61 Questions And Counting (Updated)

Update: Council’s action on this report has been added at the end of the article.

As I write this article on April 17, 2019, it has been three weeks since Toronto learned that Premier Doug Ford’s love for rewriting transit plans would turn Toronto’s future upside down. Ford’s special advisor Michael Lindsay wrote to Toronto’s City Manager Chris Murray first on March 22, and then in an attempt to paper over obvious problems with the provincial position, on March 25.

Just over two weeks later, Ford announced his transit plan for Toronto, and this was followed by the 2019 provincial budget.

A hallmark of the process has been a distinct lack of details about design issues, funding and the future responsibility for an “uploaded” subway system. In parallel with these events, city and TTC staff have met from time to time with Lindsay and his team to flesh out details and to explain to provincial planners the scope of TTC’s needs, the complex planning and considerable financial resources required just to keep the trains running.

On April 9, Toronto’s Executive Committee directed Murray to report directly to Council on the effect of provincial announcements, but his report did not arrive on Councillors’ desks until early afternoon April 16 with the Council meeting already underway.

The report reveals a gaping hole in the city’s knowledge of provincial plans with a “preliminary” list of 61 technical questions for the province. So much for the idea that discussions to date have yielded much information. Click on any image below to open this as a gallery.

 

To these I would add a critical factor that always affects provincial projects: cost inflation. It is rare to see a provincial project with an “as spent” estimate of costs. Instead, an estimate is quoted for some base year (often omitted from announcements) with a possible, although not ironclad, “commitment” to pay actual costs as the work progresses. This puts Ontario politicians of all parties in the enviable position of promising something based on a low, current or even past-year dollar estimate, while insulating themselves from overruns which can be dismissed as “inflation”. The City of Toronto, by contrast, must quote projects including inflation because it is the actual spending that must be financed, not a hypothetical, years out of date estimate from the project approval stage.

That problem is particularly knotty when governments will change, and “commitments” can evaporate at the whim of a new Premier. If the city is expected to help pay for these projects, will the demand on their funds be capped (as often happens when the federal or provincial governments fund municipal projects), or will the city face an open-ended demand for its share with no control over project spending?

Unlike the city, the province has many ways to compel its “partner” to pay up by the simple expedient of clawing back contributions to other programs, or by making support of one project be a pre-requisite for funding many others. Presto was forced on Toronto by the threat to withdraw provincial funding for other transit programs if the city did not comply. Resistance was and is futile.

How widely will answers to these questions be known? The province imposed a gag order on discussions with the city claiming that information about the subway plans and upload were “confidential”. Even if answers are provided at the staff level, there is no guarantee the public will ever know the details.

At Council on April 16, the City Manager advised that there would be a technical briefing by the province on the “Ontario Line” (the rebranded Downtown Relief Line) within the next week. That may check some questions off of the list, or simply raise a whole new batch of issues depending on the quality of paper and crayons used so far in producing the provincial plan. It is simply not credible that there is a fully worked-out plan with design taken to the level normally expected of major projects, and if one does exist, how has it been produced in secret entirely without consultation? The province claims it wants to be “transparent”, but to date they are far away from that principle.

The Question of Throwaway Costs

Toronto has already spent close to $200 million on design work, primarily for the Line 2 East Extension (formerly known as the Scarborough Subway Extension, or SSE). The province claims that much of this work will be recycled into their revised design, and this was echoed by TTC management at a media briefing. However, with changes in both alignment, scope and technology looming, it is hard to believe that this work will all be directly applicable to the province’s schemes.

The city plans to continue work on these lines at an ongoing cost of $11-14 million per month, but will concentrate on elements that are likely to be required for either the city’s original plan or for the provincial version. The need to reconcile plans has been clear for some time:

In order to minimize throw-away costs associated with the Line 2 East Extension and the Relief Line South, the City and TTC will be seeking the Province’s support to undertake an expedited assessment of the implications of a change at this stage in the project lifecycle. The City and TTC have been requesting the Province to provide further details on their proposals since last year, including more recently through ongoing correspondence and meetings under the Terms of Reference for the Realignment of Transit Responsibilities. [p 4]

The city/TTC may have asked “since last year”, but Queen’s Park chose not to answer.

