Creative Writing From the Mayor’s Office

Back in June, an Op Ed from Mayor Tory appeared in the Toronto Star extolling the virtues of the Scarborough Subway. Torontoist, intrigued by how this piece came to be, made an FOI request for correspondence in the Mayor’s office. The result is an article and associated copy of the FOI response.

Tory’s article triggered a response from Michael Warren, a former Chief General Manager of the TTC. I have no brief for Warren himself, but what was intriguing was how the Mayor’s staff reacted with a need to debunk Warren. The following memo from the Mayor’s Chief of Staff is among the FOI materials.

chriseby20160630remichaelwarren

This memo is full of misinformation, but it gives a sense of the mindset in the Mayor’s Office and why so many statements from Tory simply do not align with reality.

… greater use of existing GO rail tracks … six new stations …

The original SmartTrack plan was for a “surface subway” that would carry 200,000 passengers per day using capacity in the GO Transit corridors. However, this plan depends on key factors including good integration with TTC service and much more frequent trains. SmartTrack is now reduced to nothing more than GO’s already planned service stopping at six extra stations. That is not “greater use” of tracks beyond what would have happened with GO’s RER plan. Even the ability to make these stops with little or no penalty in travel time results from GO’s planned electrification, not as part of SmartTrack.

GO Transit has no interest in the work of upgrading signals on their corridors to accommodate the level of passengers implied by that all day count, and hence the network “relief” claimed for SmartTrack cannot possibly materialize without significant new investment.

Tory’s campaign literature talks about a “London-style surface rail subway”. In Toronto, the word “subway” means service that is at worst every 5 minutes, not every 15, and it’s that convenience the campaign expected people to key in on. Some of the timetables for London Overground do feature very frequent service at a level GO’s signal system (let alone Union Station’s platform arrangements and passenger handling) cannot hope to accommodate.

A recent City backgrounder on proposed new stations shows that they will attract some, but not a vast number of new riders. That’s why they were never in GO’s short list of potential stations to begin with.

At these six new stations, trains will come every six to ten minutes in rush hour. That’s better than what candidate Tory promised … every 15 minutes or better. And to be clear, the provincial RER model sees trains coming every 15 minutes.

Actually, the provincial RER model already sees trains coming more often than every 15 minutes during peak periods and the improvements are not confined to the SmartTrack corridors (Stouffville and Kitchener) or to the City of Toronto. Queen’s Park has made no move to bill Toronto for extra service above levels planned for RER, and therefore we must conclude that none is planned.

SmartTrack was always envisioned as a beefed up version of RER; more stations in Toronto, more access for riders, faster frequencies and a TTC fare.

In fact, there is no “beef” in SmartTrack, and its only contribution will be for those who live or work near the six new stations. The service levels are part of GO RER, nothing more. As for a TTC fare, this is far from decided, and the likely cost to Toronto to support such an offer is fraught with problems. There is the obvious question of where the operating dollars will come from, but moreover riders on other GO corridors within the city might reasonably ask why they don’t get the same deal.

Conversely, some of the Metrolinx machinations about “Fare Integration” have suggested that subways might be treated more like GO Transit with a fare by distance model. If that’s what a “TTC fare” for SmartTrack really means, that’s not what Tory was selling in his campaign.

… Warren suggests tax increment financing … has been abandoned. That’s flat out wrong. City staff are preparing to report back … and have already stated it “may be the appropriate revenue tool for funding …”

Warren may have been incorrect that TIF has been abandoned, although it is hard to tell because his original piece “was edited to make clear that John Tory still supports his TIF transit financing scheme” according to a correction notice following the online version of Warren’s article. Whether Tory still supports TIF is of little matter because City staff recently reported that it cannot support the full cost of SmartTrack and additional revenues from other sources will be required.

Warren … talks of the abandoned LRT option, which he says will cost $1.8 billion … The TTC said this week that building the LRT would now cost as much as $3 billion.

The infamous “Briefing Memo” from the TTC about LRT vs Subway costs provides that higher estimate, but this is based on the assumption that the LRT line would be build much later than originally planned. Most of the cost increase is a function of inflation. Also, of course, the LRT option would serve much more of Scarborough than the subway, including the Town Centre planning precinct, a fact Tory’s Chief of Staff conveniently ignores.

