Toronto’s Omnibus Transit Report: Part I

Planning for many transit projects in Toronto has been underway for years, but the public face of this work took a long holiday in 2018 thanks to elections at both the provincial and municipal levels.

In coming weeks, Toronto’s Executive Committee and then Council will consider an omnibus report that provides updates on many transit projects and recommends a path forward.

Today, that path is murky given uncertainty about provincial intentions and the degree to which consultation between the city and province is actually in good faith. Premier Ford’s approach on other portfolios, coupled with the breezy confidence of his Transportation Minister (seen recently on TVO’s The Agenda), do not bode well. With the arrival of Doug Ford at Queen’s Park, the provincial goal on transit is more about settling old scores with Toronto Council and proving that Ford’s transit vision is correct than it is about good planning. Recent correspondence between the province’s special advisor on a proposed subway takeover revealed just how much the province does not know, or chooses to ignore. This was not a good start and the province wounded its credibility on basic technical points, never mind the political context.

But for a moment, let us consider Toronto’s future from the point of view of what the city hopes to do, if only they have the control and the money to pull this off.

The report is long, and to break this article into digestible pieces, I will focus on groups of issues. This article covers overall financing of the transit expansion project and specific details for the Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE), now known as the Line 2 East Extension (L2EE). I will turn to other components of the plan in further articles.

Many reports are available on the City’s website (scroll down to the end for all of the links). The principal reports are:

Financing Transit Expansion

The most challenging part of any transit project, let alone a complex program, is to obtain funding from governments whose priorities do not necessarily align and which may talk at least as much about the sanctity of “taxpayer dollars” as they do about investment in public infrastructure.

In a media briefing, city staff were quite clear that no project can proceed to the stage of contract tendering and awards unless the contribution agreements underpinning a project are in place.

At the federal level, the primary funding source will be the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF) which has two phases. An initial phase was time-limited, and was used in Toronto mainly to fund the purchase of hundreds of new buses. The second, longer-lived phase of PTIF will be used for transit construction projects. There is some urgency to nail down PTIF contributions given the fall 2019 election and uncertainty about this program under a new government.

Note that this entire discussion relates only to projects that would be funded in part through PTIF, not to many others such as the Eglinton LRT extensions or the Waterfront LRT.

Federal funding of $4.897 billion will be allocated by the city, assuming government approval, as below [Main Report, p. 2]:

  • $0.660 billion for the Line 2 East Extension project
  • $0.585 billion for the SmartTrack Stations Program
  • $3.151 billion for the Relief Line South
  • $0.500 billion for the Bloor-Yonge Capacity Improvement project

Negotiations with Ontario are ongoing, and the status of projects and associated $4.04 billion in provincial funding is unclear. This could be clarified in the provincial budget to be announced on April 11, 2019. Provincial interest in and plans for the Scarborough extension and the Relief Line will affect both of these projects.

City funding comes from a variety of sources:

  • Development charges
  • The Scarborough Subway levy
  • The City Building Fund levy
  • Interest on accumulated reserves from the levies

Financial projections are also affected by factors that have changed since projections made in past years:

  • Higher growth rates in development
  • Lower interest rates

PTIF2 has an assumed split of 40-33-27% for the federal, provincial and municipal governments respectively. This creates a breakdown of responsibilities as shown below.

The provincial share is supposed to be “new funding” and the amount here does not include prior commitments to Scarborough transit which originally were for the proposed LRT line, later for a subway. Exactly how much Ontario will contribute remains to be seen given discussions about ownership and the scope of the Scarborough subway project. I will return to this in more detail later.

Within the city share, $2.42 billion is unfunded (no revenue sources have been committed to fund/finance the expense), and only $885 million of the SmartTrack Stations Program has city funding. The report recommends that the city’s CFO and Treasurer report prior to the 2020 budget process on strategies for addressing the shortfall.

The project cost estimates for these are broken down below. In the chart, the acronyms are:

  • LTD: Life To Date
  • PDE: Preliminary Design & Engineering

The possible funding arrangements vary for each project, and these are complicated both by past history and by the uncertainty of early “class 5” estimates. A tentative breakdown is shown below, but this must be taken with a grain (or more) of salt due to technical and political uncertainties. For example, the assumed provincial contribution to the Line 2 Scarborough project is based on inflation of a commitment made in 2010 dollars where the city and province do not agree on the appropriate inflation factor.

Two separate numbers have been used for the Relief Line cost estimate: $6.8 billion in Table 2 above, and $7.2 billion in Table 3 below. In the media briefing, TTC staff explained that the change was due to an alignment revision (Carlaw vs Pape) and changes in construction techniques (mining vs cut-and-cover) at some locations. That may be so, but to have two different numbers for the same project so close together within a report makes one wonder about the care taken in other aspects. On top of that is almost $2 billion as a “provision” for the Relief Line to guard against potential cost increase as the estimate is refined from class 5 to class 3.

This sort of uncertainty is not unusual, but the constant variation in quoted “estimates” makes for no end of problems. The converse is seen with the Scarborough project where the “estimate” for the subway’s cost has remained fixed since 2014 despite major changes in project scope.

The report explains the difference between initial class 5 estimates and the class 3 estimates to be used in setting project budgets:

As a project moves through the three phases, project definition becomes more refined and the information used as the basis for developing a cost estimate is more mature.

  • A Class 5 cost estimate is typical when starting the initiation and development phase, where the project is conceptual (0-2% design level). This an order of magnitude estimate to inform the decision of whether or not to continue to study an option.
  • A Class 3 cost estimate is based on PDE work (10-40% design level), and is the estimate class recommended when establishing a project budget for procurement and construction. A Class 3 estimate should be used to inform full funding commitment decisions. [p. 16]

Note that the term “order of magnitude” has considerable leeway, and a change from one order to the next is a factor of 10. Saying that costs “A” and “B” are in “the same order of magnitude” gives huge scope which on projects of this nature is measured in billions of dollars. Too much past debate has assumed that minor swings in estimates might occur as designs are refined, but this is more wishful thinking and the political hope that a project will not get out of hand even before shovels hit the ground.

Overall Project Status

The map below shows the location of all projects in the transit network plan.

Projects will advance from stage to stage on their own timetables which are summarized in the chart below.

Line 2 East Extension (aka Scarborough Subway Extension)

This section reviews the status of the Scarborough extension as it is presented in the city reports. Obviously this is subject to major change given provincial announcements of support for taking ownership of the extension and for building a three-stop subway.

Continue reading

Premier Doug Plays With Toronto’s Train Set

In the continuing circus which is the Ford Family Transit Plan, the provincial government has advised Toronto and the TTC of its priorities for rapid transit construction. The Province is quite firm that since it will be paying for these lines, it will call the shots.

This information broke in two letters dated March 22 and 26, 2019 from Michael Lindsay, Special Advisor to the Cabinet – Transit Upload, and Shelley Tapp, Deputy Minister of Transportation, together with a report from the Toronto City Manager, Chris Murray, dated March 26.

The Province has four priority projects, although some of the information about them is vague:

  • A three-stop Scarborough Subway Extension [SSE]
  • A Downtown Relief Line [DRL] of indefinite scope
  • The Richmond Hill Extension of the Yonge Subway [YNE]
  • Construction of the Eglinton West Crosstown LRT primarily underground rather than at grade

These are the only projects mentioned in the letters. By implication anything else is off of the table as far as provincial funding is concerned except for whatever the subway “upload” still under discussion might entail. More about that later.

The Province refers to “incongruencies between the province and city/TTC with respect to the design and delivery of priority projects”. Most of this should be no surprise given previous statements both by Doug Ford as a candidate, and rumblings from his supporters.

The March 22 letter arose from a March 8 meeting between Provincial, City and TTC representatives. Two things are clear:

  • The Province was not paying attention to, or chose to ignore, information it received or should have been able to access easily through public channels.
  • The City/TTC should have had some idea of what was coming down the pipe over two weeks ago, but there was no public hint of what was in store even with the subway upload on the Executive Committee and Council agendas. This is a classic case of “who knew what and when”, and a troubling question of whether the direction of provincial plans was withheld from public view for political expediency.

