PTIF Phase 2: The Lottery Win Is Not As Big As It Seems (Updated)

Updated March 16, 2018 at 5:15 pm: The Fire Ventillation Project which includes second exits from several stations was omitted from the list of major projects in the original version of this post. It has been added.

Updated March 16, 2018 at 3:25 pm: The Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure has clarified that the Ontario funding for the Scarborough Subway is separate from the $4 billion in matching dollars shown in the table below.

On March 14, 2018, the Federal and Provincial governments announced the scale of the second phase of the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF) to be spent over the next decade. Some of the details are in a backgrounder.

Funding allocations for the Toronto area are summarized in the table below. The amounts are based on transit ridership, not on population, and so Toronto gets by far the largest share of the pie.

Source: Infrastructure Canada Backgrounder

If one believed the ecstatic response of politicians and some media, one might think that all our transit prayers have been answered.

Not quite.

An additional $9 billion is not exactly small change, but Toronto has a huge appetite for transit spending and a daunting project backlog. The new money will help, but with it comes the requirement that Toronto pony up about $3 billion for projects that are not in the city’s long-term budget.

Capital planning for many years understated the infrastructure deficit by hiding projects “below the line” outside of the budget, and even more by leaving important work off of the list completely. The infrastructure deficit is much larger than the TTC reports and city financial plans indicate.

That, in turn, affects the city’s financial planning, subject of a recent report from the City Manager. Despite assurances from city staff that all known TTC costs have been included in their projections, there is a long history of the TTC leaving significant projects out of funding lists to keep their total “ask” down to a politically acceptable number.

Much needed work is not the sexy, photo-op rich stuff of subway extensions, but the mundane business of buying new equipment to replace old cars and buses, and to increase system capacity.

The new plan is to run for ten years. The money will not all land in Toronto’s hands this year, but will be parceled out as projects are approved and actual spending occurs. There is no guarantee that a future government will stick to any commitments especially if the “funded” projects are not the subject of a binding agreement. Toronto has its share of cancelled projects including the Sheppard Subway, cut back to Don Mills, and the Eglinton West Subway (both victims of Mike Harris), not to mention Transit City and the pliable attitude of various governments to the worth of a subway in Scarborough.

Updated March 16, 2018 at 3:25 pm:

Before we even start into the possible projects to be funded, some money is lopped off the top based on a past commitment.

  • Ottawa will provide “up to $660 million for the Scarborough Subway extension project, pending submission and approval”.
  • It is unclear how much of the provincial commitment to the SSE of nearly $2 billion is included in the $4 billion under the new program.

This brings the available federal funding down to about $4.237 billion.

Whether the total available from Queen’s Park is $6 billion ($4b new plus $2b for the Scarborough Subway), we do no know. I have a question in to the Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure to clarify this. They have acknowledged the question, but have not replied as of 11:45 am, March 16.

Update: The Ministry of Infrastructure has clarified how the previous SSE funding fits with the newly announced program:

Ontario is committed to cost-matching federal funding for municipal projects at 33 percent. This equates to $4 billion from the province to match the City of Toronto’s $4.9 billion federal allocation. No previously committed funding for Toronto projects is included in this allocation.

Ontario’s commitment to match this new federal funding at a 33 per cent share is separate from and above the province’s previous commitment of $1.48 billion in 2010 to the Scarborough Subway. [Email from Alex Benac, Press Secretary to the Minister]

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TTC 2018 Capital Budget: (1) Fleet Plans

The TTC’s detailed version of the Capital Budget is known as the “Blue Books” because they are issued in two large blue binders. They are not available online. Over coming weeks, I will post highlights from this material beginning with the fleet plans.

These plans were drawn up in late 2017 as the budget was finalized, and there have actually been changes since that are not reflected here. I will note these where appropriate.

For starters, a review of how all of these capital projects are paid for.

