The Transit Nest Egg Toronto Won’t Spend

Between the Scarborough Subway Extension, now rebranded as the Line 2 East Extension, and SmartTrack, Toronto has a lot of money sitting in the bank that could be used to fund other, much more deserving projects.

Ontario has taken over responsibility for the SSE/L2EE, and at least three of the proposed six SmartTrack stations compete directly with the SSE or the Ontario Line. A fourth (at Finch East) would certainly be affected by the SSE running north to Sheppard.

My latest for Now Toronto: Why is city council pretending that SmartTrack is still alive?

Metrolinx Declines to Answer, Again

On Monday, February 3, both my recent NOW Toronto article about the Ontario line and my own Q&A with Metrolinx diving more deeply into the issues appeared.

On the same day, Ben Spurr reported in The Star that members of Toronto Council had learned of private discussions between Metrolinx and interested developers about alternative alignments and station sites. These issues are at the heart of many questions about and objections to the OL plans, and in particular the reluctance, if not outright refusal of Metrolinx to entertain alternatives.

With the Star’s article, Metrolinx can no longer claim that they only have one design, or that alternatives cannot be discussed.

At tonight’s community meeting, on February 5, conveniently a few blocks from my home, I asked Richard Tucker, who is in charge of this project from Metrolinx, point blank what alternatives were on the table.

He responded “Is this for media” and I replied “Of course”.

To which, in turn, Tucker said, in effect, I cannot tell you about that.

If I had merely been an interested member of the community unknown to Metrolinx, who knows what he might have told me, but for official consumption, mum’s the word. This is a senior public servant who simply does not understand (or whose bosses do not understand) the concept of openness, transparency and actual “consultation”.

In many ways, Metrolinx is its own worst enemy with its secrecy and refusal to engage in discussions. This is not confined to pesky media, bloggers and community groups. It is commonly reported by members of Council and the Legislature, not to mention privately by professional staff at the city and TTC.

In the absence of any official pronouncement from Metrolinx, I would be happy to receive information from members of Council who were briefed, or via the tried and true “brown envelope”.

Ontario Line: Many Questions, Few Answers

This article is a companion piece to my article in NOW Toronto Doug Ford’s Ontario Line headed down the wrong track which should be read first as an introduction.

In preparation of that piece, I sent a set of questions to Metrolinx to clarify and expand on many elements of the project. Some of their responses were included in the article, but for limits both of space and complexity, not all of them.

The many duplicate responses (which begin at question 5) are here for readers to see. The text is copied “as is” from a Metrolinx email received on Friday, January 31, 2020. My comments, if any, are in italics after each question and answer.

I look forward to Metrolinx providing more substantive answers to many of these questions before they bother the public with another round of superficial consultation.

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Toronto Council Approves Ford/Tory Transit Deal With Minor Amendments

On October 29, 2019, Toronto Council approved the proposed deal between the City and the Province of Ontario whereby the Province takes full responsibility for construction of four new rapid transit projects while the City retains control of the existing subway. The details of that agreement were examined in previous articles and I will not repeat their content here.

The debate ran all day, and it is no surprise that in the end the vote went in favour of the deal. Queen’s Park is in a position to impose its will on the City, and the offer of “free” new lines and retention of control of the TTC’s existing network was too much to turn down. Moreover, this becomes the Mayor’s signature transit “accomplishment” while his previous fantasy, SmartTrack, is a shadow of its original promise, for practical purposes a dead issue.

Several amendments were adopted in an attempt to put conditions or restraints mainly on the Ontario Line project. These are really more suggestions that the Province might, if it’s not too much trouble, modify aspects of their plans. However, Council is in no position to impose any conditions on Provincial actions as they have ceded control and pledged co-operation for whatever the Province eventually builds.

The following motions were adopted (quoted text is from the Council agenda item EX9.1 Toronto-Ontario Transit Update).

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The Toronto Board of Trade Shills for the Ontario Line

Over on Facebook, I was challenged for simply slagging the opinion piece The Ontario Line: Give the future a chance. Originally, I wasn’t going to comment, but there are enough half-truths in the article that it’s worth writing about them. This is a consolidation of the Twitter version of my reply with slight modifications.

This article is credited to Jan De Silva as a “Contributor”. She is identified as the President and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade at the very end of the article. I would be very surprised if this article were not the product of Metrolinx itself. Too many of the arguments are stock Metrolinx boilerplate, including assumptions about the nature of criticism of their project.

Associations matter, especially when they aren’t acknowledged in the byline. If an article was by a policy wonk from the Manning Institute, for example, you would read it with a different media filter. If you read something from me, you put on the SwanBoatSteve filter. Identification of the author, of the voice, up front is important.

