A Contrary View of Ontario’s 2017 Budget

With the release of Ontario’s budget for 2017, City Hall launched into predictable hand-wringing about all the things Toronto didn’t get with the two big-ticket portfolios, transit and housing, taking centre stage. Claims and counterclaims echo between Queen Street and Queen’s Park, and the situation is not helped by the provincial trick of constantly re-announcing money from past budgets while adding comparatively little with new ones.

There was a time when budgets came with projections of three to five years into the future, the life of one government plus some promise of the next mandate, but over time the amounts included within that period simply were not enough to be impressive. Moreover, in a constrained financial environment, much new spending (or at least promises) lies in the “out years” where “commitment” is a difficult thing to pin down, especially if there is a change in government.

Toronto has “out year” problems, but it has even more pressing concerns right now, today and for the next few years. Very little in the provincial budget addresses this beyond the authority to levy a hotel tax, and a gradual doubling of gas tax grants for transit over the next five years. These add tens, not hundreds, of millions to a City budget that runs at $12 billion.

The transit tax credit for seniors will cover eligible public transit costs beginning in July 2017 with a refundable benefit of 15 percent. Whether all seniors actually deserve this credit is a matter for debate, but an important difference from the soon-to-disappear federal credit is that Ontario’s is “refundable”. This means that even if someone does not have enough income to pay tax, they can still receive the credit. The devil is in the details, however, and the degree to which this will be available to casual, as opposed to regular transit users remains to be seen. The term “eligible costs” is key. (The federal credit includes restrictions on eligibility.) In any event, a tax credit does nothing for transit budgets because it adds no revenue either directly to the transit agency or to the City which provides operating subsidies.

There are two major problems with both Ontario’s support for transit and Toronto’s politically-motivated budgets:

  • In both cases, the focus is on capital projects, building and buying infrastructure, with little regard for the cost of operating new and existing assets.
  • Past decisions on transportation spending have locked billions of dollars into a few projects for short-term political benefit at the expense of long-term flexibility.

Toronto perennially assumes that there will be new money somewhere to backfill the shortage in its capital budget. The Trudeau economic stimulus plan was the most recent magical relief Toronto expected, but it came with dual constraints: Toronto gets a fixed amount over the life of the program, and Ottawa will not contribute more than 40% to any individual project. Toronto had hoped that Ontario would chip in, possibly at the 30% or even 40% level, leaving the City with a manageable, if challenging, task of finding money to pay its share for the backlog of projects. The Ontario budget is quite clear – Toronto is already getting lots of provincial money and at least for now, there’s nothing new to spend.

Ontario is hardly innocent in this whole exercise having meddled for years with Toronto’s transit plans, most notoriously in Scarborough where the whole subway extension debate was twisted to suit political aims. After leading Toronto down the garden path on the SSE, Ontario has capped its project funding leaving Toronto to handle the cost of its ever-changing plans.

Queen’s Park loves to tell Toronto how much provincial money is already spent for Toronto, if not in Toronto, and the distinction gets blurry. GO Transit improvements, for example, will bring more service into Toronto benefiting the core area business district, but they will also improve commuting options for people outside of the City itself.

Before the fiscal crash of 2008, when Ontario was running surpluses, the typical way to handle project funding was to hive off surplus funds at year end into a trust account. That is how the provincial share of the TYSSE was handled. By contrast, Ottawa operates on the pay-as-you-play basis, and only turns over subsidies after work has been done. Each approach suits the spending and accounting goals of the respective governments. In a surplus situation, one wants the money “off the books” right away, but in a deficit, the spending is delayed as long as possible. Further accounting legerdemain arises by making the assets provincial to offset the debt raised to pay for them.

To put all of this into context, here is a review of projects proposed or underway in Toronto.

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Has John Tory Discovered Life After SmartTrack?

With all the flurry of transit funding and construction announcements lately, Mayor John Tory added his own contribution with a media statement at that busiest of stations, Bloor-Yonge. What prompted such a high-profile event? Rumour has it that Queen’s Park plans to fund the Richmond Hill subway extension in its coming budget, and Tory wants to be sure he defends the existing downtown system against overloading from the north.