As for additional costs, the provincial commitments to various transit plans, including its own, have always included inflation to completion, although undue delay caused by Toronto Council’s inability to make a decision might reasonably considered beyond the level of Queen’s Park’s generosity. All the same, the $3 billion estimate assumed a leisurely LRT project schedule compared to what would have been possible with dedication and leadership.

Under the Mayor’s leadership, Toronto is moving ahead with the most ambitious, and badly needed, transit expansion in its history.

A great deal of the expansion now underway was in the works before John Tory was elected. Indeed, his campaign claimed that SmartTrack was the single project that would solve every problem, and no other transit schemes, notably the Relief Line, need even be considered. Tory has changed his tune on that, but the RL is still treated as something we will need, someday, maybe. There is no leadership on his part in demonstrating how this line would serve suburban riders with additional commuting capacity.

debate … should be guided by fact, not distortions and rhetoric

That comment speaks for itself.

SmartTrack’s Next Steps

After a day-long debate, Toronto Council has approved continuing along the path set by Mayor John Tory to study and possibly to build the transit lines branded as “SmartTrack”. Although this proposal is now much different from the scheme that was Tory’s campaign centrepiece, the idea of SmartTrack continues to receive broad support among Councillors.

The debate covered a lot of ground with two related threads: how would Toronto actually pay for SmartTrack, and how much of the larger transit network many hope to see will actually be built.

Council has yet to consider a long-term financing strategy and possible “revenue tools” (new taxes in plain English) to deal with the combined capital and operating budget demands of the would-be network. Although there was much talk of the lost decades of underinvestment in transit, Council has yet to show that it really is ready to spend Toronto dollars (as opposed to  money from any other source) at the level that will be needed. City staff will present a report on financing options in a few weeks, and the reaction to this will be telling.

What Did Council Approve?

Below is a consolidation of the staff recommendations and amendments adopted by Council arranged to keep related issues together. For full information, please refer to the detailed record of the item.

Note that in all cases where approvals relate to “SmartTrack” this includes both the six new GO stations and the Eglinton West LRT extension unless otherwise noted.

Process:

  • (1) Adopt the “Summary Term Sheet and Stage Gate Process” which includes details of the many parts of the proposed agreements and (2) authorize the City Manager to negotiate and execute agreements with the province to implement this.
  • (3) Request staff to report at Stage Gate 5 for final approval of full funding for SmartTrack. A report on more definitive costing and the financing funding strategy has been requested for an earlier step in this process. See (18) below.
  • (4) Approve the confidential staff recommendation regarding settlement of the Georgetown corridor funding issue. See also recommendation 15.

Technical and Planning:

  • (5) Proceed with planning and design for the six SmartTrack GO stations, report back to Council, and launch the Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP). This was amended by two further requests that the work include improvement of:
    • the placement and access points of the Liberty Village Smart Track Station to maximize connectivity, and
    • pedestrian connections to the existing Exhibition Place Station for both Liberty Village and Exhibition Place.
  • (6) Confirmation of city support for transit supportive land use plans for areas around the SmartTrack and GO RER stations. Amendments related to this included:
    • Amending the development strategy for public lands at stations, including air rights, to create ongoing operating revenue streams from development resulting from that strategy.
    • Directing the Chief Planner to report in January 2017 with options to develop a comprehensive plan for managing development and growth related to transit expansion.
    • Confirming that the Official Plan as well as other plans, bylaws and policies, are not changed by this decision on this item. The intent of this is to forestall any claim for additional density by would-be developers in advance of the passing of updated plans for area affected by transit projects.
  • (7) Proceed with planning and analysis of the Eglinton West LRT extension up to Stage Gate 3 including finalization of stops and grade separations, provide a scope for this project up to the Renforth Gateway, and provide a class 4/5 estimate of the project’s cost, and conduct the TPAP. Note that this is a more restrictive approval seeking more detail than in the case of the ST/GO stations in (5) above.
  • (8) Request a financial contribution from Mississauga and Pearson Airport to the outside-416 portion of the Eglinton West extension.
  • (9) Ensure that the proposed new station design at St. Clair and Keele includes improved road operations and is co-ordinated with the St. Clair West Transportation Master Plan. A significant part of this would be the widening of the underpass east of Keele Street to remove the existing choke point.
  • (10) Request Metrolinx to consider grade separations at Progress and at Danforth on the Stouffville corridor, with the proviso that any option closing existing roads would not be considered. This was amended at Council to add requests for grade separations at Passmore, McNicoll, Huntingwood and Havendale.