The March 22 letter makes statements that were revised on March 26, and which have provoked considerable comment as this story broke. Most astounding among these was:

Per our meeting of March 8, we were informed that the City’s preliminary cost estimates for both the Relief Line South and the Scarborough Subway Extension have significantly increased to nearly double or greater the figures released publicly.

On March 26, the Province wrote:

We acknowledge, in light of the helpful clarification you provided at our Steering Committee meeting [of March 25], that the city’s/TTC’s revised project cost estimates for the Relief Line South and Scarborough Subway Extension projects represent estimates in anticipation of formal work that will reflect greater specificity in design. We accept that the actual budget figures remain to be determined …

This bizarre pair of statements suggests that either:

  • the Province was not really paying attention in the meeting of March 8 which led to the March 22 letter, or
  • they really were, but that their first statement was guaranteed to blow every transit plan to smithereens if it were not retracted.

On March 26, they do not say they were wrong, merely that they were dealing with preliminary estimates.

That is a strange position considering that the SSE is on the verge of reaching a firm design number and budget to be reported in early April to Toronto Executive Committee and Council. The agenda publication date is April 2, and it is hard to believe that a firm estimate for the SSE does not already exist. As for the DRL South, that is in a more preliminary state, but if anything the numbers already published have been rather high.

The Scarborough Subway Extension

For the SSE, there are two conflicting proposals:

  • City: One stop extension terminating at Scarborough Town Centre
  • Province: Three stop extension “with the same terminus point”.

There is no reference to any potential connection with a Sheppard Subway extension. However, the March 26 letter contains this statement:

… we recognize that the city/TTC and province share the intention for a station to be located at Scarborough Centre. However, under the province’s preferred three-stop extension of Line 2, the project would proceed northward from the station at Scarborough Centre.

Given that the TTC’s alignment for STC station is itself on a north-south axis, it is unclear just what this remark refers to especially if STC is to be the terminus of the provincial project.

As I wrote recently in another article, there is an issue of equipment and storage required to allow the SSE to open with full service to STC. One potential source of “additional” cost could well be that works such as a new Line 2 yard at Kipling plus the rebuilding and/or replacement/expansion of the fleet are now counted as part of the overall project cost. This is precisely the sort of hidden cost I warned the Province would face when they started to understand the full scope of the TTC’s infrastructure requirements.

Whether this is the case remains to be seen, but with the Province taking responsibility for delivery of this project and planning to assume the cost of maintenance and expansion of the existing subway, they (or anyone else looking at funding the SSE) will be facing these costs as “add ons”.

One other concern is that there is no mention of capacity expansion for Line 2 either by way of station expansion at critical junction points nor of fleet expansion to allow more service once the line has Automatic Train Control [ATC].

Crosstown LRT Westward Extension

  • City: A substantially at-grade extension from Mount Dennis westward, although there are references from recent public participation to the possibility of some grade separations.
  • Province: A “significant portion of this extension” would be underground, an option “which has not been considered in a material way” as part of the current design.

The March 26 letter revised the characterization of the City’s work to date:

… we recognize that tunnelling options for the project have been considered as part of previous assessment, but that these options are not preferred by the city/TTC.

Again, one must wonder just what the province was doing at the March 8 meeting to have so botched their understanding of the work to date. The work already done is documented on the project’s website. I cannot help wondering how much the original provincial position was a product of political posturing by Etobicoke politicians. Such a gaffe does no credit to Michael Lindsay and his team.

It is no secret that there is strong political pressure from politicians in Etobicoke for the LRT line to be buried as much as possible, and it is no surprise that the Province would embrace this.

Missing, however, is any reference to the portion of the line west of the Toronto-Mississauga boundary and specifically the link into Pearson Airport. Will this be part of the Provincial project?

Relief Line South

The text in this section has provoked speculation in various fora, both the mainstream and social media.

Planning work undertaken by the TTC contemplates utilizing existing technology … the province would propose … a truly unique transit artery spanning the city that is not beholden to the requirements of the technologically-outdated Line 2.

On March 26, the Province changed their tune, a bit:

… we recognize that the city/TTC is contemplating a different technology for the project than that currently deployed for Line 2.

It is hilarious to see Line 2 described as “technologically outdated” when it is this line that the Province plans to extend to STC. At the risk of peering into a murky crystal ball, I will venture an interpretation of what is being said here.

The “outdated technology” is the current fleet of T1 trains which do not have ATC installed. Moreover, TTC plans would not see ATC operation on Line 2 for at least a decade unless the existing fleet is retrofitted.

The TTC has always intended that the DRL would use modern technology, and again I cannot help wonder whether the Provincial reps were paying attention at their March 8 meeting with the TTC. This information is not difficult to obtain. They could even read my blog if they don’t want to spend time wading through official documents, but possibly it is simpler just to slag the municipal agency in a time-honoured Queen’s Park tradition.

The Province wants the DRL to be completely free-standing in that it would not depend on Line 2 and the existing yard at Greenwood, but would be built completely separate from the existing subway network. Moreover, “alternate delivery methods” would be used for this project, a clear indication that this would be a privately designed, built, financed and operated line much as the Crosstown was intended to be before a deal was worked out to let the TTC drive the trains, at least for a time.

The reference to a “transit artery spanning the city” implies something much more extensive than the DRL South from Pape to Osgoode Station, but what exactly this might be is anyone’s guess. It could be a truly different technology, something like Skytrain in Vancouver (which itself has two separate technologies). The construction technique could be changed from the proposed double bore to a single bore line, especially if the vehicle cross-section were smaller. The alignment and station locations could be changed. Any of these and more is possible, but we don’t know. As this is to be an AFP project, a blanket of confidentiality hides everything.

Yonge Northern Extension to Richmond Hill

The primary provincial interest here is in getting the line built as quickly as possible with planning and design work for the YNE and DRL to progress in parallel so that “the in-service date for the extension is fast tracked to the greatest extent possible”.

There is no mention of capacity issues on the existing Line 1 including the need for more trains, nor of the expansion needed at key stations to handle larger volumes of passengers.

Jumping the Gun on Uploading?

The March 26 letter clearly attempts to correct misapprehensions from the March 22 missive. These were presumably communicated privately at or before the March 25 meeting.

The Province is supposed to be engaged, in good faith, in discussions with the City and TTC about how or if it would take control of subway assets and what that control, and associated responsibility for ongoing costs, would entail. One might easily read the March 22 letter as showing that the Province has made up their mind, and all that remains is to “drop the other shoe” with respect to everything beyond the “priority projects”.

On March 26, the Province talks at length about “our priority transit expansion projects”. This has always been the political red meat in that new lines translate into votes, or so the Ford faction hopes. The myriad of details in looking after the existing system do not lend themselves to coverage in a two-page letter, let alone simplistic posturings by politicians eager to show the wisdom of their plans.

The March 26 letter does not discuss any aspect of the existing system including asset transfers or financial commitments. That’s not to say the Province has not considered this, but no details are public yet. That will be a critical issue for Toronto because the degree to which the Province actually plans to pay for the existing subway system will affect future City budgets.

There is a myth that fare revenues will cover off the City’s share, but we don’t actually know which aspects of subway “maintenance” will remain in the City/TTC hands. There are two separate budgets, capital and operating, but there has been no statement of how these will be divided. Although there could be a one-time payment for the capital value of the system, this begs two questions. First, who benefits from appreciation of property value as subway lands are repurposed/redeveloped. Second, what does the City do when the nest egg from selling the subway, assuming they even have anything left over after discharging subway-related debt, is used up.

Another issue to be decided is how the split in ownership and financial responsibility will affect gas tax funding that now flows from both the Provincial and Federal governments, over $300 million in 2018. How much of this will Toronto lose, and what will be offset by costs the Province will assume?

Further System Expansion

The correspondence from the Province is silent on many projects including:

  • Eglinton East LRT
  • Waterfront LRT
  • Finch LRT extension to Pearson Airport
  • Sheppard Subway extension to STC
  • SmartTrack and GO Transit Service Expansion

Eglinton East and Waterfront would, assuming a City/Province divide on surface/subway projects, lie clearly in the City’s court, while any extension of Line 4 Sheppard would be a Provincial project. Oddly, Eglinton East would be a “City” extension of a provincially-owned line, the Crosstown.