Financing and Funding the Capital Budget

The TTC’s budget process at times looks like a game of Three Card Monte where one is certain that one card is the Queen of Diamonds, but never quite sure where she is. This shows up in various ways:

  • There is a “base program” consisting of projects that have Council approval for inclusion in the ten-year plan. The estimated cost of this program is $9.240 billion, but there is funding shortfall of $2.702 billion.
  • There is an “unfunded list” of projects making up the shortfall. These will migrate to funded status as and when money becomes available.
  • The City requires that the TTC make provision for “capacity to spend” reductions in its projects based on the premise that all of the money in the budgets will not actually be used. This offsets $427 million of the shortfall, although one can argue that this is a polite fiction meant to convey the idea that the funding hole is not quite as deep as it seems. The premise is that not all projects will be spent to their full budgets, and an across-the-board provision will soak up the underspending. In practice, some of this “shortfall” is a question of timing – project slippage that shifts spending to other years – not a question of budgeting too high.
  • Some projects have their own, dedicated funding streams and appear separately from the base program. At present, these are the subway extensions to Vaughan and to Scarborough.
  • Some projects in the base program have funding directed specifically to them. The provincial 1/3 share of the new streetcars is an example. This is separate from provincial money that flows to Toronto from the gas tax.
  • Some projects have timelines associated with the structure of funding programs. Ottawa’s Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF) Phase 1 requires that projects be completed by March 31, 2019 so that the subsidy is expensed, federally, by the end of the 2018-19 fiscal year. PTIF phase 2 has not yet been announced either as to amount or to the timeframe in which spending will occur. These constraints prevent many projects from receiving PTIF money because they do not fit within the prescribed window for spending.
  • Metrolinx projects do not appear on the TTC’s books, but in some cases they can trigger payments from the TTC and/or the City of Toronto. Examples are Presto and SmartTrack.
  • Some transit proposals are not even in the base program, but wait in readiness as “nice to haves”.

“Funding” is the process of paying for projects, while “Financing” is the mechanism by which that money is raised. A “funded” project is associated with revenue from “financing” sources that the City can depend on such as property taxes and committed monies from other governments. Where there is a shortfall, someone has to step up with new money, however they might raise it, or something must be removed (or at least reduced in scope) from the list of funded projects.

City of Toronto contributions to capital come primarily from current taxes (“capital from current” and development charges) and from borrowing. The amount of borrowing available to the TTC each year is dictated by the City’s self-imposed 15% cap on the ratio of debt service costs to property tax revenue. A few major projects in the near future, notably the Gardiner Expressway rebuild, are crowding the debt ceiling, and there are years when little new debt will be issued on the TTC’s behalf. In turn, this affects spending plans at the TTC, and projects are shifted into future years with more borrowing room to get around this.

Other constraints can arise from a program like PTIF which, because it has a sunset date, requires that spending that might otherwise occur some years in the future must actually happen sooner than planned. This, in turn, requires matching funds from the City in years where they might otherwise have been spent on other projects.

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Toronto’s Transit Capacity Crisis

In recent days, Mayor Tory has announced, twice, a ten point program to address crowding on the TTC. The effectiveness of this program is limited by years of bad political decisions, and the hole Toronto has dug itself into is not one from which it will quickly escape.

This article is a compendium of information about the three major portions of the “conventional” (non-Wheel-Trans) system: subway, bus and streetcar. Some of this material has appeared in other articles, but the intent here is to pull current information for the entire system together.

Amendment February 15, 2018 at 5:30 pm: This article has been modified in respect to SmartTrack costs to reflect the fact that over half of the cost shown as “SmartTrack” in the City Manager’s budget presentation is actually due to the Eglinton West LRT extension which replaced the proposed ST service to the commercial district south of the airport. A report on SmartTrack station costs will come to City Council in April 2018. Eglinton LRT costs will take a bit longer because Council has asked staff to look at other options for this route, notably undergrounding some or all of it.

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TTC Board Meeting February 15, 2018

The TTC Board will meet on February 15, 2018. Among the items on the agenda are:

Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE)

The SSE itself is not on the agenda, but it has been the subject of much recent debate over when the projected cost and schedule for the extension will be released.