At Council, there was an attempt to have items (7) and (8) deferred until after the Waterfront Transit Reset report is considered by Council in 2Q17, effectively putting both of the proposed Etobicoke LRT proposals on the same approval timeframe. The deferral motions did not pass.

Finance:

  • (13) Approve $71m for preliminary planning and design on SmartTrack (the 6 new stations plus the Eglinton West LRT)
  • (14) Include $2b in net capital requirements for SmartTrack (stations plus LRT) in the city’s 10 year capital projections.
  • (15) Approve $95m for settlement of the Georgetown South issue with the province.
  • (16) Approve $62m for Toronto’s share of 5 grade separation projects.
  • (17) Approve $60m for GO capital expansion (2 stations at Bloor/Lansdowne and at Spadina on the Barrie corridor). This was amended to ask that staff work with Metrolinx on including the study and design of the Railpath along the Barrie line between Bloor and Dundas West.
  • (18) Request staff to develop the financing and funding strategy, and report back when a class 3 cost estimate is available for a definitive Council commitment to the SmartTrack project.

Two additional amendments ask for:

  • strong TTC in developing procurement options, and
  • negotiations with the province for resumption of operating subsidies.

Commitment to the full cost of the new stations and the Eglinton West LRT will not occur until much more detailed cost estimates come back to Council over the next year (or possibly more). In the event that Council opts not to proceed with any component for which Metrolinx has spent money on development prior to the point of final approval, Council will be responsible to reimburse Metrolinx for its costs.

With respect to the additional grade separation studies requested for the Stouffville line, it is unclear how work on this would be funded, although one might expect Metrolinx to respond with a request for some up-front payment and guaranteed participation in funding if any of these goes ahead.

The Status of Other Major Transit Proposals and Projects

Planning and building any part of SmartTrack should be seen in the wider context of other transit needs and schemes, let alone wider demands on the city’s operating and capital budgets.