The city would like to be reimbursed for monies spent, but this is complicated by the fact that some of that design was funded by others.

Provincial Gas Tax

As an example of the mechanisms available to the province to ensure city co-operation, the Ford government will not proceed with the planned doubling of gas tax transfers to municipalities. This has an immediate effect of removing $585 million in allocated funding in the next decade from projects in the TTC’s capital program, and a further $515 million from potential projects in the 15 year Capital Investment Plan.

At issue for Toronto, as flagged in the questions above, is the degree to which this lost revenue will be offset by the province taking responsibility for capital maintenance in the upload process. Over half of the planned and potential capital projects relate to existing subway infrastructure, but it is not clear whether the province understands the level of spending they must undertake to support their ownership of the subway lines.

Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF)

City management recommends that Council commit much of the $4.897 billion in pending federal infrastructure subsidies from PTIF phase 2 to provincial projects:

  • $0.660 billion for the Province’s proposed three-stop Line 2 East Extension project instead of the one-stop Line 2 East Extension project; and
  • $3.151 billion for the Province’s proposed ‘Ontario Line’ as described in the 2019 Ontario Budget, instead of the Relief Line South. [p 3]

This is subject to an assessment of just what is supposed to happen both with proposed new rapid transit lines and the existing system in the provincial scheme.

Mayor Tory has proposed an amendment to the report’s recommendations to clarify the trigger for the city’s agreeing to allocation of its PTIF funds to the provincial plan, so that “endorsing” the plan is changed to “consider endorsing”. Reports would come back from the City Manager to Council on the budget changes and uploading process for approval that could lead to the city releasing its PTIF funds to the province.

The Status of SmartTrack

Part of the city’s PTIF funding, $585 million, is earmarked for the six new stations to be built on the Weston, Lake Shore East and Stouffville corridors. The future of these stations is cloudy for various reasons:

  • The Finch East station on the Stouffville corridor is in a residential neighbourhood where there is considerable opposition to its establishment, and grade separation, let alone a station structure, will be quite intrusive.
  • The Lawrence East station on the Stouffville corridor would be of dubious value if the L2EE includes a station at McCowan and Lawrence. Indeed, that station was removed from the city plans specifically to avoid drawing demand away from SmartTrack.
  • There is no plan for a TTC level fare on GO Transit/SmartTrack, and the discount now offered is available only to riders who pay single fares (the equivalent of tokens) via Presto, not to riders who have monthly passes.
  • Provincial plans for service at SmartTrack stations is unclear. Originally, and as still claimed in city reports, SmartTrack stations would see 6-10 trains/hour. However, in February 2018, Metrolinx announced a new service design for its GO expansion program using a mix of local and express trains. This would reduce the local stops, including most SmartTrack locations, to 3 or 4 trains/hour. I sought clarification of the conflict between the two plans from Metrolinx most recently on April 3, 2019 and they are still “working on my request” two weeks later.

Some of the SmartTrack stations will be very costly because of the constrained space on corridors where they will be built. The impetus for Council to spend on stations would be substantially reduced if train service will be infrequent, and the cost to ride will be much higher than simply transferring to and from TTC routes. Both the Mayor and the province owe Council an explanation of just what they would be buying into, although that could be difficult as cancelling or scaling back the SmartTrack stations project would eliminate the last vestige of John Tory’s signature transit policy.

The Line 2 East Extension

The City Manager reports that the alignment of the provincial version of the three-stop subway is not yet confirmed, nor are the location of planned stations. Shifting the terminus north to Sheppard and McCowan and possibly shifting the station at Scarborough Town Centre will completely invalidate the existing design work for STC. This is an example of potential throwaway work costs the city faces.

The design at Sheppard/McCowan will depend on whether the intent is to through-route service from Line 2 onto Line 4, or to provide an interchange station where both lines would terminate. The L2EE would have to operate as a terminal station for a time, in any event, because provincial plans call for the Line 4 extension to follow the L2EE’s completion.

An amended Transit Project Assessment (TPAP) will be needed for the L2EE, and this cannot even begin without more details of the proposed design.

The Ontario Line

Although this line is expected to follow the already approved route of the Relief Line between Pape and Osgoode Stations, the map in the provincial budget is vague about the stations showing different names and possibly a different alignment. This could be a case of bad map-making, or it could represent a real change from city/TTC plans to the provincial version.