In the November 2017 CEO’s Report, the project scorecard included a schedule showing that 30% design would be complete in the second quarter of 2018, and an RFP [Request for Proposals] would be issued in the third quarter. Even when this report came out, former CEO Andy Byford was hedging his bets about a spring 2018 date saying that more work would be needed to verify and finalize the figures. A key note in this scorecard states:

EFC [Estimated Final Cost] was approved in 2013 based on 0% design. With the alignment/bus terminal now confirmed by City Council, the project budget and schedule will be confirmed as design is developed to the 30% stage, factoring in delivery strategy and risk. The performance scorecard will continue to report relative to the project’s original scope, budget and schedule, as approved by Council in 2013, until the project is rebaselined at the 30% stage in late 2018.

In other words, neither the schedule nor the projected cost reflected the evolving and expanding design of this project.

Jennifer Pagliaro in the Star wrote about the result of a Freedom of Information Request that revealed a briefing to Mayor Tory in September 2017. That briefing included a statement that the cost estimate for a Stage 3, 30% design, would be available in September 2018.

Because Council will not meet until 2019, numbers that might have been available before the election would not be released until after the new Council takes office. After the story appeared, City staff replied:

The cost information referenced in page 9 of the October TTC briefing deck refers to the planned timing for initial cost inputs from TTC engineering staff. These are not the full cost estimates necessary for consideration by Council. Further work will be required to appropriately account for financing, procurement model, market assessment and other critical factors. The final cost estimate, subject to the variability ranges noted below, will include these inputs.

This additional work will be undertaken by various TTC staff as well as city officials from corporate finance, financial planning, city planning and other divisions. [Tweet from Jennifer Pagliaro, February 7, 2018]

I wrote to the TTC’s Brad Ross about this conflicting information, and particularly about the question of how an RFP could be issued in 3Q18 when Council would not be approving that the project pass beyond “stage gate 3” until 2019. He replied:

No RFP will be issued until after Council approval. You will note in the Key Issues and Risks section of the scorecard from November reads, “The performance scorecard will continue to report relative to the project’s original scope, budget and schedule, as approved by Council in 2013, until the project is rebaselined at the 30% stage in late 2018.”

To be consistent with the report to Council in March 2017, only the revenue service date was revised in the scorecard (from Q4 2023 to Q2 2026). The TTC recognizes and acknowledges that this has led to confusion. The TTC will be taking steps to ensure greater clarity in its next CEO Report in March 2018. [Email of February 9, 2018]

The February CEO’s report states:

Work continues to progress design towards Stage Gate 3, expected in fall of 2018. At this time, the project will provide initial cost inputs from the TTC team (includes detailed costs for the Scarborough Centre station, tunnel, Kennedy station, systems, property and utilities). Further work is underway by the new Chief Project Manager with key stakeholders within TTC and the City to define the activities, approval process and timelines to arrive at the final Class 3 Cost Estimate, Level 3 Project Schedule, and associated Risk Analysis.

As requested by City Council, a report will be presented at the first opportunity to the Executive Committee, TTC Board and City Council, which is expected to be Q1 of 2019. [pp 15-16]

The debate, as it now stands, is about releasing whatever material will be available in September 2018 so that it can inform the election debates. Additional costs as cited by the city would sit on top of the September numbers, but at least voters and politicians would know whether the SSE’s cost has gone up just for the basic construction, let alone factors related to financing and procurement that would be added later.

Meanwhile, SSE promoter Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker speaking on CBC’s Metro Morning said:

I don’t think it matters what the costs are.