  • The Spadina Subway extension to Vaughan (TYSSE) is scheduled to open at the end of 2017, although startup costs will affect the TTC’s operating budget before any passengers are carried. For 2018, the current estimate of the annual operating cost to Toronto is $30 million including whatever marginal fare revenue the extension will bring in. This line’s capital was covered roughly one third by each level of government, with about 60% of the municipal share falling to Toronto based on the proportion of the route within its boundaries.
  • The Scarborough Subway from Kennedy Station to Scarborough Town Centre remains the subject of much debate. Although its capital cost is already covered by money from all three levels of government, the proportions are unequal, and any increase to the overall Scarborough transit scheme will be on the city’s tab. The extension will be part of the TTC’s operation along with the net new operating cost, an unknown amount at this time. A critical issue will be whether the cost estimate overall will hold or increase before final project approval, and how this will affect what actually gets built.
  • The Eglinton Crosstown LRT is now under construction by Metrolinx between Kennedy Station and Mount Dennis (at Weston Road) with a planned 2021 opening, subject to issues about vehicle delivery. This project’s capital cost is funded totally by Ontario, but operating costs will be billed back to Toronto at an anticipated annual net amount of about $40 million in then-current dollars.
  • The Eglinton East LRT extension from Kennedy Station to University of Toronto Scarborough College is part of the Scarborough package approved with much fanfare earlier in 2016. The capital cost is part of the same “pot” as the Scarborough Subway extension, but how much will actually be available after that extension’s scope and price are firmed up remains to be seen. This will be an early test for Council. Does it really believe in a “network”, are councillors willing to accept the extra cost as part of building our city, or is the argument still dominated by an outlook claiming that tax restraint must take precedence. An updated Scarborough report is expected in coming months.
  • The Eglinton West LRT extension from Mount Dennis to the Renforth Gateway (at the western city boundary) and then north to Pearson Airport is part of the SmartTrack package. Funding for the line is still uncertain because city plans depend on contributions from Ottawa (likely as part of the Liberal’s infrastructure program), from Mississauga and the airport authority (GTAA) for the portion outside of Toronto. This extension is now the more expensive portion of “SmartTrack”, and ironically appears to survive mainly because of that branding despite opposition from some Etobicoke councillors.
  • Like the central part of the Crosstown, the two extensions would be operated at the city’s expense even though the lines would be owned by Metrolinx.
  • The Metrolinx GO RER program is provincially funded, although the matter of the municipal contribution to GO’s capital remains a sore point between Queen’s Park and the GTHA. Toronto will pay for six new stations as part of SmartTrack and will also contribute to two stations on the Barrie corridor (Bloor/Lansdowne and Spadina). GO RER’s net operating costs will all be a provincial responsibility, and the amount of service that will actually operate depends on future subsidy levels for Metrolinx. Similarly, the full build-out of RER fleets, electrification and service levels will depend on future provincial budget decisions.
  • The Relief Line remains under study thanks to a provincial infusion of $150 million, and both city and TTC staff emphasize that it is a necessary part of Toronto’s future network. While some relief to Yonge line crowding will come from GO RER and the new SmartTrack stations, this will only blunt but not stop the growth in subway demand. A big problem, as readers have discussed here at length, is the project’s scope and the perception that it is intended for a comparatively small part of the system’s ridership, downtowners. The further north the eastern RL branch goes beyond Danforth (to Eglinton or even to Sheppard), the more it performs a service for the city as a whole, but this benefit is routinely underplayed relative to the cost of a new north-south subway. Major capital spending for the Relief Line would not begin until the mid 2020s, but this will still compete with other city priorities.
  • Waterfront LRT to the west is popular with councillors from southern Etobicoke and has begun to overshadow the shorter eastern LRT line in debates. Both parts of a future waterfront network are under review with the “Reset” study now in progress that has only progressed to the point of developing a moderately long list of options. The strategy appears to be to keep this list as open as possible as long as possible so that political fights over the details are held off at least until there is a better understanding of what will work and what the options might cost. Like the RL, waterfront transit has suffered from being perceived as a “downtown” project despite the scale of development it will have to serve.
  • The Finch West LRT is still on the books, and Metrolinx hopes to begin work in this in 2017. There remains some opposition to the line, and it will be a test of the Wynne government’s resolve to see whether actual work is pushed back beyond the 2018 election.
  • The Sheppard East LRT is also still on the books, although it is no secret that many politicians at City Hall and Queen’s Park would love to see this sacrificed for a Sheppard Subway extension. The LRT would be a provincial project with some federal money. There has not yet been any cost sharing commitment to a subway replacement from any government in part because the cost is unknown. It will almost certainly be greater than the LRT line, and like the extension north from Kennedy, will serve a considerably smaller part of Scarborough than the LRT would have. Any decision on this point is likely to fall to the next provincial government, although it will likely be part of the electioneering to reinforce the “subway champion” brand by all parties if this scheme gains traction at Council.
  • The Richmond Hill extension of the Yonge Subway is a project long-sought by York Region, but the idea is tangled up with network relief from GO RER, the Relief Line and other capacity improvements still pending for the existing subway. Some of these, such as added operating cost for more trains on Line 1 YUS, and capital cost for station capacity impeovements, will fall to Toronto. Whether any of the funding pools now thought to be available for transit projects generally will still be available by the time a decision on Richmond Hill faces council, indeed whether this decision will even be in Toronto Council’s hands, are questions for a future beyond any of the existing governments.
  • Not to be forgotten for its demand on city funding is the surface transit system including the bus and streetcar network. While billions in new projects preoccupy debates, a long-standing problem faces Toronto with population growth, much of it “downtown”, that has not been matched by additional transit. Indeed, transit service today is little changed from twenty years ago largely because the TTC streetcar fleet sits roughly at late 1990s levels, and traffic congestion has been responsible for service cuts to stretch the available fleet. Current operating budget plans at the TTC foresee a major shortfall in 2017 that appears unlikely to be addressed by a supposedly pro-transit council and mayor, and this will almost certainly continue into the 2018 election year. On the capital side, the TTC requires an additional batch of streetcars beyond the 204 now on order from Bombardier. Both the financing and supply of this fleet expansion are on shaky ground. As for the bus fleet, TTC management seems more preoccupied with simply replacing its existing fleet of hybrid buses with diesels rather than actually expanding the level of bus service to Toronto.