(See coverage in The Star and The Globe & Mail)

Specifically, Tory wants to ensure that funding will be available for:

Building new transit lines including the Eglinton East LRT, waterfront transit and the downtown relief line

This is brave stuff, our Mayor rallying his city to the barricades [cue inspirational and very-hummable anthem here] were it not that Tory himself is responsible for much of the confusion and misdirection in transit plans today. His election campaign promoted “SmartTrack”, a single city-wide project that would solve every problem and magically be funded through taxes on new development the line would bring. A “surface subway” would speed riders from Markham to Mississauga via downtown with frequent service at TTC fares. Nothing else (except for a politically unavoidable subway in Scarborough) was needed, certainly not better bus and streetcar service to fill all those spaces in between major routes.

Things didn’t quite work out as planned. SmartTrack has dwindled to a handful of new GO stations to be built on the City’s dime, some of which Metrolinx might have built anyhow, and a few in locations of dubious merit beyond their soothing effect on local politicians. With the demise of a scheme to run GO trains along Eglinton from Mount Dennis to the Airport district, the Eglinton West LRT extension is also on the table, but it stops short of its necessary end, the airport, because Toronto lopped off the outside-416 segment to reduce the cost. Whether Mississauga and/or the airport authority itself will contribute to the LRT remains to be seen.

Tory discovered that surface routes suffered under his predecessor, and vowed more money for buses. Toronto bought the buses, but money to actually operate many of them is harder to come by. The only thing that saved the TTC from widespread service cuts in 2017 was a last minute City budget fiddle to bump the expected revenue from Land Transfer Tax.

Meanwhile in Scarborough, SmartTrack and the Scarborough Subway Extension vie for the same pool of riders, and it is only the comparatively infrequent GO service that preserves any credibility for the subway extension. Planners who once argued that an east-west line through the Town Centre precinct would better serve future development now compliantly endorse the supposed benefit of a single new north-south station between McCowan and the shopping mall.

Mayor Tory might now think of both ST and the SSE as “done deals”, although there’s a lot of ground to cover before the final cost projections and approvals by Council. Those extra GO stations and the express subway might still cost more than the preliminary estimates shown to Council, but there’s no more money coming from Queen’s Park. Indeed, the two governments cannot agree on how to calculate inflation in the provincial “commitment”, and Toronto thinks more money is on the table than is likely to be available. After all, Tory is in no position to tell a funding government how much they will pay out. Even those numbers are subject to change if the Liberals lose control of Queen’s Park to the Tories, as seems very likely in 2018.

Then there’s Ottawa and Trudeau’s huge infrastructure program, just the thing a politician who is desperate to make everything seem affordable could wish for. Except, of course, that the infrastructure pot isn’t bottomless. Once it is divvied up across the country, Toronto’s share is well below the level John Tory hoped to spend with his shiny new Liberal red credit card. Holding press conferences about the need for projects won’t change the amount of money available, and the federal program requires that municipalities, even big irresponsible ones, must set priorities. Tory’s plans also require Queen’s Park to come in with funding equal to the Fed’s contribution at a time when provincial budgets are tapped out, and Toronto’s ongoing game of holding down taxes rather than pay for its own services and infrastructure plays poorly beyond the 416.

What does the Mayor do? John Tory, the man who had a one-line plan to solve everything, now looks to a world beyond SmartTrack.

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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.

 

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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The Dwindling Capacity of the Yonge Subway

Yesterday’s launch by York Region of their Yonge Subway Now website brought to the fore the question of just how much room remains on the Yonge Subway for additional riders. Over many years, claims about capabilities of new subway technologies together with changing projections for future demand have left Toronto in a position where its subway is badly overloaded with little relief in sight.

This article traces the evolution of those claims and the reality of what can actually be provided to show that building a Relief Line is not a project for a future decade but one that must begin now.

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Toronto’s Network Plan 2031: Part IV, Relief Line

This is the fourth part of my review of the reports on the agendas of Toronto’s Executive Committee and the Metrolinx Board. The full list is in the first article.