The Finch LRT occupies an odd place as a surface line that for historical reasons is being delivered by the Province. Moreover, an airport extension would lie partly outside of Toronto. Who knows what the fate of this will be.

To Be Continued …

The provincial letters have dropped into the Council meeting planned for March 27, and we can expect a great deal of debate, if not clarity, in coming days.

At a minimum, the Province owes Toronto a better explanation of just what they intend with their view of projects. This information should not be “confidential” because we are simply asking “what exactly do you want to do”. This is particularly critical for the Downtown Relief Line whatever the “unique transit artery” it might become.

SmartTrack and GO are important components because they will add to the “local” network within Toronto and could be part of the “relief” efforts that will span multiple projects. SmartTrack is a City project, and we are about to learn just how much it will cost Toronto to put a handful of John Tory branded stations on GO’s Kitchener and Stouffville corridors. SmartTrack also takes us into the tangled net of fare “integration” and the degree to which Toronto riders will pay more so that riders from beyond the City can have cheaper fares.

Finally, there is the question of operating costs. The Ford mythology includes a claim that subways break even, and in the uploading schemes mooted to date, there is an assumption that Toronto will still operate the subway network and pay for its day-to-day costs out of farebox revenue. Even if that were true today, much of the proposed network expansion will not gain revenue to cover its operating cost, and Toronto will face increased outlay. There is still no proposal, let alone an agreement, about the operating costs of the Crosstown and Finch LRT lines from which we might guess at how the combination of three new lines/extensions will affect the subsidy call against Toronto’s tax base.

With clear errors in the March 22 letter, the Province showed that it cannot be trusted to propose policy based on fair and accurate characterization of Toronto’s transit system. One would hope that a “Special Advisor” backed by the boffins at Metrolinx and the Ministry of Transportation might be able to avoid screw-ups. When the Province puts forward a scheme to take over part of the TTC, their rationale should be based on transparent and accurate information. Alas, recent experience in other portfolios shows that this will not happen, and dogma will trump common sense.

The Hidden Cost of Subway Capacity Relief

Two studies are underway for the so-called Relief Line:

The alignment for the southern segment has been settled for some time, but the northern segment is still in the exploratory phase of deciding the best route. Planning for the northern segment is under Metrolinx, and all publicly visible work on this stopped for the provincial election in 2018.

Every time either of these lines comes up, the inevitable reaction is “sticker shock” from the very high cost of building a new subway into downtown.

What is missing from the debate is the high cost of retrofitting the existing subway to handle more riders.

When the TTC first advanced its ATC (Automatic Train Control) project, it was to be the solution to all problems. There have been a lot of bumps along the road including:

  • Failure to include ATC signals in the design for the Vaughan subway extension.
  • An unworkable plan to run a mixture of ATC (Toronto Rocket) and non-ATC trains (the T1s now on the BD line) on Line 1.
  • Piecemeal contracts for new signal systems resulting in overlapping and incompatible work.

This was all sorted out, more or less, a few years ago as one of Andy Byford’s big successes as TTC CEO. For a history of the signalling contracts, please read my article here.

However, there is much more to providing added capacity on the subway system, as the TTC gradually discovered and acknowledged through additions to its Capital Budget. Several projects, many of which are not funded, now sit as proposals in TTC plans.

  • Additional trains for Line 1 (for more frequent service and for the Richmond Hill extension)
  • Additional storage for more trains
  • Platform Edge Doors (PEDs)
  • Expansion of Bloor-Yonge Station
  • Expansion of busy stations to provide better circulation for increased volumes of riders to and from trains

Additional Trains and Storage

The subway fleet plan, which I reviewed in detail in another article, includes a provision for more trains to increase the level of service and capacity on Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina.

Current peak service requires 65 trains of which 4 are “gap trains” used to fill in where a delay would otherwise create a gap in service. The 61 regular trains provide AM peak service every 141 seconds (2’21”) with half of the trains short-turning at Glencairn. According to the plan, by 2029 there will be 79 trains of which 2 will be gap trains. The 77 regular trains represent an increase of about 26% and would bring headways down to roughly 112 seconds (1’52”). Allowing for some trimming of running time expected with ATC, this would result in Line 1 operating a 1’50” headway which is considered the minimum possible given physical constraints at terminals and the effects of dwell times at very busy stations.

However, the fleet of 76 TR trains will only get the TTC through part of this improvement, and there will be a deficit of 9 trains by 2028 as shown above. A 68 train service (70 trains total less 2 gap trains) corresponds to a headway of about 126 seconds (2’06”), an improvement of about 11.4%, and this is the limit of what is possible without more trains.

The plan shows trains under the headings of “capacity” and “ridership growth”. However, only part of the proposed procurement (the 18 “capacity” trains) is necessary to get to the 79 train service shown in 2029. The remaining 26 trains, some of which are spares, would not physically fit on the line without extension of all service on the Spadina leg to Vaughan. Whether the north end of the Spadina leg would actually require a 110 second headway is another matter.

With the price of a subway train sitting at about $36.5 million (mid 2020s), the 44 new trains proposed here would be worth about $1.6 billion plus the cost of future operation. This project is not funded.

A project to expand storage at Wilson Yard is part of the budget, but there is a limit to how many trains will fit there. As the chart above shows, the TTC would run out of storage for trains before all of the proposed new trains are delivered. Future storage depends on a new yard that is part of the North Yonge extension to hold them.

There is a catch-22 here in that some might argue for advancing the Richmond Hill project so that its yard would be available sooner. However, this would also advance the point at which more capacity on both the existing Line 1 and the proposed Relief Line would be needed.

Station Capacity

Much of the TTC’s focus for capacity has been on the signal system and on trains needed to provide more service. However, more service means more riders, and specifically a larger rate for passengers arriving at and leaving stations, and for transfers between lines 1 and 2. There are already problems at some locations with the crush of passengers. Bloor Station is best known, but St. George also has difficulties, and some stations south of Bloor encounter problems with backlogs of passengers trying to leave the platform before the next train arrives. This is particularly severe at locations with limited platform access which can include escalators that are not always in service.

There are three projects in the Capital Budget to address these problems.

Bloor-Yonge Station

The expansion of Bloor-Yonge Station includes the addition of a second platform to Yonge Station on the Bloor line much like the second platform recently added at Union. This would split demand for eastbound and westbound trains between two platforms. The project also includes additional circulation space on the upper (Bloor Station) level for the connections to the new platform. While this addresses some station capacity issues, it will do nothing to increase service and capacity on Line 2 to carry passengers away from Yonge Station even though increased service on Line 1 will deliver them at a higher rate.

This project has a $1 billion price tag, and is budgeted for the first half of the 2020s with completion in 2025. This project is not funded.

There is currently no proposal to expand the capacity of St. George Station, and this location is hemmed in by buildings.

The project summary for the project is below.

Platform Edge Doors

Platform Edge Doors (PEDs) have been proposed for both Lines 1 and 2 for various reasons:

  • suicide prevention,
  • allowing trains to operate through stations without slowing to avoid passengers on crowded platforms, and
  • elimination of litter at track level which causes fire-related delays.

In various public statements, the TTC has been inconsistent about which of these goals is most important, and of course a decision to equip all stations, or only some, depends on what one is trying to achieve. Each is a noble cause in its own right, especially with respect to suicides, but the TTC needs to project a more consistent message on this.

Litter at track level varies with the station usage, and is worst at the very busy stations. Recently, a potato, or maybe it was a lemon, became notorious as it spent over a week wedged under the eastbound track at Yonge Station. Whatever it was, this was only part of an accumulation of debris that had built up over a month putting the lie to the TTC’s claim that it cleans stations frequently specifically to avoid the buildup of material which could cause “smoke at track level” incidents. Some problems do not require multi-million dollar solutions.

A more recent problem with passengers going to track level to retrieve lost objects, or possibly just as a stunt, is quite another matter.