In this context, the SmartTrack decision is only a small part, and Council has yet to be presented with a comprehensive view of the effect building a real transit network, rather than a few lines, will have on its budget and future financing requirements.

 

The SmartTrack Shell Game With TIF

Ever since Mayor Tory’s election campaign, we have been told that SmartTrack is a something-for-nothing project that would bring vastly improved transit service to Toronto at little or new added cost to taxpayers. This would occur through the hocus-pocus of Tax Increment Financing TIF).

For those new to the subject, the premise here is that building a new transit line causes property values to rise and new development that would not occur in the absence of the transit investment. That generates new tax revenue that could be used to pay off the construction debt. However, the city’s staff, who are bending over backwards to make Tory’s transit plans workable, do not see TIF as coming close to paying for Toronto’s share of SmartTrack.

See also:

The election premise was that SmartTrack would be built at a cost of $8 billion, would provide a total of 22 stations and frequent service over a route from Markham to the Airport Corporate Centre (south of Pearson Airport). This would be shared equally by all three levels of government making Toronto’s share about $2.7 billion, if one believes the premise of the campaign.

The situation has changed over the past two years. The Eglinton branch of SmartTrack as a railway operation was never a good idea, and it has reverted to the original LRT proposal from Transit City. Tory takes advantage of the more closely-spaced stops on the LRT to bolster his SmartTrack station count. In fact there would be more new LRT stations than SmartTrack/GO stations as the plan now stands.

GO Transit’s Regional Express Rail (RER) program will see widespread infrastructure and service improvements beyond which SmartTrack will only add six new stations. The projected cost of “SmartTrack” has gone down, but the City’s share remains above $2 billion. (The values below do not include cost of financing and risk transfer under Ontario’s procurement system that could bump these numbers by 20%.)

smarttrackprelimcosts201611

[Source: Transit Network Plan Update and Financial Strategy, p. 11.]

City staff argue that the benefits available from “value uplift” of existing properties will be low, and they have not included this in their calculations. From new development, the added tax revenue would be $857.1 million over the life of the financing scheme, and to be conservative, staff recommend that only half of this be presumed for SmartTrack financing.

This calculation does not address how the services new commercial or residential development will require would be financed if some or all of their new tax revenues were dedicated to SmartTrack.

The chart below shows the considerable spread between TIF and Development Charges (DCs) revenues and the actual requirements for SmartTrack financing, including the LRT line on Eglinton from Mount Dennis to Renforth.

smarttracktaxrequirement201611

[Source: Transit Network Plan Update and Financial Strategy, p. 12]

The two percent tax increase would be applied to residential property with only a .67% increase for commercial property. This arises from the City’s policy of rebalancing residential and commercial tax rates, a process that will complete in 2020. Given the timing of borrowing for SmartTrack, one must ask whether the balancing policy should apply in this case, and whether it is time for the commercial sector to pay its full share of taxes that will be collected almost entirely beyond the date when the balancing program completes. (Note that “commercial” includes rental apartment buildings.)

The estimates for TIF and DC revenue arise from projections in a report, Commercial & Multi-Residential Forecasts for the Review of SmartTrack, by Strategic Regional Research Alliance (SRRA) that was commissioned by Council to examine the question in detail. (The SRRA report begins at page 8 of the document.)

To put this in context, SRRA was co-founded by Iain Dobson who was an advisor to Tory’s election campaign. In May 2014, just as the SmartTrack campaign started, he was appointed to the Metrolinx Board during Glen Murray’s final days as Minister of Transportation. The consulting contract was awarded by Council on a sole source basis.