This report reviewed here is the Relief Line Initial Business Case.

Following a series of public meetings and background reports over past months, the Relief Line study has settled on a proposed alignment from Pape Station south to Eastern Avenue, then west to the Don River (passing beside the Unilever/Great Gulf development site), jogging north back to Queen Street west of the river, and thence to University Avenue. This is referred to as Option 3. The other options were:

  • 1: Surface transit improvements on Queen and King, but no Relief subway line
  • 2: Relief line from Pape Station to downtown via Queen
  • 2A: Relief line from Pape Station to downtown running diagonally from Gerrard to Queen via the GO rail corridor.

Future extensions to the north and west are also contemplated, but this “Business Case” report deals only with the first phase.

As the route selection process evolved, so did the scoring system used to rank the options. For example, the employment benefits of the Unilever site were not considered in earlier schemes where a Queen Street alignment all the way from Pape to University ranked highest. By the time we get to the “final” ranking, the Pape/Eastern/Queen alignment clearly wins out. Some of the change is due to the use of the City’s “Feeling Congested” evaluation matrix that has been brought to many of the recent studies. The priorities of these evaluations are more weighted toward social and city building benefits, and less to raw travel-time saving.

 

ReliefLine_Alignments

Relief to the Bloor-Yonge interchange is projected, although the larger benefits occur when the line is extended north to Sheppard & Don Mills.

The first phase of the Relief Line is anticipated to provide a net reduction of 3,400 to 5,900 riders on Line 1 (Yonge) south of Bloor during the AM peak period. The subsequent extension of the Relief Line north to Sheppard Avenue is projected to provide even greater relief, with a net reduction of 6,500 to 9,900 riders relative to the Base Case in 2041. [p 3]

The future second phase is shown in this map:

ReliefLine_Phase2

The detailed ridership estimates have not been published, but the presumed network elements that would exist for the modelling are:

• Eglinton Crosstown LRT from Mt Dennis to Kennedy Station (currently under construction);
• Toronto-York- Spadina Subway Extension (currently under construction);
• Sheppard Avenue East LRT (funded);
• Scarborough Subway Extension (3 stop) (funded); and
• Connections to new subway stations from existing local bus and streetcar routes [p 16]

Notable by their absence are SmartTrack and the Crosstown East LRT to UTSC, and the Scarborough Subway is presumed to be the 3-stop version to Sheppard Avenue. Considering that the configuration of the “optimized” Scarborough network changed some months ago, the use of an out-of-date model is surprising.

The projected cost of the Relief Line has been widely reported as almost doubling. This is misleading because it contrasts current 2016 dollar estimates ($4.1 to $4.4 billion) with projected spending when the project is actually constructed sometime in the late 2020s or beyond. Earlier estimates have been quoted in older dollars at correspondingly lower projected total cost.

Of the increase, $300-400 million is due to the selection of the Pape/Eastern alignment which makes for a longer route. Roughly $2 billion is due to inflation between the 2016 estimates and the likely period of construction.

An interesting observation in the report is that the benefits case methodology confers a substantial value to reduction of travel time. However, the RL’s primary effect is not intended to speed riders from the outer suburbs to downtown, but to improve flows through the network, especially on the initial downtown-to-Pape phase. Therefore, a significant component of some “benefit” estimates – travel time savings – is not available to the Relief Line despite the major contribution it brings to network behaviour and the expansion potential it creates.

It is important to note that the focus in the Metrolinx business case guidance is on travel time savings benefits and benefits associated with reduction in auto-use. As a result, there are several key benefits associated with local transit and city building objectives that are not monetized in this economic evaluation. Further work is required in the development of the business case tool to ensure the economic evaluation includes the monetization of the types of benefits expected from transit expansion projects which provide a more local service. [p 33]

This begs the question of whether the traditional “benefit analysis” which does contain a travel time saving component truly presents the “value” of new transit lines, or if it is skewed to reward projects serving longer commuter-type trips and the infrastructure they require.

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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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A Boost for the Relief Line

This afternoon, June 1, there was a small miracle at the TTC’s Greenwood Yard. Assorted politicians and transit management gathered for an announcement of transit funding, of new transit funding, and for that perpetual orphan of Toronto’s political scene, the (Downtown) Relief Line.