“billions of city dollars can be freed up for maintenance”

These are billions the city has yet to allocate in any budget. They are net new spending which will crowd other works. The only money we actually have is the accumulated revenue from the Scarborough Subway Tax and that’s less than $200 million in the bank. Moreover, everybody seems to be earmarking these $$$ for new projects like the Eglinton East extension.

Why is TO paying for an extension to a Metrolinx line? Ditto for the four surviving SmartTrack stations.

“some critics still fear using new technology for the Ontario Line”

This is a red herring used to cast aspersions against critics. We don’t know which technology might be used because in all probability the P3 proponent will come with their own technology partner just like the Canada Line in Vancouver. Other SkyTrain lines must use the Bombardier technology because they are part of a network, but the Canada Line was deliberately made separate to break Bombardier’s stranglehold as a vendor.

Unfortunately, the spec for that line was cocked up and the builder was able to cheap out on station size and train length. These are contract design/management issues, not technology issues.

“Some critics”, yes, but many critics have much more substantial objections.

“critics who claim that the Ontario Line is “drawn on the back of an envelope.” Even if that was true – and it never was – the Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario teams behind the initial proposal have been working with the TTC to refine their plans.”

Either it was a plan that needed TTC’s refinement, or it was a rough sketch enough to work for Doug Ford’s announcement. It was not a finished plan. The City’s own report states that it is at a very low level of engineering detail with wide potential variation in the cost estimate.

“Planning for this line incorporates greater use of above-ground rights-of-way”

There is a reason we put lines underground, sometimes needlessly, and it has a lot to do with neighbourhood effects and the political will to get transit out of the way of cars. These are separate effects depending on the location. Eglinton’s central section is underground because it won’t fit on the street.

Some people claim that surface operation elsewhere (including the extensions) shows socioeconomic bias against the affected areas. Cue the “poor Scarborough” theme. That story doesn’t work so well in Etobicoke.

“changes to how tunnels are bored”

The TTC was already looking at single bore tunnels for some projects. These work in some areas, not so well in others especially if the larger diameter triggers problems with the available space, utilities, groundwater and bedrock.

“lighter trains to facilitate easier river and overpass crossings”

True, assuming that the lighter trains are capable of providing the capacity required. More importantly, lighter and smaller trains affect the structure size be it elevated or underground.

“more standardization of stations above and below ground to build quickly and affordably”

Tell this to the politicians who want architectural grandeur as a mark of their importance. Some variation in stations is inevitable because of location, demand, etc.

We probably would not have to look very hard to find the TRBOT gushing over the designs for the TYSSE stations when they were proposed.

“Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario are merely proposing to use the same tools cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Paris use to build dozens of kilometers of new subways at speeds we’ve only dreamed of before.”

The important thing those cities have is (or was) money and commitment. They had senior governments (including the EU) willing to pay, and a political climate where plans were not rejigged every few years to suit someone’s ego. And they had plans that ensured a continuous program of construction rather than the stop-start situation we have in Toronto thanks to political meddling and competition to “build MY subway now”.

“Subway systems in all three of these world class city transit cities have multiple car sets on their tracks, and even used different gauges as technologies developed.”

This is another red herring. Toronto has had multiple car sets on its streetcar and subway tracks since the 19th century. Old heavy red “G” trains, larger lighter “H” and “T” trains, 2 car sets and 6 car sets, wooden streetcars, steel, PCCs, CLRVs and now Flexitys.

Gauge is a question mainly of history and system age. Suburban lines in Toronto were standard gauge until they were incorporated into the “city” system e.g. Long Branch.

“critics insist Metrolinx may not hit its 2027 target date for the Relief Line … And even if this solution took until 2029 – the target date for the earlier Relief Line – this route should be more effective at providing relief than originally planned, too.”

The fundamental problem with the analysis of the Ontario Line vs the Relief Line is that the RL South is the basis of comparison, and so of course a longer RL has a greater benefit. The fact that the RL North study was being run by the Province and was stalled is not mentioned at all.

“The Ontario Line also creates a true subway network, with connections to the Yonge University Line, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and the GO system at Exhibition Station,  so riders on the shoulders of our inner suburbs can shift commutes to avoid other chokepoints from several directions.”

The reference to offloading GO is key and it applies also at East Harbour (although that station does not exist yet). The OL is as much a relief line for GO at Union as it is for the TTC subway. This is a valid goal, but it should be acknowledged so that everyone is aware how much future capacity will be dedicated to GO relief rather than subway relief.