When SmartTrack was proposed, the intent was to improve access to areas of potential development. The following map shows these areas and their relationship to the SmartTrack corridor.

smarttracksrraofficenodemap

[Source: SRRA study at p. 21. “Nodes” is misspelled in the map title, and the Downsview node is mistakenly labelled “Lever”. How this might reflect on the care taken on the report I leave to the reader’s judgement.]

Several of the nodes lie outside of Toronto or far from the SmartTrack corridor (blue line and circles). These will either not produce new tax revenue within the 416 or they are too far from ST to benefit from its construction.

A vital question, then, is whether the amount of development contemplated in the January 2016 SRRA report and resulting tax revenues will actually flow to the city. SRRA’s analysis begins with a map of the “TIF Zones”, the areas around stations where tax increases could be expected.

smarttracksrratifzonesmap

Many of the stations are existing or planned GO stops that will see added service without any SmartTrack investment, and ST adds nothing to them (Milliken, Agincourt, Kennedy, Main, Union, Bloor, Mount Dennis). The map also shows a station at Spadina that will not be part of the upgrades planned for the ST corridor.

Although many zones are shown, most of them will not be affected by SmartTrack as it is now proposed, merely the addition of six stations to the GO Transit map: Finch East, Lawrence East, Gerrard, East Harbour (Lever), Liberty Village and St. Clair.

Although the SRRA report discusses the methodology for analysis of the effect of SmartTrack in the TIF zones, it does not provide a dollar value for the actual tax increments this would produce, nor a description of how this might be calculated. Numbers cited in the City report imply that a more detailed breakdown exists for the SRRA data, but that it has not been published.

An important component of the stimulus attributed to SmartTrack is the construction of additional residential units because ST would make jobs in the outlying centres (notably Markham and the airport) easier to reach and thereby allow reverse commuting. However, there is no “ST service” per se, only the provision of stops where riders might board GO RER trains running less frequently than original claims for ST itself.

Projections for employment and residential growth are shown in charts.

smarttrackofficeemployment201601

The core area remains the primary location for employment growth, although the projection with SmartTrack diverts some of this to other areas, notably the Queen/Carlaw area (i.e. the Lever site) and Liberty Village. The latter is a bit of a stretch because the station would be located at the northeast end of the district while commercial development, such as there may be, will be toward the southwest.

An important distinction here is that in the “secondary zones” (those along transit corridors other than ST) and in the non-TIF part of the city, the projected employment with ST is generally lower than if ST exists. In other words, potential development that might hold these employees shifts into areas where it contributes to projected TIF revenue.

A similar situation applies with residential units.

smarttrackresidentialunits201601

The city adjusts for this numerically in their backgrounder on City Funding and Financing Strategy.

smarttrackofficespacegrowth201611

smarttrackresidentialcondogrowth201611

What is not clear, however, is which of the TIF zones are included for this analysis, in particular those which are at existing GO stops, nor whether the effect of ST’s having no marginal service beyond that provided by GO RER has been take into account. If all zones were included, has the potential revenue due only to SmartTrack been overstated?

A similar problem exists for the calculation of Development Charges because the formula for these, set by provincial law, makes them applicable only to the benefits provided by the expenses undertaken by the City, not to improvements others such as GO might provide nor to improvements existing transit riders might obtain from the new stations/services. This considerably limits the scope for recapture of costs through DCs. (In Scarborough there was was a successful appeal by developers that reduced DCs attributable to the Scarborough Subway. This was based on a higher estimate used for new riders in the DC calculation, and hence the proportion of riders from new development, than in a later estimate.)

There is a more general problem with DCs in that they affect every new building in the city, not just those along the transit corridors. Developers who do not benefit from the projects these charges help to finance are not enthusiastic about building yet more costs into the base borne by would-be purchasers.

Questions for the City

All of this raises many questions about the validity of the calculated TIF revenues available to finance the SmartTrack scheme. I have sent queries about this to City staff, and await a reply. This article will be updated when more information is available.

Council will debate the SmartTrack reports at its meeting beginning on November 8, 2016. Here, in brief, are my questions.