This has been taken to read that money is no object, and that well may be the political reality in Scarborough – there is no way the many politicians who have so deeply committed to the subway project can back out. De Baeremaeker continued:

Whether the costs go up or the costs go down, people who have tried to sabotage the subway and stop the subway, will continue to try to sabotage it, they’ll continue to try to stop it, and they will never vote for it. So I would challenge the Councillors who say “I want to see the cost”. My response is and if it’s a reasonable cost, will you support the subway? Well, no. [At 3:26 in the linked clip]

What De Baeremaeker does not address is whether he has an upper limit beyond which even his enthusiasm might be dimmed. Also, on the question of a “reasonable cost”, what has been lost here is the fact that the subway “deal” was sold on the basis that the $3.5 billion included the Eglinton LRT extension to UTSC Campus. What had been a $2 billion-plus subway when it was approved as a compromise by Council, quickly grew to $3 billion-plus, and the LRT extension is left to find alternate funding. One could reasonably ask whether the LRT was ever really part of the deal, or was simply there as a sweetener that pulled in wavering supporters who now see just how gullible they were.

A related issue that has not yet surfaced is the question of whether building the SSE for a 2026 opening will require concurrent changes in timing and/or scope for the planned renewal of the Bloor-Danforth subway including a new signalling system and fleet. A report on the renewal is expected in April 2018, although this date has changed a few times over past months. The TTC/City capital budget and ten year plan do not reflect this project, at least with respect to timing, and probably with respect to total cost.

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TTC Plans Flatlined Service and Fares for 2018 (Updated November 17)

Updated November 17, 2017 at 6:30 pm

The TTC Budget Committee met today and considered the draft 2018 Operating Budget. Between the original release (described later in this article) and today’s meeting, Mayor Tory and two members of the TTC Board endorsed the concept of a two-hour fare to replace the complex transfer rules now in place.

Although this was listed as the second item on the revised meeting agenda, Commissioner Mary Fragedakis moved that it be considered first. This re-ordering was a procedural move to forestall a standard tactic used at City Council where a motion setting the next year’s tax increase is introduced and passed before the budget which it will fund. The result is that any proposed budget changes must fit within the already-approved tax level rather than having taxes set after the budget is finalized. In this case, the motion regarding a two-hour fare was only a report request, and the order was less critical. That request passed by a vote of 3-1 with Budget Chair John Campbell in the negative as he opposes the two-hour fare scheme.

The meeting then turned to a series of deputations which, as these things tend to do, fell on largely hostile ears. A favourite tactic is to challenge members of the public to explain “how would you do  it”, despite the fact that the issues are complex and do not fit within an answer of a few sentences. The Budget Committee itself cancels more of its meetings than it holds, and opportunities for an open debate about transit policy options and the budget rarely occur.

Beyond information already in the budget report, there were a few additional items of note in the staff presentation.

The Cost of the Vaughan Extension

This comes up from time to time, and it is clear that the Committee did not fully understand the costs and revenues associated with the extension.

For some time, a cost increase of $30 million annually has been cited for the TYSSE. However, the 2018 Budget only includes a $25 million bump because $5 million had already been included for start-up costs and operation in the 2017 Budget.

The $25 million comes from a combination of new costs, and revised revenues. The TTC now receives $8 million for bus services operated on contract for York Region, but those services will be assumed by the Region when the subway extension opens. The TTC will continue to operate the vehicles, but now at their own cost and so this is a net increase in costs because of the lost revenue. That amount is partly offset by a combination of $3 million in new fare revenue and $1 million in parking revenue.

Ridership

The projected ridership for 2018 is 539 million, a growth of 3 million over the probable results for 2017, but below the originally budgeted target of 543.8 million. The change from 2017 to 2018 arises from several factors:

Increases:

  • 4.8 million rides due to economic growth
  • 2.1 million rides due to service improvements and the GO Transit co-fare
  • 1.5 million more rides by children (who travel free of charge)
  • 1.2 million new rides from the TYSSE
  • 0.5 million additional rides counted due to improved reliability of Presto readers
  • Total: 10.1 million

Note that most of the expected ridership on the TYSSE will be by existing riders changing travel patterns, not by net new riders. This is further constrained because York Region Transit will continue to serve York University directly thanks to a lack of agreement on a co-fare between YRT and TTC. Riders who were anticipated to show up as YRT-TYSSE-YorkU trips will not be using the subway. It is ironic that there will be more new rides by children on the system as a whole than by riders on the subway extension.