The article is completely silent on neighbourhood effects along the way which are not trivial. This is not just two tracks for an updated version of the SRT, but a six-track corridor for GO and the OL. Yes, SRT trains are not as noisy as GO trains, and the latter might even be toned down when, if ever, they electrify. I am not holding my breath on that as it costs a lot of capital that Metrolinx does not have and does not want to spend.

The Ford/Tory Subway Plan: Part II – Technical Appendices

In the first of two articles, A Big Announcement, or a Transit Three Card Monte?, I reviewed the proposed agreement between Ontario and Toronto whereby the Province would build four lines or extensions at no capital cost to the City, and ownership of the existing system would remain in City hands. This has been hailed as something of a “peace in our time” solution to the contentious relationship between Premier Ford and the City, but there are many outstanding issues that will not be resolved before the City signs on to the new deal.

In this article, I turn to three appendices to the City report, specifically:

Citations in this article are in the format [A3, p5] where “A3” is the attachment number and “p5” is the page number.

Reading through these documents, I was struck by how an essential section is buried right at the end of Attachment 4: the City/TTC evaluation of the Metrolinx Initial Business Case for the Ontario Line.

The main report is enthusiastic about the viability of the proposals and the contributions they will make to the City of Toronto. However, the attachments reveal the degree to which the scheme is far from complete or settled. There is a caveat that if the proposals change significantly, then the gushing support for the new plans could become only a trickle. But the political pressure is for the City to commit to the scheme, whatever it may become, in the rush to “get shovels in the ground”.

This is a long article intended to pull key points out of the technical discussion of proposed new lines in an attempt to highlight the major chunks without requiring readers to wade through every page (although the keen ones among you certainly will, I’m sure).

Timing of Market Calls for Procurement / Public Participation

The City/TTC have not received a detailed schedule from Metrolinx, however the Infrastructure Ontario Fall update includes the following timelines:

  • Ontario Line: RFQ Spring 2020, RFP Summer/Fall 2020
  • L2EE: RFQ Winter/Spring 2021, RFP Summer/Fall 2021
  • YSE: RFQ Fall 2021, RFP Spring 2022
  • EWLRT: To be determined [A3, p12]

This is aggressive for the OL and gives very little chance for substantive change before the RFP goes out. “Public participation” will be minimal in the best Metrolinx tradition.

The opportunity for feedback and input throughout a project’s development may differ given the anticipated P3 delivery model. Details regarding the Province’s proposed approach are provided as Attachment 11 to this report. City and TTC will continue to advocate for meaningful public consultation on provincial transit projects. [A3 p11]

There are conflicting priorities in completing work regarding the new design and changes to the Assessment with the desire for an expedited delivery process.

Q22: Has an assessment of construction-related impacts been undertaken as part of the preliminary planning and design? What about impacts on community, businesses, traffic congestion, noise, etc.? If not, when will this occur and be factored into decisions on build methodology, procurement, and a program for business and community supports?

A: The City/TTC expect that this will be undertaken as part of the updated environmental work for the TPAP(s).

Q23 Will the Province adhere to City permits and approvals, per the practice under the LRT Master Agreement?

A: The applicable Master agreement(s) for these projects are to be developed, and it will be the expectation that agreed upon service standards and timelines for applications, permits and approvals will be adhered to. The Province is seeking city commitment to explore opportunities to accelerate and expedite delivery including review of processes, and leveraging powers and authorities. [A3 p13]

Q29: Are you building the [Ontario] line to a budget of $10.9 B or are you building a line with a defined scope of work?

A: The project cost estimate is preliminary based on the current state of development. The scope in so far as length and areas served have been consistently stated. Future adjustments to scope, budget and schedule will be identified as part of subsequent phases of work. [A3 p15]

“Future adjustment” is a term that implies potential change, but how would this be handled with a P3 contract already in place? When do the requirements to deliver on time, on budget, supersede whatever objections or improvements might emerge from a review process?

Transit Oriented Development

One of the Province’s favourite terms now is “Transit Oriented Development” and the supposed ability to pay for transit with development charges and fares from new riders. There is a question, however, of whether the Province will seek higher density around stations to pay for its rapid transit plan even if this requires development at a scale beyond what the City has planned or the neighbourhood is expecting. What other costs will TOD bring for infrastructure, services, schools? The overdevelopment of Yonge & Eglinton, where the Province wants to see even more density, is a prime example.

Q13: With respect to “transit-oriented development” and seeking private sector investment, what assumptions are being made with respect to compliance with the City’s Official Plan policies and guidelines?

A: The Province has committed to work with the City to ensure that transit oriented developments advance a shared understanding for effective growth and high quality development of Toronto. The City and the Province are working through the details of an agreement on how they will work together to advance TOD opportunities. [A3, p10]

That is not the most reassuring of comments given the bull-headed nature of Provincial policy development. Doug Ford (and his brother before him) believes in the magic of the private sector somehow covering the cost of his dreams. This could have severe consequences for both the City and for the transit system if that dream is exploited to remove controls on high density development.