  • The staff presentation to Council expresses commercial growth in thousands of square feet while SRRA uses employment. These can be converted to each other with a ratio, but what number has been used? How do the City numbers relate to the SRRA values?
  • The bar graphs in SRRA’s report do not include actual values making direct calculations such as selective inclusion or exclusion of TIF zones difficult. What are the numbers?
  • Which TIF zones were used for the calculations in the City presentation? Only the six the City is paying for, or zones at all “SmartTrack” stations even though many of these are GO RER locations to which ST will not add any service?
  • What adjustments in projections have occurred between the original SRRA estimates and those used in current City estimates?
  • As with TIF, have DCs been calculated only based on the six added “City” stations, or for all of the ST/RER locations?
  • TIF revenue is projected to grow uniformly and across all included zones. Is this a realistic assumption, how much growth is projected in each zone, and when is this expected to occur?
  • If the SmartTrack tax were implemented at the same rate across all property classes, at what level would the tax be set?

 

Toronto Transit Plan Punted From Executive Committee

On October 26, 2016, Toronto’s Executive Committee was supposed to receive a report dealing with a wide range of transit issues.

… the City Manager will be providing a report to Executive Committee with recommendations on the Transit Network Plan, including information on cost-sharing discussions with the Province of Ontario on a range of transit projects, as directed by City Council in July 2016 (EX16.1). This report will also include an update on the planning and technical analysis for SmartTrack, Relief Line, and Scarborough Transit. Additional time is required to ensure proper consultation and coordination with relevant stakeholders including the Toronto Transit Commission, Province of Ontario and Metrolinx. [Placeholder item in the agenda]

This report is not yet available as discussions with Queen’s Park are ongoing. A deadline facing Council is that Metrolinx wants a commitment to specifics of SmartTrack work that will be bundled with the RER construction contracts that will go to tender early in 2017.

Given the time constraints, it is possible that the report will go directly to Council at its November 8 meeting. In theory, materials for the Council Meeting should be posted in advance, and for November 8, the usual deadline is only days away. Whether the materials are actually available in advance remains to be seen. This would put a major debate before Council with almost no advance briefing or public debate.

SmartTrack is not the only time constrained project as an updated transit plan and cost estimate for the Scarborough projects, not to mention a financing scheme for the entire package, needs to be dealt with so that work can begin. Any spending commitments will also affect the City’s budget which will be formally unveiled at the start of December.

As material becomes available, I will provide updates and commentary.

 

Council Approves Tory Transit Plan, Attempts Pet Project Revivals

Toronto Council has approved the transit plan for Toronto featuring Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack line and the Scarborough Subway after a long debate on July 14, 2016. Notwithstanding severe problems with financial pressures and the blind faith needed to expect that the entire package can actually be funded, Council added a few pet projects that never quite fade from view thanks to the efforts of individual members.

LRT proposals for Eglinton East and West survived the vote largely because they are part of larger packages – SmartTrack in the west, and the Scarborough Subway Extension in the east. The subway debate has so polarized camps that “LRT” is synonymous with third class transit simply because it was the heart of the “non subway” option. Without the bitterness of the SSE that required subway advocates to paint LRT in the worst possible light, its potential role in Toronto’s future network might not have been so poisoned while other cities embrace this mode.

Staff recommendations in the report were amended in some respects, and a few new clauses were added, notably one asking for City staff to pursue a co-fare arrangement with GO Transit.

The Waterfront Transit Reset report is a separate agenda item and, at the time of writing, Council has not yet dealt with it.

The Finch West and Eglinton Crosstown LRT projects are under Metrolinx, and they are already underway to varying degrees.

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Smart Track Fantasy: Tax Increment Financing

Back when SmartTrack was first announced as the centrepiece of John Tory’s mayoral campaign, the most obvious question was “how will you pay for this”. At the time, “this” consisted of very frequent service running over existing GO transit trackage plus a heavy rail extension to the Airport Corporate Centre, and it had a nominal price tag of $8 billion. On the presumption that each level of government, so overwhelmed by the obvious necessity of SmartTrack, would pony up 1/3 of the cost, the campaign then turned to the issue of how the City of Toronto’s share, $2.6b, might be financed.

Enter the tax wizards of Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a financial scheme not unrelated to pulling rabbits out of hats or making the attractive assistant float in mid-air with no visible means of support.

