the way, remember that phrase the next time someone tries to slip capital-from-current spending into an operating budget as John Tory did this year with the TTC’s bus purchase.

What we don’t know is the amount of subsidy the UPX will divert from other transit needs within GO or other transit systems. There will inevitably be pressure to bring fares on UPX down, especially if service in the corridor is combined with a route like SmartTrack. Then there is the small matter that UPX is a separate division complete with its own president. This is rather like having a President of the Scarborough RT except that Line 3 carries nearly 40,000 riders a day, more than UPX can physically handle if it were packed from 6am to midnight.

I will be magnanimous. Get the line open. Enjoy Balzac’s coffee in the station. Thrill to the glorious view of Toronto’s former industrial might along the rail corridor. Impress the hell out of those Pan Am visitors (although of course the officials and athletes have limos and buses and reserved lanes on expressways for their delicate sensibilities).

Once the games are over, let’s get serious about the money we have invested in the Weston/Georgetown corridor and figure out how to run an actual transit service that caters to more than the well-off who can afford to pay extra for a fast ride downtown.

 

Metrolinx Board Meeting Wrapup: March 3, 2015

The Metrolinx Board met on March 3 for its quarterly gathering. Although there were important issues on the agenda, the debate was as superficial as usual, and the message that “everything is just great” permeated the proceedings.

Things got off to a slow start. The meeting room is relentlessly beige, overlit and unadorned. Windows there are, but when we entered, they were already partly screened and the view, such as it is, simply looks across to rooms and the roof opposite. Not long into proceedings, a further set of screens blocking this view descended lest we be distracted from the worthies sitting at the board table. We might as well have been in the set of an existential play wondering if there actually was a world outside, not a fine, downtown historic building.

The first order of business was a goodbye to retiring director Nicholas Mutton, a genteel fellow who has headed up the Customer Service Committee. Sadly his reports are always pushed to the back of the agenda and are rushed for time, and his presentations rarely get beyond reading a few pages of a short PowerPoint.

Then we had a brief report from Bruce McCuaig, the Metrolinx President & CEO, reiterating events of note since the last board meeting in December. One might forgive the poor directors for being out of touch with recent news given that they meet so rarely and have so little to say. Surely they stay informed on Metrolinx activities and don’t need a recap beyond the most unusual events.

In the remainder of this article, I will discuss:

  • Back-Charging Toronto for Metrolinx Work
  • The Regional Express Rail (RER) Update
  • The Regional Fare Integration Study
  • The Study of the Pearson Airport Area

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Planning for SmartTrack

At its meeting of January 22, 2015, Toronto’s Executive Committee will consider a report (SmartTrack Work Plan 2015-2016) recommending a work plan for the study of Mayor Tory’s SmartTrack proposal together with other related transit projects. This is intended to dovetail with Metrolinx’ work on their Regional Express Rail (RER) network, and will have spillover effects on studies of both the Downtown Relief Line (DRL) and the Scarborough Subway Extension.

The most important aspect of this report is that, at long last, a study is reviewing transit options for Toronto on a network basis rather than one line at a time. Factors such as alternative land use schemes, fare structures and service levels will be considered to determine which future scenarios best support investment in transit. Rather than starting with a “solution”, the studies are intended to evaluate alternatives.

If this outlook actually survives, and the studies are not gerrymandered before they can properly evaluate all strategies, then the process will be worthwhile and set the stage for decisions on what might actually be built. The challenge will be to avoid a scenario where every pet project on the map is untouchable rather than making the best of the network as a whole. The term “best” will be open to much debate.

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John Tory’s “SmartTrack”: Will That Train Ever Leave The Station?

Late in May, John Tory launched his “SmartTrack” transit line, the centrepiece of his “One Toronto” plan. Media reps gathered for a preview at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and the launch was handled almost entirely by Tory’s staff. All of the background papers are on the One Toronto website, and little has been added since that event.

Even then, in the early days of the campaign, there was good reason to distrust Tory’s grasp of his own proposal, let alone a willingness to engage in debate, when he made the briefest of appearances for a canned statement to give the media clips for the news broadcasts, but answered few questions.