Getting There From Here

There is a problem throughout much rapid transit planning in Toronto that agencies only consider the end state after many projects have been built, new jobs and residences have been created, and magically we are transported to a future date and city where the models run.

Unfortunately, we have to get from 2019 to 2041, the year for all of the modelling cited in these reports, and there is no guarantee that the system can handle either the intermediate stages nor the “end state” if things do not occur as quickly as we hope.

Although GO expansion is part of the next decade’s work, there is nothing published to show how it will affect the TTC network for good or ill. Indeed, a major role for the Ontario Line now appears to be “relief” for congestion at Union Station almost to the point that relief of subway congestion is a secondary matter.

SmartTrack is a mythical “service” whose final configuration is still not known. Metrolinx has been quite evasive on this point, and the best we can hope for is a train every 15 minutes at “SmartTrack” stations along the Weston and Stouffville corridors. Two of the six ST stations may never be built because they physically conflict with, or lose projected ridership to, other services.

It may suit planners and politicians to talk of demand models for 2041, but what will the 2020s and 2030s look like on Toronto’s and the wider region’s transit system as we await the arrival of new services? This is a major shortfall in the City reports because they do not address the “how do we get from here to there” problem complete with associated operational and financial headaches. A scheme for the province to pay the entire cost of four new lines is wonderful, but there is much more to the transit system’s future than Premier Doug Ford’s map.

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A Big Announcement, or a Transit Three Card Monte?

On October 16, the governments at Queen’s Park and Toronto City Hall announced a deal to sort out competing transit plans for the city. The current provincial priority projects are the Ontario Line (Don Mills/Eglinton to Exhibition), Scarborough Subway extension from Kennedy Station to Sheppard, Yonge Subway extension from Finch to Richmond Hill, and the Eglinton West LRT extension from Mount Dennis to Renforth.

The main City of Toronto report will be discussed at Executive Committee on October 23, and then at Council on October 29-30.

This article reviews that report with reference to a few parts of its many attachments. I will turn to the technical attachments in a second article. To focus material on each subject for readers, I have grouped related items together or re-sequenced things for emphasis. There are extensive quotations of key material so that readers hear not just my “voice” but that of the report’s authors.

Despite the importance politicians at both levels place on the proposals, the fundamental problem remains that many of the details are cloudy, to be kind. Specifically:

  • The City of Toronto retains ownership of the existing transit system avoiding a complex realignment of responsibilities and governance, but with this comes total responsibility for funding the ongoing state of good repair.
  • A large gap remains between the amount of funding needed to maintain and expand Toronto’s transit system relative to the amounts actually available and committed in budgets at various levels of government.
  • Ontario will build four key projects substantially with its own money, but continued support for transit beyond this is uncertain.
  • Toronto will redirect funding originally earmarked for its share of the key projects to other priorities, notably the TTC’s repair backlog. However, much of that “funding” does not exist as allocations in existing budgets and new money is required from Toronto to pay its share.
  • Cost estimates for the key projects are based on preliminary estimates that could change substantially as the design process unfolds. These estimates are in 2019 dollars and make no provision for inflation. The reports are silent on how the proportion of total spending by each contributor might change over the decade or more of construction.
  • A substantial total of project costs will be born by private sector partners through a “P3” financing mechanism. These arrangement will require future payments for what will be, in effect, a capital lease, but the mechanism for funding this from three levels of government is unclear. The reports are silent on the split between short term borrowing to pay for construction as opposed to long term payments to the P3 financier.
  • Project details as they are known today will change in response to design work and the need to keep costs within the projected level. This will affect alignments and stations, and what we think we are buying could be quite different from what we actually get.

The challenge in all of this is, as always, the question of money. We can watch the hands of politicians and managers at all levels as they shuffle cards on the table. We hope to “find the Queen”, to win in the subway sweeps rather than being taken for suckers who will cheer any plan, but lose every game. It is far from clear whether the proposal is a “good deal” for Toronto, and there are huge future transit costs that are barely addressed.

The whole exercise is a political deal to bring peace, comparatively speaking, to the transit file which was needlessly fouled by Doug Ford’s insistence that he knows more about transit in Toronto than anyone else. Does Toronto take this as its last best chance to preserve some semblance of control over its transit future, or do we keep fighting for a better deal?

There are a lot of holes in this plan and severe implications both for the City’s finances and the future of Toronto’s transit system. Many questions need to be asked and answered, even if the result will be a whole new plan after provincial and municipal elections in 2022.