The premise of TIF is simple: If there is a piece of land that, but for public investment, would sit empty for all eternity, then any taxes that might arise from induced development there are “found money”. In other words, if we take a swamp, drain it, clean up the pollution, build roads and utilities and install a transit corridor, all with public money, then the development that follows can be used to finance the investment through its future property taxes.

It’s rather like investing in a pair of glass slippers and then charging Cinderella for wearing them. She’s going to marry into money, and her family can afford to pay you back.

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Toronto’s Network Plan 2031: Part I, SmartTrack

For the past months, Toronto Planning, the TTC and Metrolinx have hosted a number of public consultation sessions leading up to two critical meetings on the same day: June 28, 2016.

One will be the Toronto Executive Committee’s consideration of a series of reports on various transit proposals.

The other will be the Metrolinx Board’s first meeting in four months with several related items on the agenda.

Reviewing all of this material will require several article that I hope to finish before the meetings where these issues will be discussed actually occur.

Here I will begin with SmartTrack because of all of the proposals, that has been the most threadbare one throughout the public consultation. It is complicated by being a joint project with Metrolinx who own the tracks over which the trains will operate, and who now quite clearly will also own and operate the trains regardless of what the service is called.

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A Cat’s Cradle of Transit Plans (Updated)

Updated June 6, 2016 at 11:30 pm: The chart of the demand profile for the Eglinton East LRT has been updated by City Planning to correct an error in labelling where inbound and outblound values were reversed. The new chart has been placed into this post, and the link to the source pdf has been updated below.

Public consultation sessions are coming to an end on the “motherlode” of transit projects (as they were described earlier this year by Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat). This process will soon bring a consolidated set of reports and recommendations for Council. So far, the presentations have been subdivided between various projects.

A major challenge for politicians, the media and the general public is to sort out all of these schemes and to understand how they all fit together. This is not just a question of how we will finance all of the projects, but of how each project and the choices made for it will affect everything else. Where typical studies in Toronto might have wrestled with whether a new line should go under street “A” or “B”, and where the stations might be located, today’s work requires understanding of how the network will evolve over time and how it will work as a whole in a few decades.

The process is complicated further by having municipal (City Planning & TTC) and provincial (Metrolinx) components, and the secretive nature of Metrolinx studies means that some vital information about its projects is not yet public. The Metrolinx reports are expected to appear on their Board’s agenda for June 28, and this implies public availability sometime in the preceding week.

The consolidated City reports should be available on June 21 when a briefing session is to occur at City Hall a week before the June 28 Executive Committee meeting.

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Toronto Council Endorses Transit Plan, Seeks Background Details

At its meeting of March 31, 2016, Toronto Council passed several motions relating to the proposed rapid transit plan for the city.These evolved first as a set of staff recommendations, then amendments at the Executive Committee and finally amendments at Council. The changes along the way give a sense of how the attempt at a general approach taken in the new transit plan by staff can be warped into an emphasis on individual projects while losing sight of the overall purpose. This is not new in Toronto’s political theatre, but the city and region are at a crucial time when the “big picture” of the transportation network is essential. The challenge for those who would lead this process is to find a responsible balance between wider priorities and local concerns without making every decision only on political merits.

Many of these motions involve requests for additional reports, and at one point there was some concern about whether city staff could actually handle the workload. One might ask whether the city should be making such important decisions if staff are unable to produce sufficient background material and simply want approval trusting their recommendations. While studying issues to death is a well-known delay tactic, rushing decisions without all the details is a classic method of railroading through decisions the city might regret later. There is certainly nothing wrong with asking for a more thorough study of items that have been omitted, provided that the same requests do not surface over and over again.

If anything, Council has been woefully underinformed on transit options, priorities and tradeoffs, and such an environment “debate” often has little to do with the real world. Will every Councillor read every page of every study? No, but at least the material will be there to answer questions, support the good ideas and counter the dubious schemes. We hear a lot about “evidence based planning”, but this can be a double-edged sword where “evidence” might not support fondly-held proposals.

This article groups Council’s motions by topic so that readers do not have to sort through the relationship of recommendations and amendments.

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