Half a million rides were estimated to have not been counted in 2017 because failing Presto readers were unable to charge these fares. The TTC’s Brad Ross advises that these are

“rides not counted, assuming they still rode but couldn’t pay. The TTC is in the process of accounting for all lost revenue due to out-of-service Presto readers.”

Reductions:

  • 0.5 million rides due to increased subway closures
  • 0.7 million rides due to the elimination of the Public Transit Tax Credit
  • 2.8 million rides due to decreasing sales of Metropasses and Day Passes
  • 3.1 million rides due to a reduction in the average number of trips taken on each Metropass
  • Total: 7.1 million

This provides the net increase of 3 million over 2017 probable results.

Expense Risks

The budget has been drawn up on a conservative basis and leaves several areas where the outcomes in 2018 could be different than projected. The $14 million now sitting in the Transit Stabilization Reserve could be used to offset some of this risk, provided that Council does not scoop the reserve simply to hold down the subsidy increase.

Some of the items below refer to savings that allowed 2017 to show a “surplus” (actually a reduced requirement for subsidy), and these might not all continue into 2018.

The budget contains a provision for $4.1 million in extra costs through the provincially mandated payment for two emergency leave days per year. This has been estimated conservatively, and TTC staff advised the Committee that the worst case cost could be $18 million.

The History of TTC Budget Variances and Subsidies

For many years, the TTC has consistently come in under budget for the annual subsidy requirement. In the table below, the amounts are for the subsidies, not for the overall operating costs. This always leaves the TTC in a position for its next year estimates that a budget-to-budget subsidy flat-line actually represents an increase over actual requirements in the current year.

The subsidy per rider will go up in 2018 because of the fare freeze. Although this takes Toronto back to the level of 2010, that does not allow for cost inflation over that period which has been well above the CPI.

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TTC Service Changes Effective Sunday, December 17, 2017

The December schedules bring the opening of the Spadina subway extension to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre Station and a major reorganization of bus routes along the subway corridor.

2017.12.17_Service_Changes

Bus routes will be reorganized to serve the subway stations, and in some cases services will be split at the subway corridor. The map below is taken from the TTC’s project page for the line.

Services north of Steeles Avenue that were formerly operated by the TTC on behalf of York Region under contract will now be run by their own transit agency. Fares on the subway have yet to be integrated with YRT, and so a TTC fare will apply to subway journeys while a local YRT fare will apply to the bus feeder network. This is the subject of ongoing discussion, and as usual the issue is who will pay to subsidize a lower co-fare between the two agencies.

The subway will continue the same hours of service it now provides, and the new first/last train times are shown in the table below.

The first train of the day inbound from Vaughan will be at about 5:50 am except on Sundays when service begins at 7:50.

The late night schedule is driven by the long-standing meet at Bloor-Yonge between outbound trains to Finch, Kennedy and Kipling stations at 1:54 am. The last inbound train from Vaughan will leave just after 1 am, and the last outbound train will arrive at about 2:30.

Service on the bus routes affected by the subway is generally at levels similar to what operates today with only a few exceptions.

York Region Transit will take over service north of Steeles Avenue now provided by the following routes:

  • 35 Jane
  • 105 Dufferin North
  • 107 Keele North
  • 165 Weston Road North

Route changes:

  • 35 Jane and 195 Jane Rocket: Extended to Pioneer Village Station (Steeles).
  • 36 Finch West: Route split at Finch West Station (Keele & Finch) during most operating periods. Peak service west of Keele Street improved. Service east of Keele will be reduced in many periods recognizing that many riders will not ride east of the station.
  • 41 Keele: Local service extended to Pioneer Village Station. Express service terminated at Finch West Station.
  • 60 Steeles West: Service reorganized to focus on Pioneer Village Station rather than York University.
  • 84 Sheppard West: Peak period Oakdale service extended to Pioneer Village Station. 84E express from Yonge to Sheppard West Station replaces 196B York University Rocket.
  • 106 Sentinel: Formerly named 106 York University. Extended to Pioneer Village Station.
  • 107 St. Regis: Formerly named 107 Keele North. York U service rerouted and extended to Pioneer Village Station.
  • 108 Driftwood: Formerly named 108 Downsview. Extended to Pioneer Village Station.
  • 117 Alness-Chesswood: Formerly named 117 Alness. Rerouted to better serve the area west of Dufferin Street.
  • 196 York U Rocket: Replaced by the subway extension.
  • 199 Finch Rocket: York U branch cut back to Finch West Station.