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To Upload Or Not To Upload, That Is Not The Question

In his continuing assault on the City of Toronto, one of Premier Doug Ford’s early promises was to take the TTC subway system completely off of the City’s hands. That scheme was cut back to handing Metrolinx the responsibility for planning and building new lines, with the existing TTC system left for future consideration.

Now, the Star’s Ben Spurr reports that the upload has fallen off of the table and a new “deal” will be proposed:

In exchange for Toronto supporting Ford’s pet project, the “Ontario Line” between the Science Centre (Don Mills & Eglinton) and Ontario Place (south of Exhibition Place), Ford would leave the existing subway system in Toronto’s hands. This is a huge retreat for a man once bent on eviscerating City Council’s control over transit, and it raises the question of “what next” for Toronto transit politics.

I have written before about the high cost of subway ownership:

In brief, there is a myth that the subway network “breaks even” because its high ridership, and hence revenue, more than pay for the cost of operations and maintenance. This has two fundamental flaws:

  • Much depends on the allocation of fare revenue, and the amount of the fare carrying a rider on a bus+subway trip, for example, belongs to each leg of the journey. There are various ways to do this, but they all produce distortions in a flat fare system with extensive free transfers between routes and modes. This process is even more difficult in the era of monthly passes and two-hour fares.
  • There is a huge ongoing capital cost for subway renewal, for systems, vehicles, stations and much more that do not last the mythical “100 years” subway boosters claim, but which must be refreshed on a regular cycle. Even the physical structure, the tunnel, needs major repairs to achieve its intended lifespan.

Cuts to provincial funding started years ago, and the Ford government has reversed plans to increase Toronto’s share of provincial gas tax revenue. The provincial contribution to ongoing capital maintenance is small. As for operations, the City pays the lion’s share of the subsidy and the riders pay most of the rest.

If Queen’s Park takes over the subway, it would hardly be fitting for Toronto to continue paying much of the cost of maintaining this asset, and it would become a new drain on provincial resources. Premier Ford never tires of telling us that these are stretched to the point where major cutbacks, not additional costs, are the focus of all government planning. True, the province would give up its share of surface system costs, but that is a small contribution compared to what the City already pays in operating and capital subsidies.

Doug Ford’s dream of being the Tsar of Toronto Transit Planning comes with a big price tag, and there is a good chance that the government is having second thoughts about whether the proposed changes are worth the bother and expense.

The challenge for Council is, however, more complex that one of embracing the Ontario Line, popping the sparkling wine, and celebrating the Premier’s retreat.

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Metrolinx Board Meeting September 12, 2019

The Metrolinx Board met on September 12, 2019, but there was not much of substance on the public agenda. Presentations consisted as much of rehashing old news (including he oft-announced service improvements on GO Transit), but almost no substantive policy discussions.

Links here to the Agenda and Video for the meeting.

Ontario Line Initial Business Case (Video at 23:35)

This report was presented by a team of four from Metrolinx:

  • Mathieu Goetzke, Chief Planning Officer (Acting)
  • Malcolm Mackay, Project Sponsor for the Ontario Line, and until 13 days ago an engineer at TTC with 13 years experience, now transferred to Metrolinx. His previous major TTC projects included the Relief Line and the Union Station second platform.
  • Duncan Law, Head Sponsor for the subway program
  • Becca Nagorsky, Director for Project Planning

As I have already reviewed the Initial Business Case (IBC) in some detail, I will not dwell on that here, but will flag comments during the presentation and discussion of particular interest.

There were two threads on which nobody remarked, but which were significant given the way that the Ontario Line was announced:

  • The project details are far less advanced than the bluster of the original announcement might have indicated, and Metrolinx acknowledges that significant technical challenges remain for the design.
  • Language implying the general incompetence of the TTC to build a “modern” rapid transit line is much reduced if not eliminated from the discussion.

These are welcome changes, but we now face the need to build something because the Premier announced it.

Mathieu Goetzke introduced the presentation saying that although the Initial Business Case (IBC) was published in July, they are now going into more details. The Preliminary Business Case (PBC), the next step in the process, must resolve some issues and Metrolinx needs to “activate all possible levels” to address project costs. (See video at 27:00.)

Duncan Law continued in this vein saying that it was important to recognize that the IBC is an early stage of the project. Both the Relief and Ontario Lines are underpinned by the recognition that more capacity is needed. With roughly 50 per cent of the Ontario Line being at or above grade, there would be cost savings. Moreover, with the line separate from the existing subway system, there is an opportunity for technology change that would not otherwise be possible. There is a big difference in this outlook from saying that the TTC uses out of date technology.