Automatic Train Control (ATC) is an integral part of a PED roll out to provide precision stopping. For Line 1 YUS, the budgeted cost is $610 million with the project spanning the mid 2020s following the full cut over to ATC. In turn, the TTC argues that it will be difficult to achieve the planned 110 second headways with the expected crowding level at major stations unless trains are not slowed on their approach out of concern for hitting waiting passengers.

The cost of PEDs is budgeted at $651 million for Line 2 BD as a post-2028 project assuming that ATC will be in place by that time.

The PED projects are not funded.

The project description from the Capital Budget for the work on Line 1 is below. The Line 2 version is almost identical.

Proposed project schedule. In this chart “BTL” refers to “Below The Line”, that is to say, not included in the funded part of the budget.

Other Station Improvements

Big as many of the subway projects might be, the TTC now includes in its plans a $5.5 billion – yes, that’s billion – unfunded project for enhancement of its station capacity on Line 1. The timing of the proposed work is:

  • 2019: Preliminary strategic implementation plan, solutions and recommendations; business case and Class 5 cost estimate.
  • 2020: Program management plan and preliminary design.

The bulk of the spending for this project is shown in years 2023-2027, although some work might begin sooner depending on the timing of design, project approval and tendering.

The project description includes this warning:

Failure to identify and eliminate key element constraints to achieve target capacity at required horizons will result in increased overcrowding and congestion on Line 1 forgoing TTC’s ability to meet demand needs beyond our current capacity. [Capital Budget Blue Books, p. 584]

There is no indication of the scale of the problem of the locations to be tackled, but the price shows the cost of reworking station capacity in a busy and very constrained set of downtown stations.

And, no I am not making up the $5.5 billion estimated cost. Here is the page showing projected funding and cash flow. To put this in context, this one project is almost as big as the entire funded TTC Capital Budget for State of Good Repair. And of course, that $5.5 billion is unfunded.

Summary

The cost of providing more capacity on Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina is far more than Toronto has been told in the past. When this all started, it was simply a matter of a new signal system, but that was only the first of many parts in this story. How much of the projected cost here can be trimmed is difficult to say, and that in turn would be affected by the capacity the TTC seeks to operate on Yonge Street. Moving to a full 37k/hour peak demand may not be practical, or could be quite challenging.

Meanwhile, the Relief Line project has, until comparatively recently in TTC history, been treated as something the city only needs as a last ditch effort, something to address a long-future problem, not a pressing need today.

Toronto has been ill-served by the attitude that the Relief Line is a project for another day, not to mention its characterization by some politicians that it is only a project for coddled downtowners. Tell that to people who cannot get on the Yonge Subway, many of whom live far north of Bloor Street.

The division of the RL planning into a south-of-Danforth segment separate from the northern extension means that the substantial benefit of intercepting riders east of Yonge well north of Bloor-Danforth is many years in the future.

The TTC owes Council a thorough discussion of capacity issues on the subway network including all of the interrelated projects needed to deal with present and future demand. For far too long, many projects have been discussed in isolation from each other, or simply have been ignored.

This is an issue for politicians at both Toronto and Queen’s Park who downplay the cost and complexity of a provincial takeover of responsibility for the subway and its funding. Even if the subway remains in Toronto’s hands, there are huge costs facing the TTC and its “funding partners”.

Nothing less than the credibility of transit as an engine for the city’s growth is at stake.

TTC 2019 Fleet and Capacity Plans Part I: Subway (Updated)

Note: At the time of publication (Noon on Monday, March 18, 2019), I await a response from the TTC to several questions on issues raised in this article. When the responses arrive, I will update the article.

Updated March 20, 2019 at 6:40 am: The spreadsheet of major project costs has been revised to show the correct final cost for the Line 2 Platform Edge Doors project. The value under “post 2028” was correct, but the EFC originally contained the value for the Bloor-Yonge project. This change does not affect the text of the article as PEDs were cited only in that table.

The TTC’s Capital Budget and Plan exist in a summary form in reports to the TTC Board and City Council, but there is a much more detailed version commonly known as the “blue books”. These are two large binders packed with information about capital projects.

For years, I have been reading them to sniff out issues that the general reports don’t cover or acknowledge. The 2019 edition became available at the beginning of March, and as I dove into it, many questions began to fill notes especially where there are direct conflicts between materials in the books themselves, and between these details and public statements and reports. Combing through this material may look like the height of transit nerdishness, but there is a crucial underlying issue here.

Cost-cutting politicians, not to mention ambitious transit managers, think that everything can be solved with a quick takeover of ownership and decision-making responsibilities. The temptation is to appear to do much while spending as little as possible. TTC and City practices chronically understate the capital needs of the transit system, and this makes a takeover appear cheaper than it really should be. Couple that with a government and its agency, Metrolinx, where detailed, long-range spending plans never appear in public, and we have a recipe for a system that will crumble from underfunding.

I cannot help but feel that project timings and overall plans for the system have been shuffled around without a thorough review of the effects especially where related plans overlap. Indeed, some project descriptions contain text that does not match the timing implied by the annual budget allocations. TTC management is supposed to be working on consolidated plans for both major subway lines, although the one for Line 2 was promised two years ago when Andy Byford was still the CEO.

A long-standing problem with capital budgets in Toronto, and not just at the TTC, is the overriding concern with the City’s debt ceiling. Toronto sets a target that the cost of debt should not exceed 15 per cent of tax revenue. Originally this was a hard cap for each year in a ten-year projection, but major projects in the near future made this impossible to achieve. Now the target is to stay at or below the ceiling on average. With a bulge in spending, and hence an increase in debt, in the mid 2020s, debt costs go over the line and this is “fixed” only by having years at less than 15% to make the average work out.

For a capital-hungry agency like the TTC there is a problem: future projects have requirements that simply do not fit into the City’s plans. The severity of this shortfall has been understated for over a decade by three simple expedients.

  • Project schedules in the budget are pushed beyond the ten-year mark where the related debt pressure would appear in City projections.
  • Projects are shown “below the line” in unfunded status with a hope that revenue sources such as new subsidies from other governments will appear.
  • Projects are omitted from from the budget completely.

The result is familiar to city-watchers with annual hand-wringing about the sky falling tomorrow, while somehow we manage to pay for today’s projects. In January 2019, the TTC knocked the legs out from this with the publication of a 15 year Capital Investment Plan revealing capital needs far greater than any numbers used in past projections. What had been a ten year, $9 billion plan that was roughly two-thirds funded (i.e. had known or likely monies available) went to a fifteen year, $33.5 billion plan with only one-third funded. This is just for “state of good repair”, and any system expansion sits on top.

In all of this lies a more subtle problem than simple financing. Years of shuffling projects made projected spending fit within City targets, and this served political needs to make key projects appear manageable. Overall planning, including the relationships between line items in the budget, took second place, if it was considered at all.

Capital planning requires a long-term view of the city and its transit system, and decisions made today have effects reaching more than a decade into the future. Toronto continues to suffer from delays in provision of new fleets for the surface system, including the garage space needed to hold a larger bus fleet, that go back at least to the era of Mayor Rob Ford. For years, the standard response to pleas for better transit service is that there are no buses and streetcars to provide more service, and even if we had them, we would have no place to put them. This flows directly from decisions to throttle spending.

Toronto faces the same challenge on its subway where decisions about the timing of spending, even of acknowledging the scope of requirements, limit the ability to address capacity problems.

This is a long article focusing on matters related to fleet planning, although there are related issues with infrastructure and facilities. Key points are summarized first, with details in following sections.

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Metrolinx Board Meeting: February 7, 2019 (Updated)

Updated February 10, 2019 at 9:00 am: Notes from the Board meeting have been added at the beginning of this article.

Relief Line Business Case

When the agenda was released, the Relief Line report created quite a stir with an apparent shift in Metrolinx’ position on the staging of subway expansion projects. Where “relief” taking precedence over the Yonge north extension only referred to the southern section (Pape to Osgoode), Metrolinx now shows a shortfall in capacity if the northern section (Danforth to Sheppard) is missing from the network.

This prompted a letter from Frank Scarpitti, Mayor of Markham and Chair of the York Region Rapid Transit Corporation Board. The heart of Scarpitti’s objection is that the Metrolinx report uses a mixture of demand models and assumptions to arrive at its conclusion, and that this is out of step with previous studies and approvals.