Night service will be provided to the York U ring road by 335 Jane, 341 Keele and 353 Steeles. The 336 Finch bus will not serve Finch West Station.

Holiday Period Service

The summary of the schedule changes linked at the top of this article includes a page outlining the service to be provided through the December-January holidays. The highlights are:

  • Service on many surface routes and on Line 2 Bloor-Danforth will operate with summer schedules from Monday, December 18 to Friday, January 5. Extra school trips will not operate.
  • Christmas and New Year’s Days will operate with Sunday service including the 8:00 am opening time for the subway.
  • New Year’s Eve service will be extended on many routes until roughly 4:00 am with extra service on the subway.
  • Regular service resume on Monday, January 8, 2018.

New Year’s Eve services include:

  • Service is expected to operate free after 7:00 pm as in past years, but the details have not yet been announced.
  • The last train meet at Bloor-Yonge for outbound service will occur at 3:37 am rather than the usual 1:54 am. The last trains on 4 Sheppard and 3 SRT will wait for the last trains on 1 Yonge and 2 Bloor-Danforth respectively.
  • 501 Queen will divert via Church, King and Spadina after 11:00 pm for festivities at City Hall.
  • 509 Harbourfront will have extra service every 9 minutes until 2:00 am and every 15 minutes thereafter.
  • 510/310 Spadina will have extra service every 6 minutes until 1:30 am, every 8 minutes until 3:00 and every 12 minutes thereafter.
  • Gap and standby buses will be provided downtown and at other locations to provide extra service as needed.
  • Contract service outside of Toronto on 52 Lawrence West, 129 McCowan North and 68 Warden will be extended to 4:00 am. Service on 160 Bathurst North, 17 Birchmount and 102 Markham Rd will end at the usual time.

TTC Service Changes Effective Sunday, November 26, 2017

The November 2017 schedules bring only minor changes, with one big exception: trains on Line 1 will begin operating to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre Station, albeit as “ghosts” for training and testing. Revenue service will begin, using the same schedules, on Sunday, December 17, 2017.

The revised subway schedule preserves existing headways, more or less, including the AM peak short turn at Glencairn which is not being extended further north. Service beyond Glencairn in the AM peak will operate every 4’42”. In the PM peak, it will operate every 2’36” with no short turn.

Queen streetcars return between Neville and Sunnyside with no diversions. A date for return of service at least to Humber has not yet been announced. Service beyond Humber to Long Branch is planned for mid 2018 due to ongoing road reconstruction on Lake Shore Boulevard. Please see my article on the Queen West projects for more details on the status of this work.

2017.11.26_Service_Changes

The December 17, 2017 schedules will appear in a separate article. They include all of the surface route changes associated with opening the Vaughan subway extension, as well as plans for special schedules over the holiday period.

TTC Board Meeting October 16, 2017 (Updated)

The TTC Board will meet on October 16. Among items of interest on the agenda are:

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SmartTrack Update: More Questions Than Answers (October 13 Update)

For the coming three evenings, October 10-12, the City of Toronto, Metrolinx and the TTC will host open houses to present and discuss plans for six new SmartTrack and two new GO Transit stations. Although material for all stations will be part of each event, stations “local” to each site will receive more emphasis than others.

Each meeting will run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., with a presentation at 7 p.m.

  • Tuesday, October 10, Scarborough Civic Centre, 150 Borough Dr.
  • Wednesday, October 11, Riverdale Collegiate Institute, 1094 Gerrard St. E.
  • Thursday, October 12, New Horizons Tower, 1140 Bloor St. W. (new location)

Note: The location of the Oct. 12 meeting has been changed and it is now across the street from the originally announced site (which was Bloor Collegiate).