Steven Del Duca, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation, announced that Metrolinx would be given “more than $150 million” to work with the City and the TTC on advancing planning and design for the Relief Subway Line to bring it to “shovel ready” status.

This is a substantial commitment of financial support, but more importantly of political support. Del Duca was joined by Mayor John Tory in singing the Relief Line’s praises as a necessary part of growing capacity on the transit network building out from earlier improvements through GO/RER and SmartTrack.

According to Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat (whose Twitter session is in progress as I write this), study of the RL will focus initially on Phase 1 (Danforth to downtown), but will then shift to the northern and western extensions. The northern extension is of particular importance because, according to Metrolinx demand projections, it will have a major effect in offloading demand from the Yonge Subway and the Bloor-Yonge interchange.

RLUpdateProjectedDemand_P31

[Source: Metrolinx Yonge Relief Network Study p. 31]

With both the Mayor and Queen’s Park supporting the RL, and with provincial funding of the design work, the Toronto City Council gridlock over transit priorities can be “relieved” for at least a few years. The RL will not have to compete with other schemes for City funding, and with Metrolinx holding the purse, Council will not be able to divert the money to pet “relief” lines for suburban Councillors. Indeed, the whole suburbs-vs-downtown argument, which is born in part by a desire to be at the front of the line, need not pollute the RL study.

The Metrolinx role is also important because the RL (aka the “Don Mills Subway” to many on this site) needs time to be presented for what it can do for suburban Toronto were it to run north at least to Sheppard & Don Mills via Thorncliffe Park. Many riders would have a completely new route to downtown comparable to the service now provided by the Spadina Subway, and this would be completely separate from the existing congested system. Capacity released on the Yonge line would be available to riders from the proposed Richmond Hill subway extension, and the reduction of transfer traffic at Bloor-Yonge could eliminate the need for an extremely expensive and complicated expansion of platform and circulation capacity there offsetting some of the Relief Line’s cost.

Del Duca acknowledged the considerable work already done by the City and TTC on this file. Indeed, had it not been for the TTC’s Andy Byford with support from City Planning raising the alarm about the need for a Relief Line, nothing would have happened.

Some comparatively short term improvements will provide “relief” on the Yonge line, but these will be backfilled by pent up demand over the next decade.

RLUpdateCapacityChart_P20

[Source: Metrolinx Yonge Relief Network Study p. 20]

Smart Track may shave another small amount off of this, but notwithstanding the Mayor’s enthusiasm, the City’s own demand projections published as part of the Scarborough studies show that SmartTrack has a very small effect at Bloor-Yonge.

Tory is still somewhat confused about just what Smart Track’s effect will be considering how much it has been scaled back since his election campaign. He was happy to talk about track work now in progress in Scarborough (on the Stouffville corridor) as being part of Smart Track, when in fact it is the double-tracking work for improved GO service that was in the works before he even ran for office. And he still talks of this as if it were an $8 billion project when a great deal has been lopped off of the project’s scope.

Finally, the TTC CEO Andy Byford is happy just to see money coming his way from all three governments on both the capital and operating sides (although, the latter more grudgingly from the City).

As for construction, that’s still some years off, and it will be important to think of the project in phases, not as one megaproject. It will take five to six years to get to “shovel ready” status, and the issue then is how quickly we want to build the line. A lot of transit capital planning lately has been hostage to constrained finances at both the City and at Queen’s Park. By the early 2020s, the Scarborough subway project should be winding down and spending can shift to the Relief Line.

Now in all this excitement, if only someone would treat other orphaned projects like the Waterfront and Sheppard LRTs seriously.

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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TTC Board Meeting Review: February 25, 2016

The TTC Board met on February 25, 2016. This article is a review of some of the reports and discussions at that meeting. For the full list, please refer to the agenda.

In this article:

As part of an update on cycling initiatives, the Board passed a motion asking staff to work together with the City on improved parking facilities for bicycles at subway stations. An article on this appeared on Torontoist’s website.

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