Becca Nagorsky echoed the remark that the IBC is a first phase saying that its purpose is to define the project’s goals that must be preserved through the life cycle of more detailed design. She continued what has become a standard Metrolinx comparison of the original Relief Line project to the Ontario Line considering only the Relief Line South. This works from the assumption that the Ontario Line’s technology change will save so much money that the Relief Line North, as a conventional subway, does not even come into the discussion. This precludes the possibility that future design work might discover that the Ontario Line could be more expensive than originally thought, but by then the idea of going back to a subway project will be difficult, if only for political reasons. (There are parallels with the now-entrenched concept of a Scarborough Subway.)

The capital cost projections include anticipated savings due to “risk transfer” to a private sector partner in a Design-Build-Finance-Maintain (DBFM) P3 arrangement, but as with so many P3 schemes, there is little explanation of how exactly this is achieved. In particular, there is always the possibility that circumstances and designs will change, and the private sector “partner” will not assume this risk.

Note that none of the Benefit-Cost ratios exceeds “1” indicating that any version of the project does not produce a “profit” within the Metrolinx benefit-cost methodology. This came up in discussion a bit later (see below). The important issue here is that a large project such as the Ontario or Relief Line has benefits (and possibly costs) that the methodology does not capture notably the value of increasing resiliency in the rapid transit network by provision of alternate routes, and the enabling of projects such as the Richmond Hill extension that would otherwise overload the system.

A new addition to the discussion is a map showing the supposed benefit of the Ontario Line to residents of low income areas. It is no surprise that the OL (and the full RL to Eglinton that preceded it) benefit low income areas such as Thorncliffe Park and Moss Park, but there is a bizarre problem with the map which shows a reduced access to low-income jobs for residents between the Spadina Subway and the Barrie GO corridor south of Eglinton, far from the Ontario Line, not to mention Flemingdon Park north of Eglinton. There is something wrong here with the underlying model, but nobody at the meeting picked up on this.

Duncan Law bravely observed that “we are trained to challenge how things have been done” and this will lead to cost avoidance in the design (video at 38:00). He noted that early works on the route would be accelerated, although this is a tactic already in place (after much political fighting with Mayor Tory who eventually embraced it) for the Relief Line. At this point, Metrolinx is considering what their options for the OL design are before they take them to the public for comment, and they are still at an early stage.

In other words, they have a line on a map, but even that may change, and they fear alarming the locals with designs that are not yet definitive.

Malcolm Mackay spoke about the early works and the importance of co-ordination with large programs in the corridor to “leverage” contracts and consultants for other projects such as delivery of the (now) six track structure from East Harbour to Gerrard (four GO tracks plus two for the OL). There is also the potential role of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) works where some OL work could be combined with private development. However, it is not clear whether the likely construction timeframes of East Harbour and other projects would mesh with the schedule for construction of the OL.

In a marvellous piece of bafflegab, the presentation notes:

To demonstrate visible progress and to de-risk the schedule, a progressive works program is being contemplated with a ground breaking target of 2020 – 2021. [p 20 of the PDF]

What this means is that if Metrolinx actually undertakes some work soon, there will be political benefits of “progress” (shovels in the ground) and would-be bidders for the larger project will see that it has progressed beyond a political slogan and a line on a map. It is unclear just how much will actually be achieved by 2020 when the requests for qualifications and proposals (see chart below) occur.

Among the potential early works is design work the Don Valley crossing and possible launch sites for tunnel boring machines (TBMs). The decision to place some of the OL at or above grade means that there are more transitions in and out of tunnels than would be the case with an all-underground line, and launch sites at the transitions are required. These have significant effects on their locations as recent experience on the Eglinton Crosstown shows.

Mathieu Goetzke observed that the Queen Street corridor has challenges, but of course that would also have applied to the RL at least as far west as Osgoode Station. There is the larger question of the choice by the RL project of Queen versus a route further south, and again that is both a technical and political decision that is now set in stone.

The Next Steps slide below contains the troubling observation that Metrolinx will work to “understand community engagement” as if somehow Metrolinx has been operating in the dark while the Relief Line project went through its assessment and consultation stages. In a telling, but common, misuse, Metrolinx describes what they will undertake as “fulsome” intending to imply “copious” or “substantial”, but the word can also mean “excessive and insincere”, the fawning behaviour of one who insults by being overly complimentary. Metrolinx and GO before them have a long history of insincere public participation.

Discussion by the Board raised various questions starting with one from Michael Kraljevic who asked how much of the work already done on the Relief Line can be used for the Ontario Line? Mathieu Goetzke replied that work on the Queen Street corridor “feeds in” to the OL project, and Queen is “incredibly complicated”. The northern branch of the OL was built in part on the Relief Line North study. Malcolm Mackay stated that all of the work done so far will still be used giving the example of an underground station where geological information would inform design for a nearby structure. Some strategies that were “not successful” will not be pursued for the OL.