Updated October 11 at 10:30 pm: There continues to be confusion about just what “SmartTrack” service will look like, and this is not helped by the City’s presentation. Details can be found in the June 2016 Metrolinx report. For further info, see the update at the end of this article.

Updated October 13 at noon: Metrolinx has confirmed that the Barrie corridor trains will operate through to Union Station, not terminate at Spadina/Bathurst Station as I had originally thought. However, the operational details have not yet been worked out. For further discussion, scroll down to the section on the Spadina/Bathurst Station.

I attended a media briefing that covered the materials to be presented and the following article is based on that briefing which was conducted by City of Toronto staff. Illustrations here are taken from the deck for the media briefing which is available on the City of Toronto’s site. Resolution of some images is constrained by the quality of data in the deck.

[In the interest of full disclosure: A “Stakeholder Advisory Committee” (or SAC) has already been meeting on this, and I was invited to participate, but declined given my concern with a potential conflict between “advisory” and “journalist/commentator” roles. It is no secret that I believe SmartTrack is a deeply flawed concept. Its implementation is compromised by fitting a poorly-conceived election promise into a workable, operational scheme for the commuter rail network. Any “debate” is skewed by the need to pretend that this is anything beyond campaign literature.]

The intent of these three meetings is to conduct the first detailed conversation about these stations with the general public. Early designs appeared in the “Initial Business Case” for the stations, but these have been revised both for technical and for philosophical reasons. Specifically:

  • The City does not want to build traditional GO stations dominated by parking.
  • The interface between the new stations and the transit network (both rapid transit and surface routes) should be optimized.
  • Strong pedestrian and cycling connections are required.
  • Stations should be close to main streets.
  • Stations should support other City objectives such as the West Toronto Railpath and parallel projects such as the St. Clair/Weston study now in progress.
  • Transit-oriented development should be possible at stations.

This is a list that to a typical GO Transit proposal in the 905 would be unrecognizable. GO Transit’s plan ever since its creation has been to serve auto-based commuting first and foremost with ever larger parking structures that poison the land around stations. Local transit was something GO, and later Metrolinx, simply “didn’t do”, and the idea that Queen’s Park might fund strong local transit as a feeder to GO services has been limited to co-fare arrangements.

The situation within Toronto is very different, and there are connecting routes on the TTC that individually carry a substantial proportion of the daily ridership of the entire GO network. Moreover, if GO (or SmartTrack, whatever it is called) will be a real benefit to TTC riders, then the process of getting people to and from stations must not depend on parking lots that are full before the morning peak is even completed.

The new stations will go into existing built-up areas, not into fields with sites determined primarily by which well-connected developer owns nearby property. Residents will be consulted about how these stations will fit their neighbourhoods, how they will be accessed, and what might eventually become of the community and future development.

A big problem facing those who would present “SmartTrack” to the public beyond City Hall insiders and neighbourhood activists is that almost nobody knows what SmartTrack actually is. This is a direct result of Mayor Tory running on a design that could not be achieved, and which has evolved a great deal since he announced it in May 2014. In brief, it is three GO corridors (Stouffville, Lake Shore East and Kitchener) plus an Eglinton West LRT extension, but this differs greatly from what was promised in the election.

Service levels for SmartTrack are described as every 6-10 minutes peak, with off-peak trains every 15, but this does not necessarily match Metrolinx’ announced service plans for their GO RER network onto which SmartTrack is overlaid. The idea that there would be extra SmartTrack trains added to the GO service was killed off in 2016 in the evaluation of possible operating modes for the corridor.

Fares on “SmartTrack” are supposed to be “TTC fares”, but this is a moving target. Voters understood the term to mean free transfer onto and off of SmartTrack trains as part of their TTC fare, but with all the talk of regional fare integration, it is far from clear just what a “TTC fare” will be by the time SmartTrack is operating.