The Relief Line Business Case Development presentation paints a flawed picture of the ridership modelling work being undertaken by Metrolinx, in conjunction with York Region and City of Toronto staff. The vague and contradictory information being used to update the public on slide 7 regarding Line 1: Ridership Demand and Network Effects has, once again, pitted two critically needed infrastructure projects against one another, namely the Relief Line against the Yonge Subway Extension. This positioning is not supported by the ridership modelling analysis and is at odds with the advice and information presented by Metrolinx at a recent meeting.

On June 25, 2015, Metrolinx released the results of the Yonge Relief Network Study to the Board. Supported by a Stakeholder Advisory Committee and a Peer Review Panel, the Board endorsed the finding that “With the Yonge North Extension, the Yonge Subway will still be under capacity.”

The Relief Line Update uses a blend of data and methodologies to make broad assumptions about future ridership. Each subsequent ridership model claims to have better information, more detail and more sophisticated analysis. Some models include independent findings and more recently, to our objection, some have been relying heavily on market driven employment and population data, contrary to the required obligation of all municipalities to follow the Provincially-mandated “Growth Plan” numbers.

The Relief Line Update being presented to the Metrolinx Board on February 7, 2019 has, according to Metrolinx staff, blended the findings of at least three different models and does not accurately represent any of the individual modelling analyses. Slide 7 suggests that, in 2041, Line 1 will be below capacity and then over capacity when the Yonge Subway Extension is added. This is completely inaccurate – current Metrolinx modelling shared as recent as January 21, 2019 demonstrates that the Yonge Subway Extension adds a relatively minor number of riders to the peak demand location and, in no case, is it the cause of Line 1 becoming over capacity.

The facts are that only 20% of the new riders on an extension of the Yonge Subway line would be headed south of Bloor. Ridership growth on Line 1 is directly related to population and employment growth in Toronto. In fact, models show that ridership on Line 1 will exceed capacity regardless of whether the Yonge Subway Extension is constructed. We believe that by promoting the shift of as little as 10% of people from peak hour travel from the Extension to the Richmond Hill GO Line, and by using fare structure and level of service incentives, that substantial relief on Line 1 can be achieved while the Yonge Subway Extension is being constructed.

Modelling also shows that the majority of riders (80%) on the Yonge Subway Extension are headed to Toronto’s uptown employment centres north of Bloor, including St. Clair, Eglinton and York Mills. Furthermore, the Yonge Subway Extension will also serve a large number of Toronto residents that work in York Region Other initiatives are underway, or should be underway, to alleviate Line 1 capacity problems. Metrolinx’s 2015 study concluded that a number of planned and funded initiatives such as Automatic Train Control, more Rocket Trains, GO Expansion, and the opening of the Line 1 extension to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre will add capacity and offload the Line 1 demand.

These are serious challenges to the professional quality of work presented by Metrolinx planners.

The June 2015 report cited here was the Yonge Relief Network Study and it contains the quotation about the subway remaining under capacity even with the Yonge North extension. However, this depends on a number of factors:

  • The model year is 2031
  • Then-current projections for population and jobs
  • Assumed diversion levels for ridership to TYSSE and GO RER, net of demand added by new projects especially the Crosstown LRT at Eglinton

The reported projected that the volume/capacity ratio would have been 96% (2031) over the peak hour meaning that the super-peak would be above the line. The claim that the subway would still have capacity is “true” only on average and with no headroom for growth. Metrolinx planners should have known better to make that statement in 2015.

Metrolinx staff pointed out:

  • They are modelling for 2041, ten years later
  • The 2016 Census shows that core area employment is growing faster than predicted
  • Modelling now includes factors for latent demand and safety considerations at stations and platforms
  • If there is no alternate relief in place by 2041, the Relief Line North will be required

Staff also reported that although the Relief Line South approved concept (Pape to Osgoode via Carlaw and Queen) has a positive Business Case, the value is only slightly above 1.0. All six of the options were close to 1 and so the distinction between them is not as strong as the simple over/under status in the report might imply. With only a small positive margin, factors such as cost control and encouragement of Transit Oriented Development along the line will be important to maintain the supposed benefit.

CEO Phil Verster argued strongly that building the Relief Line does not preclude building other projects. His concern is to build more transit and build faster. Metrolinx is looking at (unspecified) new technology and innovation from industry to speed up the process. More than one line could be built concurrently, but the critical point is to open them in a sequence that causes the desired redistribution of demand.

Verster admitted that Metrolinx has not done enough to look at the Richmond Hill GO corridor for its potential contribution to relief.

A Board member asked whether the staff have identified a “tipping point” in safety for their studies. There is not a single value, but rather a variation from one location to another depending on local demand, station geometry and passenger flows.

Unspoken through all of this was the years of delay in admitting that a problem even exists, let alone of doing something about it. GO’s ability to provide relief has been downplayed for various reasons including the need to regrade the south end of the line to make it flood-proof, the winding valley route’s limitation of travel speed, and operational conflicts with CN’s freight traffic that limit GO capacity to Richmond Hill. Meanwhile, candidate John Tory’s SmartTrack campaign claimed that his scheme would eliminate the need for a Relief Line, and TTC projections did not raise alarms about capacity and safety issues until the situation at Bloor-Yonge could not be ignored.

“Relief” will not come from any one line or project, but from the contributions of several.

Financing and deliverability studies will be reported in spring 2019 for the Relief Line South, and a preliminary business case for the Relief Line North will be available by year-end.

This entire exchange shows the problems brought on by oversimplified presentation decks for the Board. In their oral remarks, Metrolinx staff displayed a more extensive grasp of the issues and details than contained in the Powerpoint deck.

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$33 Billion and Counting (Part II)

In the first article in this series, I reviewed the Capital Budget and Plan that covers the years 2019-2033 for the TTC. There are three reports on the January 24 Board agenda related to this subject:

This article concentrates on the “Making Headway” report which is a glossy overview of the 15 Year Capital Plan. It is a generally good report, although there are annoying omissions of detail that would flesh out its argument.

This report deals mainly with “state of good repair” (SOGR) projects that involve rejuvenation of existing infrastructure and expansion necessary to handle growing demand. New lines are not, for the most part, included in the report although plans for them are reflected in SOGR planning where they trigger expansion of existing capacity. Leaving out new projects like the Richmond Hill extension may be a political decision, but this means that the context for some recommendations is incomplete. A useful update would be to produce a consolidated plan showing the “new” projects and the time-critical events they trigger (such as fleet expansion or replacement and station capacity issues).

For many years, the TTC, the City of Toronto and its so-called funding partners have been content for the official SOGR backlog to stay out of sight. This has the triple benefit of reducing the projected borrowing TTC projects will require, making the benefit of capital funding the TTC does receive (mainly from gas tax) appear larger than what is needed, and avoiding difficult questions about spending on new projects in the face of a gaping hole for existing maintenance. This must stop, and the “Making Headway” report certainly puts the TTC’s needs in a different, and far more critical, light.

A backlog of deferred maintenance has grown, putting the safety, accessibility and sustainability of our transit system at risk despite the need to move more customers more reliably than ever before. [p. 7]

One cannot help remembering the soothing words of TTC management in the early 1990s when recession-starved governments cut back on transit maintenance, and the TTC said they could get by on the money they received without compromising the system. Then there was the fatal crash at Russell Hill and, bit by bit, Toronto learned just how badly the TTC’s condition had fallen. The CEO at the time (a position then called “Chief General Manager”) went on to become a Minister in the Harris government that slashed provincial transit funding completely. Things appear to be different today with the TTC calling out for better funding, although at a time when the last thing any politician wants to hear is a plea for more spending.

One page should be burned into the souls of anyone who claims to support transit’s vital role:

It is easy for the need to invest in our base transit system to be overshadowed by the need to fund transit expansion. But investing to properly maintain and increase the capacity of our current system is arguably even more important.

Population growth and planned transit expansion projects such as SmartTrack, the Relief Line South, the Line 2 East Extension to Scarborough and new LRT lines on Eglinton and Finch West will add hundreds of thousands more customers to Toronto’s transit network.