I was modestly impressed that at least a Mayoral candidate was not just thinking at the ward level for a transit proposal, but felt the plan was rather threadbare — a single line to solve almost all of Toronto’s problems.

Wearing two hats that day – as both reporter and activist – I was scrummed by the media for comments, and the Tory campaign chose to lift one phrase out of context as an “endorsement” for SmartTrack that remains online.

Steve Munro, Toronto Transit Blogger, said, “This is very much a refocusing of what transit in Toronto should be.”

What I was talking about was the need to look at the region and at trips to points other than the corner of Bay & Front and times other than the traditional commuter peaks. As to the specifics of SmartTrack, I was rather less complimentary.

In brief, SmartTrack would see electric multiple unit (EMU) trains operating primarily on GO Transit corridors between Unionville on the Stouffville line and Mount Dennis on the Weston corridor (the Kitchener-Waterloo line). At Eglinton and Weston, the line would veer west along the former Richview Expressway lands to the Airport Corporate Centre, but not to the airport itself.

The route would charge regular TTC fares with free transfers to the existing system, and with frequent all-day service at peak levels of every 15 minutes. Over its 53km it would have 22 stations, and might, according to the campaign, carry over 200,000 passengers per day.

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RER, UP(X), (D)RL, SmartTrack, W(W/E)LRT: The Frustration of Competing Plans

Updated Sept. 9, 2014 at 12:50 pm: NOW Magazine has published an article by Rob Salerno detailing the problems with the right-of-way on Eglinton West that John Tory’s SmartTrack plan assumes is available, as well as questions about the need for both a frequent service on the Stouffville GO corridor and the Scarborough Subway.

Toronto is beset by a love of drawing lines on maps. We have stacks of rapid transit studies going back to the horsecar era. We have competing views of regional and local transit. We have the pandering “I have a solution for YOU” approach tailored to whichever ballot box needs stuffing. Almost none of this gets built.

Fantasy maps abound. The difference between the scribblings of amateur transit geeks and professional/political proposals can be hard to find.

Common to both is the sense that “my plan” is not just better, it is the only plan any right-thinking person would embrace. Egos, both personal and governmental, are literally on the line. Once pen meets paper ideas acquire a permanence and commitment that are almost indelible.

If transit networks were cheap to build and operate relative to the resources we choose to spend on them, transit would be everywhere and blogs like this would be reduced to debating the colour scheme for this week’s newly-opened station. Transit is not cheap, and the debates turn on far more complex issues than which shade of red or green is appropriate for our two major networks.

Another election with competing views of what is best for Toronto brings a crop of proposals. I hesitate to say “a fresh crop” as some schemes are long past their sell-by dates. Candidates may strive to bring something new to the discussion, but these attempts can discard good ideas simply to appear innovative. Perish the thought that we might embrace something already on the table when we can wave a magic wand and – Presto! – the solution to every problem appears in a puff of smoke, a well-timed entrance and an overblown YouTube video.

Moving people with transit is not simply one problem with one solution. Nobody pretends that a single expressway could cure all the ails of Toronto and the region beyond. A single highway – say, a “401” in a Toronto that had only recently paved Sheppard Avenue – would be recognized for its limitations. But once a plan is committed to paper – even the dreaded coffee-stained napkin, let alone election literature –  resistance is futile. At least until the next election.

This article reviews several dreams for new and upgraded transit, and tries to make sense out of what all these lines might achieve.

As I was reading through all of this, I felt that some of my critique will sound rather harsh, and inevitably I would be challenged with “so what would you do”. If you want to see my answer, jump to the end of the article, remembering that my scheme is not a definitive one.

Although some of my comments touch on proposals of various Mayoral candidates, I will leave a detailed review of those for a separate article. A good regional plan is more important than any one campaign, and the debate on what we should build should not be dictated by this week’s pet project, whatever it might be.

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Metrolinx Board Meeting June 26, 2014 (Corrected)

Correction July 1, 2014: In the original version of this article, I attributed a comment to Metrolinx Chair Rob Prichard regarding the sharing of information between bidders on rapid transit projects, and expresssed my surprise that this did not match the process I was familiar with from my own public sector experience. In fact, the remark was with regard to sharing information about questions to Metrolinx from candidates in the municipal election.