Regarding the construction challenges listed in the IBC, Vice-Chair Bryan Davies asked about “showstoppers” in the project. Duncan Law stated that there are none in the project “at this stage”, and he claimed that the benefit is that we see the risks now. Undoubtedly there will be several challenges, but the team will work through them, he said. The objective is to get people to jobs and home. Integration with GO for local and regional travel is important, Low continued. Environmental Assessment amendments will be required including a review of technical options for the OL. There is a “significant mountain to climb”.

Consultants have been engaged for the EA process, but subways tend to be environmentally positive, said Mackay, Metrolinx claims, and challenges with the elevated sections will be overcome.

These comments really are a dodge of the main question about the ability to reuse work already completed. The basic fact is that the OL alignment diverges considerably from the RL in places, and the detailed RL work, including public consultation, does not reflect the OL plan as it now stands. Again, we hear that this is a complex, challenging project, a rather different characterization than the self-confidence of the line’s announcement.

Director Paul Tsparis asked how the OL project helps to alleviate pressure on Line 1, and how is the TTC helping on that front.

Malcolm Mackay trotted out the usual list of TTC efforts including:

  • Larger trains
  • Painted tiles on the platforms at St. George and Bloor-Yonge to channel waiting passengers
  • Automatic Train Control
  • Bloor-Yonge Station expansion

The reference to larger trains is getting tiresome whoever cites it because the “new” Toronto Rocket (TR) equipment has been operating for some time now, and their extra capacity was long-ago consumed by latent demand. The painted floor directions may have some effect, but the big problem at busy stations is that platforms become totally filled even with a slight delay and this prevents easy exchange of passengers with trains. As for ATC, Mackay despite his years working at TTC, was unsure of the dates when it will be implemented. He also neglected to mention that more service requires more trains and, eventually, more train storage when the TTC exhausts what it now has. If the province takes ownership of the subway, this problem will land in their lap.

This was capped off with an observation that going north to meet the Eglinton Crosstown is a “beautiful addition to relief” to Line 1. Well, yes, many advocates have been saying this for a very long time while others downplayed the importance of continuing north of Danforth. Even Metrolinx flagged the added relief of the northern extension, and this informed support for work on it by the previous provincial government.

Michael Kraljevic asked about the benefit cost ratio where the value is less than one, although the P3 arrangement is alleged to improve that factor. How does this line up against other subway projects?

Mathieu Goetzke replied that it is hard to get a ratio beyond 1 with brand new infrastructure. GO improvements have good numbers because they build on legacy infrastructure. Moreover other modelling techniques would pick up economic development issues that are not included in the Metrolinx model. Phil Verster explained that Metrolinx does not consider benefits outside of purely transit ones, and the wider economic benefits would make every transit business case a good one. A case will always be touch-and-go for tunnels to get to a ratio of 1. Goetzke added that the OL can enable other works [e.g. the Richmond Hill extension].

This is quite an admission for Metrolinx who have wrestled with their business case analysis for some time. In a political climate where projects must at least break even, the benefits that are balanced against costs have a huge influence on the results. This can include both the scope of benefits (how wide a net is cast to capture benefits) and what payback period is used in the calculation. If the scope is too wide, there is a risk that presumed benefits are not entirely due to the project itself. If the timeframe is too long (Metrolinx uses 60 years), there is a financial problem of substantial expenditure in the short term for savings that might or might not accrue over the very long haul. Moreover, a large proportion of the “benefits” do not capture revenue that can be used to pay off project debt, but rather accrue to transit riders in reduced travel time and increased mobility.

These approaches can be defended on the grounds of “city building” and the long term, cumulative effect of having more transit infrastructure. However, the attempt to make any one project “pay its way” can distort how it is evaluated for political reasons.

Footnote: The Metrolinx Blog includes an article which emphasizes that the Ontario Line will not be built on unproven technology. The ghost of the UTDC and the Scarborough RT still haunts provincial decisions.

Ridership Initiatives (Video at 1:13:19)

Metrolinx ridership for the second quarter of 2019 is up 4.1% over the same period in 2018. However, children did not ride free a year ago, and when they are removed from the “before” numbers, the remaining ridership rose by 5.2%. It is worth noting that the TTC attempts to count children even though they ride free on the system, and so ridership numbers for the two systems are not directly comparable, at least on that basis. There is also the challenge of defining a “ride” when trips can involve a series of transfers and the benefit of the two-hour fare on Presto. The whole question of reporting demand on the GTA network needs work, including granularity about when and where people actually travel.