The result will dramatically increase pressure on a system already grappling with an aging fleet, outdated signals on key subway lines, inadequate maintenance and storage capacity, and tracks and infrastructure in need of constant repair.

Without the investments outlined in this Plan, service reliability and crowding will worsen, as the maintenance backlog grows and becomes more difficult and costlier to fix. This is the fate now faced by some other major transit systems in North America that allowed their assets to badly deteriorate.

Our customers, our city, our province and our nation can’t afford to let that happen. [p. 8]

This is not the message recent and current leaders in Toronto and Ontario wanted to hear, and they collectively are to blame for the mess we are in today.

Although some items, particularly those in the second decade of the plan, are not fully costed, the items are included to raise awareness that they exist.

Given the scale of the investment required, however, it would be irresponsible to delay conversations about funding until estimates are exact. [p. 9]

There is a mythology about transit assets, particularly subways, that they last a century. This is nowhere near the truth, and those who push such claims as a justification for subways as a preferred mode are flat out liars. Only the physical structure lasts many decades, and even that requires ongoing repair. Components such as trains, track, escalators, electrical systems, signals, tunnels, pumps and station buildings require repair and replacement at regular intervals. The Yonge subway, now over 60 years old, is on its third set of trains, and the Bloor-Danforth line on its second. All of the track has been replaced two or three times. Stations do not have their original escalators, and the ones now in place are coming due for major overhaul or replacement. The list is endless. A subway is not a “build it and forget it” project any more than a new car or a new house.

When the existing system is asked to carry far more riders, more is needed than a new coat of paint. More trains and bigger stations are just a start, and the analogy would be trading up to a family SUV or moving to a bigger house. If Toronto were a stagnant city with little population or job growth, this would be less of an issue, but Toronto is instead a booming area facing problems of growth it cannot serve or chooses not to serve adequately.

The chart below shows how many aspects of a transit system are linked together. We cannot simply say “buy more buses” or “run more trains” and think that every problem is solved. This problem is compounded when any “improvement” we make vanishes into the black hole of deferred maintenance, making up for what we should have done years ago.

Seen from a high level, the $33.5 billion plan breaks down like this:

Of the “funded” portion, about one third depends on assumptions regarding available funds from various sources in the second decade of the plan, and the remainder is based on the current known commitments of various government. This is less than certain with provincial plans to take over ownership of the subway system and responsibility for funding its capital maintenance. Note that in the chart above, 65% of the total is subway related. This would leave Queen’s Park on the hook for $22 billion over 15 years, and that does not pay for system expansion.

(For clarity, some of the spending included above is on works in progress such as the ATC signalling on Line 1 YUS, and the delivery of new streetcars. Only the costs in 2019 and forward are included in the figures here.)

Funding vs Financing

This report deals with the funding needs of the transit system. The distinction is often blurred between getting the money (funding) and paying for it (financing). The distinction is that if you buy a car, somebody (you, or more likely your bank) pays for the vehicle. The dealer and the automaker are happy, but you now have a debt. That’s “financing”. A slightly more creative scheme would be for you to rent the car so that someone else (a leasing company) actually owns it, but this is still “financing”. Real money changed hands somewhere, although the leasing company would get a better price on a fleet purchase, and they have tax write-off opportunities that you probably don’t.

Money could come from outside investors who may simply provide financing secured by future revenues (taxes on new development, for example), or might build or buy and even operate assets on our behalf. But one way or another, we have to pay for them unless new money with no strings attached appears out of thin air. That’s how one-time grants for major projects like subway extensions work. Governments give the TTC money with which to build new lines, but the cost stays on the government’s books and is not a future charge against the transit system. That’s a system the province doesn’t like one bit, and that is why Ontario wants to own and finance projects if only because the accounting looks better without that “gift” to Toronto.

There is a great debate over where we will find $33.5 billion, but there is no way to make that number vanish short of simply not undertaking the projects it will fund.

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$33 Billion and Counting

A political tremour ran through the transit world in Toronto recently with the TTC’s release of a 15-year projection of capital spending requirements at $33.5 billion. This does not include funding for most system expansion projects beyond the already-approved Scarborough Subway.

That number is big, but it’s no surprise to those who have been following TTC budgets for years. A major issue has been that “unfunded” or “below the line” projects don’t get the attention they deserve and are deliberately kept off of the books to reduce the apparent size of the City’s financial problems. Common tactics included omitting projects from the overall budget, or projecting their spending in a period just beyond the rolling ten-year horizon of capital planning.

Transit planning in Toronto and at Queen’s Park is reckless when it downplays the backlog of spending and associated subsidies facing public agencies. New spending and the inevitable photo ops for grinning, back-patting politicians are easier to fit into plans when you can ignore the transit system crumbling in the background.

Several budget reports will be before the TTC Board (and later at City Council) at its next meeting on January 24, 2019.

There is far too much material here to review in a single article, and so I will break this up over multiple posts. Some of the details behind individual projects will not be available until I obtain the full version of the Capital Budget known as the “Blue Books” which expand the line items from the “Blue Pages” into project descriptions and schedules.

A vital part of the new reports is a shift to a longer time frame (15 years) and the inclusion of all projects in the Capital Plan whether they have funding or not. The extent of the problem is quite evident in the following chart. The purple hatched area shows the requirements for coming years while the sold areas show known funding amounts in the medium term and hoped-for income thereafter.

The big drop in the City’s funding share in the early 2020s arises from the lack of borrowing headroom in the overall City budget. A big problem here is the crowding by major projects such as the Scarborough Subway Extension and the Gardiner Expressway rebuild within the overall borrowing plan. Current City policy dictates that the average debt servicing cost should not exceed 15% of City tax revenue over a ten year period. Planned spending in the next few years will eliminate the headroom for additional borrowing. This exactly coincides with the bulge in TTC capital requirements beginning in 2022. To put it another way, if funding continued at 2019 levels across the chart, there would still be a shortfall, but against a much higher base.

Even this chart does not tell the full story because the Capital Plan continues to push major projects beyond the ten-year line, and the financial pressures from system expansion are not fully accounted for here. As things stand today, less than 30% of the ten-year program is funded. Beyond 2028, the level of assumed funding is still well below historical levels.

($ billion) 2019-2028 2029-2033 Total 2019-2033
Funded $6.4 $3.4 $9.8
Unfunded $17.5 $6.2 $23.7
Total $23.9 $9.6 $33.5

System expansion projects will add a further $3.8 billion over the first ten years of the plan:

  • Line 2 Extension (formerly known as the SSE): $3.4 billion (subject to revision when an updated cost report is presented to Council in April 2019).
    • “While the 10-Year Capital Plan includes $3.360 billion in funding for this project (between 2019 to 2028), this project has an overall budget of $3.560 billion. This estimate, which includes $132 million to extend the life of the SRT until the Line 2 East Extension commences operation and a further $123 million to decommission and demolish the SRT, was based on 0% design. The project budget and schedule will be re-baselined in Stage Gate 3 report to City Council in April 2019, factoring in delivery strategy and schedule risk analysis.”
  • Relief Line South: $385 million will be spent in 2019-20 to support early works on this project. Some of this is already funded, but $325 million is being advanced into the current ten-year budget. Of this, the City proposes to provide half and looks to other levels of government for a contribution. The actual RL construction project is a separate entity which is not yet in the budget.
    • “The 10-Year Capital Plan includes funding of $385 million to complete current work only, which includes completing the preliminary design and engineering to between 15% and 30% complete, including developing a project budget and schedule.”
  • Waterfront Transit: The ten-year budget includes only $27 million in 2019-21 for design work on the planned extension from Exhibition Loop to the Dufferin Gate. Design work on any other Waterfront projects, let alone any construction, remains beyond the ten-year window.
  • Spadina Vaughan extension: Outstanding work on this project including close-out costs amount to $60 million in 2019, but this will be funded within the existing project.

[Quotations above are from the 15 Year Capital Investment Plan and 2019-2028 Budget, pp 12-13.]