Even that date appears to be a moving target. City Staff referred to 2025 when GO RER would be fully up and running as the target date for “integration”, but Mayor Tory still speaks of being able to ride SmartTrack by 2021 while he is presumably still in office to cut the ribbon.

At the briefing, many questions arose from the media, and the answer to almost all of them was “we don’t know yet”. It is clear that the Mayor’s plan has not proceeded beyond the half-baked stage, and many important details remain to be sorted out.

  • What is the status of Lawrence East Station and how does it fit with the recently announced review of this (and Kirby) stations by the Auditor General?
  • How will an expanded GO/ST presence at Lawrence East co-exist with the SRT which will operate until at least 2025, if not beyond to whenever the Scarborough Subway opens?
  • What are the arrangements for City/Province cost sharing on the stations, especially since Lawrence East was originally to be a GO station, but its future as such is unknown?
  • What will be the cost of the new stations once design reaches a level where the numbers are credible? The range of $700 million to $1.1 billion has not been updated since the matter was before Council.
  • Will all stations on the SmartTrack corridor honour ST fare arrangements regardless of whether this is a city-built station under the ST banner?
  • Why should GO riders who are not on the SmartTrack corridor pay regular GO fares, while those using the ST route have a “TTC fare” for their journey? The most obvious contrast in this case is between the existing Exhibition Station on the Lake Shore corridor and the proposed Liberty Village Station on the ST/Kitchener corridor, but there are many others.
  • What service levels will be provided, and how will they affect projected demand at the stations? Were previously published estimates based on more ST service than Metrolinx actually plans to  operate? How will constraints at Union affect the ability to through-route service between the Stouffville to the Weston/Kitchener corridors?
  • If the City wants more service than Metrolinx plans (assuming it would even fit on the available trackage), how much would Toronto have to pay Metrolinx to operate it?
  • Where are the residents and jobs that are expected to generate ST demand, and how convenient will access to the service actually be considering walking time, station geometry (stairs, tunnels, bridges, etc) and service frequency?

The stations under consideration are shown on the map below. A common question for all of these locations will be that of available capacity on the GO trains that will originate further out in the corridor. Without knowing the planned service design for “GO” trains and “SmartTrack” trains, it is unclear how often, if at all, there will be short-haul ST trains originating within Toronto as opposed to longer-haul GO trains from the 905. The availability of space on trains could affect the perceived service frequency if people cannot board at stations near Union (just as long-suffering riders of the King car complain about full streetcars).

Updated October 10, 2017 at 10:30 pm

After I posted this article, I realized that there was an important part missing, a commentary on the “consultation” process  itself.

A big problem with many attempts to seek public input is that the wrong question is posed, and factors are taken as given when they should be challenged. In the case of SmartTrack, the basic question is “why do we have SmartTrack at all”.

The original scheme was essentially a real estate ploy to make property in Markham and south of the Airport more valuable by linking both areas with a frequent rail service to downtown. Reverse commuters were a big potential market for this service. In the course of becoming part of the Tory election campaign, the focus turned inward, and SmartTrack became the line that would solve every transit problem. The claims about service frequency, fares and integration with other local and regional service were complete fantasies, but they gave the impression that Tory “had a plan” as distinct from the bumbling proposals of his opponent, Doug Ford, and the lackluster efforts of Olivia Chow. Tory even got professionals to declare his scheme a great idea, one giving it an “A+” on CBC’s Metro Morning, but this was for a version of SmartTrack that was unbuildable.

Now, over three years later, we are still faced with the myth that SmartTrack is a real plan, that it is anything more than what GO Transit would have done in the fullness of time. We are, in effect, being asked about the colour of tiles in stations when we should be asking whether the stations should even be built at all. There is no guarantee that service can be overlaid on GO’s existing plans to provide anywhere near what was promised in the campaign – a “surface subway”. Metrolinx has been quite firm on the subject, and going to the frequencies assumed by ST advocates would be well beyond the infrastructure we are likely to see on GO corridors.

The City will conduct its consultations, but the hard question – Why SmartTrack? – will never be asked.

For the October 11 update, please scroll to the end of the article.

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