Statistics reported by APTA show commuter rail up 2.1% among reporting agencies, and bus ridership down 1.0%. GO bus ridership is up 4.5%.

A detailed map (PDF) shows the ridership by station across the rail network. There is no data for the bus network where there has been some controversy about which services should be maintained and which should be cut. Moreover the rail network counts do not distinguish by time of day to break out growth, if any, in off-peak travel as GO moves beyond peak period, peak direction commuting service to downtown Toronto.

Ridership growth varies by corridor and station. The high roller is Barrie with a 10.6% growth in the corridor. Kitchener us up 5.6% and Lakeshore East is up 4.8%.

GO is doing a lot of online marketing which they report as being quite successful, and there is an uptake of e-Tickets as a way of purchasing fares. Many of the promotions are for attractions in the off-peak period and for casual users who would be new to the system.

GO regards riders in Toronto as “transit natives”, people familiar with what transit can offer, and markets to them differently than to potential riders in the 905. Whether this is valid all the way out to the 416/905 boundary is hard to say.

The lower base GO fares are driving ridership within Toronto, but there was no discussion of the effect that will occur if the GO-TTC co-fare arrangement ends thanks to lack of funding from Queen’s Park. This has already affected riders on the UPX who no longer get a UPX+TTC discount. All the marketing efforts in the world can be undone by fiscal policies that affect fares and service.

Presto Quarterly Report (Video at 1:28:08)

Director Janet Ecker asked about efforts to minimize TTC criticisms of Presto. From what she is reading, criticisms of the system way off base. She asked how Metrolinx is trying to deal with this.

Phil Verster replied that it is illuminating to see how some comments get headline status and do not reflect what’s happening on the ground. Things are challenging, he said, and Metrolinx continues to work closely with TTC. There are claims that Metrolinx feels are not valid, and they have encouraged the TTC “to put this behind us”, not to go to dispute resolution.

Annaliese Czerny, Executive VP, PRESTO, felt that it was a shame the story is not about new products and better experiences. Verster was optimistic about making progress with TTC to move to a better future – new devices, open payments – and that this will be the story rather than problems. Czerny noted that TTC is an active and positive partner in the process for future developments.

This was the usual positive Metrolinx spin on PRESTO, but it was undone by the TTC when they released their agenda for the Board Meeting to be held on September 24. In it, the CEO’s Report is quite clear that the TTC will pursue arbitration under their PRESTO contract in an attempt to obtain payment of lost revenue due to non-delivery of a working fare system.

With PRESTO readers on every bus, streetcar and fare gate, and with PRESTO fare vending machines and self-serve reload machines at every station, the provincially-led fare card system has given our customers many benefits, but also many challenges.

Over the summer, I met with Metrolinx President and CEO, Phil Verster, to discuss the outstanding claims between the parties and the status of the outstanding deliverables of the contract for the implementation of PRESTO on the TTC. It is clear from our discussions that Metrolinx considers the contract deliverables complete.

So, while these discussions were informative about the positions of each organization, we were not able to reach a common understanding and agreement. We did agree that the next step is to proceed with arbitration, which is the dispute resolution process provided in the contract.

We are working with external counsel to review the process and finalize material and submissions. As we outlined in our report to the Board in June, the TTC does not consider the contract closed. Rather, there are significant deliverables outstanding, including open payment and account-based technology (which includes equipment), equipment to provide PRESTO Tickets on buses and streetcars, an acceptable third-party distribution network and Service Level Agreements for all equipment.

[TTC CEO’s Report at p. 14]

A major problem with Metrolinx’ perception of a “working” system is that they assume that any rider who encounters a fare machine that is out of service will use an alternate just as they would at a GO station. However, on crowded transit vehicles getting to another reader, let alone another fare machine for tokens or cash, can be very difficult and many riders do not bother to try. If they have a Metropass on their card (or a two-hour fare from a previous tap), this really does not matter because they have already paid, but for other riders this represents lost revenue to the TTC. Credit card holders cannot pay at all because this function rarely if ever worked.

Regular riders are familiar with the situation and just shrug when their tap does not register. I personally encounter this problem at least once a week, and see others having the same problems with unresponsive machines even more often. Things may be improving, but perfection is some distance off and Metrolinx has a lot to answer for from the earlier days of their PRESTO implementation.

Metrolinx tests the availability of fare equipment by “pinging” each device (sending a signal to a machine that elicits a response simply saying “I am here”). However, that function takes place at a low level within the hardware and the application software could be hung even though the “ping” gets a positive response.

Metrolinx measures of PRESTO access are likely too rosy because of assumptions about how easily riders can access the machines and about what constitutes a “working” box when tested remotely.