The Relief Line work includes tasks such as property acquisition, utility relocation and design for the tunnel boring equipment. Now that the line has political support, spending sooner rather than later is on the agenda, and about two years can be shaved from the original project schedule by doing the preliminary work now. This is a major change from the position taken by Mayor Tory during the election campaign, and the need to “do something” as soon as possible is now evident.

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Many Questions About A Subway Takeover

In the melee that passes for Ontario politics, one major issue is the proposed takeover of Toronto’s subway system by Queen’s Park. Such a change, they claim, would allow a great speed-up of system expansion currently hung up at Toronto Council. A good deal of that hang up can be traced to the Premier and his brother’s actions at Council, but such trivialities get in the way of a good stump speech.

The idea that planning should be based on actual evidence is a buzz-phrase heard most commonly when a politician is trying to appear “businesslike” and claims to be applying some sort of intellectual rigour to back-of-the-envelope planning. The uploading proposal sounds good in theory, but this is due in part to poor understanding of transits needs and cost both at Queen’s Park and at City Hall. The scheme surfaced years ago at Council as a simplistic way to cut the cost of transit support in the City’s budget, and the idea moved to the provincial level along with the Ford regime.

A common thread through every proposal is that the true cost of owning, operating and upgrading the subway system is poorly understood, even by members of Toronto Council and the TTC Board whose job it should be to know these things. It is a convenient myth that the subway “breaks even”, and that if only someone would take the cost of expansion and capital maintenance off of the City’s hands, all would be well.

In the interest of informed debate, this article examines the plan, such as it is, and the many issues that have yet to be addressed by its proponents.

Understanding the TTC Budget

A detailed breakdown of the TTC Budgets can be found in:

The TTC’s budget and long-term plans are poorly understood. The TTC Board scheduled Budget and Strategy meetings, but either cancelled them or spent the available time on narrow-focus rather than system-wide issues. At Council, things are even worse because budget debates, crammed with every department’s issues, get only short review. These are usually in an environment hostile to discussions of change except for a few, small topics. The “big picture” is limited to battles over new transit lines while the health of the overall system goes ignored.

For a decade or more, service growth in Toronto was constrained by the size of the streetcar and bus fleets, the physical limits on train spacing on the subway and the capacity of its stations. Much of the recent service growth is outside of the peak period when spare vehicles are available.

On the capital side, the City has a policy that its debt service costs should not exceed 15% of tax revenues. The province mandates a 25% cap, but the City takes a more conservative approach to provide headroom. Originally the cap applied to each year individually, but it is now considered over a ten-year average so that peaks and valleys in debt costs can smooth out for a 15% average. Already, planned borrowing for future years takes up all available room, and additional debt-financed work is possible only with special levies such as the Scarborough Subway tax (1.6%) and the John Tory City Building Fund (building up to 2.5%). (These are both tax increases above the rate of inflation.) If the cost of borrowing goes up, or City tax revenues fall, the 15% line will be only a fond memory.

The problem is compounded by a chronic understatement of transit needs going back at least eight years. When the marching orders are to keep deficits, and hence taxes, down, any proposals for improvement run counter to political goals. “We can’t afford it” becomes a standard response, and options simply go unstudied especially if they are associated with the wrong political faction.

If we don’t know what options will cost, we don’t know what might be possible or what the trade-offs among options would look like.

Even worse, with the Capital Budget, there is a long list of items that are either:

  • approved but not funded (roughly 1/3 of the approved list, about $3 billion worth)
  • “below the line” with neither approval nor funding (over $1 billion)
  • “future consideration” (over $2 billion)

Many of the big ticket items in these lists are subway items such as new and expanded fleets for the two major routes, and capacity expansion at busy stations. Many items in the budget are actually part of a larger project such subway capacity. However, the budget is presented on a departmental basis, and there is no consolidation of related line items. This has two effects: the TTC Board and Council rightly complain when projects appear to grow because approving the first step triggers the need for all that follows, related items are consigned to “funded” or “unfunded” status without regard for their place in the larger scheme.

The problem with these lists is that they are getting longer, especially the second and third group, even though some items form parts of critical system updates. Other projects simply are not on any budget, or are pushed so far into the future that they have no effect on the current ten-year plans. The 15% rule caused important projects related to Line 2 Bloor-Danforth to be pushed into the late 2020s even though some of them are pre-requisites for the Scarborough Subway Extension. (The components of Bloor-Danforth subway renewal and capacity expansion are discussed in detail in an appendix to this article.)

If Ontario takes over responsibility for the subway, they will inherit that long list of projects. For its part, Toronto Council and the TTC Board do not fully understand the implications if Ontario simply chooses not to invest in the existing system because the estimate of a takeover has been low-balled.

The TTC Board is very simple-minded in its deliberations, and avoids going into details. Their focus is on cost containment, not on service, except when someone needs a photo op to announce some relatively trivial change such as an express bus network that adds few new buses.

If Council and the TTC don’t understand their own system and its real needs, how can they fight for it?

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So You Want To Own A Subway (2018 Edition)

Among the many promises made by the Progressive Conservative Party in the run-up to the June 7 election is a scheme to upload the Toronto subway system to the province with the intention of relieving Toronto of this ongoing cost. This was also part of their 2014 campaign, and it is born no doubt from the Ford brothers’ assumption that (a) this could be done cheaply and (b) Toronto would save money overall. The pot is sweetened this time around with the guarantee that Toronto would keep the fare revenue and operate the system. The overall tradeoffs in operating and capital costs are not entirely nailed down.

Oliver Moore in the Globe has written about this proposal wondering whether it is actually workable. The quotes below are taken from his article.

The Tories are framing the upload largely as an accounting exercise, making it easier to find funding and thus facilitating transit construction. The province would pay an estimated $160-million annually for major capital maintenance on the subway network, taking an obligation off city books.

Under the proposal, the Toronto Transit Commission would keep operating the subway, with its board setting fares and the city retaining revenues. Expansion planning would be controlled by the province, although Toronto and Ottawa would be asked to help fund construction.

Note that the proposal is silent on the operating cost of the subway. There is something of a myth that the subway “breaks even”, but this is not true, especially for the more-recently opened segments. It is a matter of record that the Sheppard Line loses money, and the TTC estimated that the operating impact, net of new fares, of the Vaughan extension would be $30 million per year.

If the province builds a new subway line, would Toronto, through the TTC, still be on the hook for paying its operating cost?

Any concept of “breaking even” requires that fares be allocated between surface and subway routes and this is an impossible task. One can propose many schemes, but they all have built-in biases because a “trip” and a “fare” are such different things. The situation is even more complex as an increasing number of riders pay through some form of pass all the way from the yearly Metropass (formerly called the “monthly discount program”) down to the two-hour transfer.

How Much Does The Subway Cost?

The estimated value of an upload to Queen’s Park of $160 million/year is woefully inadequate because the TTC’s capital budget for ongoing maintenance is much, much larger. There is much more to owning a subway than collecting billions in construction subsidies. Despite the frequent claim that “subways last 100 years”, they require a lot of ongoing maintenance and replacement of subsystems. With the exception of the physical tunnel and station structures, a large proportion of the older subway lines has been completely replaced or undergone major overhaul at least once since they opened. Line 1 YUS is on its third generation of trains, for example.

I wrote about this four years ago, and this article is an update of my earlier review.

A big problem arises for anyone taking a superficial look at the TTC’s books because so many projects are not funded, or are not even part of the approved “base budget”. They are “below the line” or, even worse, they are merely “proposals” of future works that might find their way into the official list. Looking only at current, approved funded projects ignores a large and growing list of projects that, for political convenience, are out of sight, the iceberg below the water line.

Slogging through the TTC’s Capital Budget is no fun, but somebody has to do it. You, dear readers, get the digested version of hundreds of pages of reports. Thank you in advance.

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TTC Contemplates Earlier Subway Closing

At the TTC’s Audit & Risk Management Committee meeting of May 29, 2018, staff presented a report entitled Internal Audit Quarterly Update: Q1 2018. That is not the sort of title that would prompt avid late-night reading, but one item within the report sparked a brief conversation between the committee and staff.