The procurement process does include sharing of information via addenda to Requests for Information issued to all bidders as mentioned in the Rapid Transit Quarterly Report. I regret this error and frankly cannot understand how I scrambled two very different topics together.

However, the process for dealing with candidate questions at Metrolinx is completely different from that followed by the City of Toronto. Where Metrolinx preserves confidentiality about questions a campaign might ask, the City posts responses to any query online so that no candidate has the advantage of professional advice not available to others. The basic premise is that the staff works for Council, not for an individual member or candidate.

As a public agency, Metrolinx should be providing information to everyone. The discussion (which starts at about 21:10 of the meeting video) emphasizes that Metrolinx has no part in the election, and yet the confidentiality of information exchanges could offer an advantage to a campaign that is unknown to other candidates.

Original Article  from June 29, 2014:

The Metrolinx Board met on Thursday, June 26 in a quite celebratory air. With the provincial election out of the way and the return of a pro-transit Liberal majority to Queen’s Park, Metrolinx sees a rosy future for transit expansion. They wasted no time telling anyone who would listen about the great work now at hand.

Among the items of interest were reports on:

Another burning question about the recently announced funding is just how much money is on the table, especially how much is new money as opposed to funds earmarked for specific projects like RER or previously announced/expected for projects in the “Next Wave” of Metrolinx undertakings. It didn’t take the assembled media long to notice that the GO RER scheme would gobble up much of the $15b earmarked for transit in the GTHA. I will return to this in a separate article.

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Plans by Murray and Tory: Steve Visits Goldhawk

On June 2, 2014, I appeared on Dale Goldhawk’s radio show talking about both the Murray High Speed Rail plan and the Tory “SmartTrack” scheme. A podcast of the show is available on Goldhawk’s site (running time about 34 minutes).

Even with half an hour, we couldn’t talk about everything including those pesky details that make superficially attractive projects run aground.

SteveMunro-600x339

[Photo by Zoomer Radio]

Neptis Reviews Metrolinx: A Critique (I)

In December 2013, the Neptis Foundation published a review of the Metrolinx Big Move plan authored by Michael Schabas. This review received prominent attention in the Toronto Star and is regularly cited in their coverage of transportation issues. Some elements also appear in recent comments by Transportation Minister Glen Murray, and it is reasonable to assume that his view of Metrolinx priorities has been influenced by the Neptis paper.

Since its publication, I have resisted writing a detailed critique in part because of the sheer size of the document and my disappointment with many claims made in it, and a hope that it would quietly fade from view. Recent Ministerial musings suggest that this will not happen.

The stated goals of the report arose from four basic questions posed shortly after The Big Move was released in 2008:

  • What evidence suggests that the projects in the Big Move will double the number of transit riders and significantly reduce congestion in the region, as promised by Metrolinx?
  • Does each project offer good value for money?
  • Do all the projects add up to a substantial regional transit network or is the Big Move just an amalgam of projects put forward by diverse sponsors?
  • How do the projects in the Big Move relate to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, its land use equivalent? [Page 2]

The report itself addresses a somewhat different set of questions and notably omits the land use component.

  • Will the Big Move projects achieve the Metrolinx objective of doubling transit ridership?
  • Are these projects consistent with Metrolinx’s own “guiding principles”?
  • Are they well-designed, consistent with international best practice, and integrated with other transport infrastructure?
  • Will they support a shift of inter-regional travel onto transit?
  • Are there alternative, more effective schemes that should be considered?
  • What changes would help Metrolinx produce better results? [Page 14]

Schabas’ work is frustrating because on some points he is cogent, right on the mark.

Metrolinx has bumbled through its existence protected from significant criticism, swaddled in a cocoon of “good news” and the presumed excellence of its work. To be fair, the agency operates in a political environment where independent thought, especially in public, is rare, and years of planning can be overturned by governmental whim and the need to win votes.

That said, Metrolinx is a frustrating, secretive organization conducting much of its business in private, and tightly scripting public events. Schabas rightly exposes inconsistencies in Metrolinx work, although his own analysis and alternatives are, in places, flawed and blinkered.

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