There are several issues related to the management of overnight work in the subway which requires a variety of resources including staff, work cars, power cuts and central supervision to keep all of the crews from tripping over each other. One part of the ongoing audit work is to review the systems (many automated, but some manual) used to schedule and track the work plans, but another issue raised was the relatively short maintenance window within which work can be done. Responding to a question, staff advised that they are reviewing the operating hours of the subway to determine whether changing these hours could improve the productivity of overnight maintenance work.

Here are extracts from the report:

Audit Observation #3: Track Level Maintenance Window

TTC’s revenue subway service hours limit the nightly maintenance window, which impacts the efficiency and effectiveness of track level work and exposes subway infrastructure to accelerated deterioration.

Limited Track Level Maintenance Window

Per an international CoMET/Nova benchmark study of “Metro Key Performance Indicators (2016 data)”, TTC ranked fourth amongst 34 participants in terms of subway service density or network utilization – a standardized method that measures operated passenger capacity compared to network size. This KPI reflects the ‘intensity of utilization of the metro network’, which is a function of train frequency, train length and car capacity. The study asserts high train frequency may reflect a good use of fixed infrastructure, but the intense impact on asset utilization should be warranted by ridership demand, i.e., recognizing the need to balance competing objectives of making subway service more available for customers versus the costs associated with accelerated deterioration of subway infrastructure and assets due to an increase in daily use. The study comments that TTC offers relatively high levels of capacity primarily due to larger trains and higher frequencies across its entire, relatively small network.

TTC track level work starts once the system is fully cleared of revenue trains. TTC’s subway system is closed to the public at 1:30am and opens at 6:00am on week days and Saturdays, and at 8:00am on Sundays. However, trains continue to run through the system until approximately 2:30am and re-enter the system at around 5:30am, leaving an average total available daily maintenance window of 180 minutes (300 minutes on Sundays as service preparation starts around 7:30am).

Night shift work typically runs from 10:30pm to 7am, including a 30-minute unpaid meal break. Per discussion with Subway Infrastructure management, track level set-up activities typically start at 2:45am and Transit Control requests crews to complete work and start clearing the track at 5:00am. Work activities expected to be performed out-side of this track level access time period include employee roll-call, safety-talks/briefings, work car preparation, and tools maintenance, etc.

[…]

In a Nova comparison study, “Track Possession Timings ” (2014), it was noted that given TTC’s subway service hours, and taking into account estimated time required for set-up and safety check activities, as well as post work preparation for service, TTC workers’ total available time to work productively at track level was between 30 and 225 mins less than the other ten participants. Further, the average maintenance window of these other participants was almost 2hrs longer than that of TTC.

If the maintenance window was to be increased by 2 additional hours, 5 nights a week, Audit estimates the opportunity for improved productivity by SI’s Track Maintenance and Structure Maintenance Sections alone to be valued at approximately $3.38 million. Such a change would also reduce overtime and potentially the need for weekend closures by these two groups. Based on payroll data, Track Maintenance and Structure Maintenance incurred overtime costs of $4.58M and $1.26M respectively in 2017. Structure Maintenance Management estimates that if the maintenance window was to be extended by 2 hours, 5 nights a week, the annual overtime for this Section could be reduced by 75%, which in 2017, would be equal to approximately $945K. It is reasonable to assume productivity improvements and material overtime savings could be realized by other groups that complete maintenance and capital project work at track level if the maintenance window is extended.

[pp 8-9 of Attachment 3, at pp 27-28 of the document]

Note that the “other ten participants” are not listed nor are the relative service levels of their transit systems mentioned to indicate whether they are valid comparators for Toronto.

A proposed action plan appears a few pages later in the report:

Audit Observation #3 – Management Action Plan Considerations:

To maximize and optimize the track level maintenance window, Management should:

  • Evaluate actual ridership and revenue associated with TTC’s late-night subway service (after midnight runs) to ensure current intensity of service and impact on subway infrastructure (and vehicle) asset maintenance costs are warranted.
  • Conduct in-depth analysis of TTC’s current subway infrastructure asset management approach, resource planning and crewing methods, work car dispatching techniques and work methods to identify opportunities for maximizing productivity and transparency of resource utilization at track level.

This was striking on at least two counts.

First, there is no recognition in the report that closing earlier is anything more than a question of sending trains back to the yard earlier, and no mention of providing replacement service. It is no secret that night buses on Yonge and Bloor-Danforth are very heavily loaded after 2 am and, if anything, more service is needed then. A similar problem occurs during the early part of the day before the subway opens. The auditors also seem to be unaware that there is no night service to replace the University-Spadina subway, and this is difficult (as users of Spadina shuttles know) because the subway does not follow an arterial road like Yonge or Bloor.

If two hours were added to the shutdown period, the amount of bus service required to replace the subway would be substantial, and it is likely that ridership would be lost thanks to the relative inconvenience. Moreover, there would be knock-on effects for users of connecting bus services who would face much longer journeys to their connection points on a surface bus, and who might also face a decline in service thanks to the unattractiveness of the night bus replacement for the subway.

This change could actually trigger a system-wide retrenchment of service hours.

Second, there was absolutely no intimation that anyone at the meeting was aware of just how severe the impacts of this proposal would be on riders, nor was there any attempt to defend their interests. Indeed, the focus is on making the maintenance teams more efficient and saving millions without considering the offsetting costs and potential lost revenue.

Some of the basic assumptions in the text quoted above are wrong, notably a claimed closing time for the subway of 1:30 am. In fact, the closing time varies across the system. There is a scheduled meet of the last northbound, eastbound and westbound trains at Bloor-Yonge at about 1:54 am that has been in place since the BD line opened in 1966. Stations close as these last trains make their way outbound to terminals. One might hope the auditors would check with TTC planners or even simply look at their own website.

The last train eastbound on Line 4 Sheppard does not leave Yonge-Sheppard station until 2:14 am.

It is quite clear to anyone who actually rides the subway late at night that it does not close at 1:30 am across the network. This is only the start of a process that continues until about 2:30 am, and some trains have to return to their overnight storage locations even later. The maintenance window varies depending where one is on the network.

The comment in the report about “accelerated deterioration of subway infrastructure and assets” is a function of the very frequent service the TTC provides across the entire subway system at all hours with trains every 5 minutes or better until almost the end of service. How much extra wear and tear this represents since the subway opened in 1954 might be of interest, but this service level is a matter of TTC Service Standards. One could argue that full service is not required, based on demand, beyond a core portion of the system late at night. However, I dare any politician to stand up and tell suburban Toronto that they will lose their frequent service just because the trains are not full.

Another issue here is that actually running the trains is only part of total subway costs, and unless one can also drop staffing levels associated with stations, security, line supervision and on-call maintainers, the saving of running, say, only half of the service beyond a turnback point such as Eglinton is small. The same consideration applies to running less frequent service generally – the trains are only part of the overall operating cost.

It is important to note that this “accelerated deterioration” is a function of frequent service over long hours, not some side-effect of inefficient maintenance procedures as one might erroneously read the audit report.

I hope that if there is a detailed study, it will take into account the benefits of good late night and early morning service on the subway, not to mention the requirements for substantially improved night bus service. Indeed the existing night service needs improving, but languishes thanks to a combination of indifference and budget restraints.

It is only a few years since the TTC began Sunday service at 8:00 am rather than 9:00 am in January 2016.

In a Nov. 4, 2015, letter to the Board, Mayor John Tory and Chair Josh Colle wrote:

“As a vibrant and growing city, Toronto does not conform to a traditional Monday to Friday schedule … Our businesses are open, our cultural centres are operating and the engines of our economy remain in motion. The people of Toronto should be able to move around this city with ease — seven days a week — and the TTC plays an instrumental role in providing this mobility.”

Early Sunday openings are the latest service improvement to be introduced in recent months, following this year’s expansion of overnight service and all-day, every-day service across the city, implementation of ten-minute-or-better service and reduced off-peak crowding on bus and streetcar routes.

Someone should send a copy of this letter to the auditors who appear to be incapable of making a full evaluation of the effects of their recommendations or even appreciating the seriousness of what they propose. “Efficiency” in one department does not mean better service for the organization and the City as a whole.