A TPAP will definitely be required for the extended portions of the line west of Osgoode and north of Pape. A pending technical briefing may answer some issues raised by the city/TTC including details of just where the line would go and what technology will be used, but the degree of secrecy to date on this proposal does not bode well for a fully worked-out plan.

Council Decision

The item was approved at Council with several amendments whose effects overall were:

  • The City Manager and TTC CEO are to work with the province:
    • to determine the effects of the provincial announcement,
    • to negotiate principles for cost sharing including ongoing maintenance and funding arrangements, and
    • to seek replacement of funding that had been anticipated through increased gas tax transfers to the city.
  • The city will consider dedication of its PTIF funding for the Line 2 extension and for the Relief Line to Ontario’s projects subject to this review.
  • The city requests “confirmation that the provincial transit plans will not result in an unreasonable delay” to various transit projects including the Relief line, the one-stop L2EE, SmartTrack Stations, Eglinton and Waterfront LRT lines.
  • Discussions with the province should also include:
    • those lines that were not in the provincial announcement,
    • compensation for sunk design costs,
    • phasing options to bring priority segments of the Relief Line in-service as early as possible,
    • city policy objectives such as development at stations, and
    • public participation on the provincial plans.
  • The City Manager is to investigate the acceleration of preliminary design and engineering on the Waterfront and Eglinton East LRT using city monies saved from costs assumed by the province.
  • The City Manager is to report back to Council at its June 2019 meeting.

Former TTC Chair Mike Colle moved:

That City Council direct that, if there are any Provincial transit costs passed on to the City of Toronto as a result of the 17.3 billion dollar gap in the Province’s transit expansion plans, these costs should be itemized on any future property tax bills as “The Provincial Transit Plan Tax Levy”.

This was passed by a margin of 18 to 8 with Mayor Tory in support.

TTC Board Meeting April 11, 2019

The TTC Board met on April 11 with a full agenda. Among the items discussed were:

  • The joint City/TTC “omnibus” transit report and the implications of the provincial intent to “upload” the subway system
  • Public Deputations at Board Meetings
  • Presto limited use tickets and the TTC/Presto contract generally
  • The Junction Area Study and proposed route changes
  • Subway Closures for 2019

The Board also discussed Line 1 (YUS) Capacity Requirements, State of Good Repair and Automatic Train Control. This is a complex enough issue to warrant an article in its own right, and I wil publish that separately.

Results of the King Street Pilot

The King Street Pilot report that was presented to Toronto’s Executive Committee on April 9 came before the TTC Board on April 11. There was a short discussion of the possibility of extension of the project further west. This review will be rolled into the surface transit network plan to come to the board in December 2019.

One item that may further complicate the taxi exemption for King Street was a proposal that Wheel Trans contracted vehicles be allowed to operate just like a transit vehicle when carrying Wheel Trans clients. This will come to Council when they debate the issue at their meeting of April 16.

The Board endorsed the report’s recommendations.

In future articles, I will update information about travel times, headways and line capacity on King street with data to the end of March 2019.

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Ontario’s 2019 Budget: Transit Effects in Toronto

The Ontario Government introduced its 2019 budget on April 11. The section on transit and transportation begins with the usual statements about the cost of congestion, and the economic benefit of transit and highways. Transit specifics focus on the recent Toronto subway announcement. Metrolinx/GO continues on its expansion path, but with more emphasis on what has been done than what is to come.

The Subway “Upload”

Ontario reiterated its intention to take ownership of the Toronto subway network, but it is now clear that this will be done in two parts. First will come responsibility for system expansion as announced on April 10 with the existing system assets to follow in 2020. This puts the more complex problem off nominally for a year, but that debate is really underway now with negotiations between the City of Toronto, TTC and province.

By separating the upload into two distinctive parts, the Province can begin building subway extensions and new lines immediately while giving proper due diligence to the state of repair of the existing assets and fulfilling its commitments to consultation under the Terms of Reference.

The Province remains steadfastly committed to the full upload of the TTC subway network. [p. 64]

That “due diligence” is the nub of any transfer. Past provincial statements imply that the cost of life cycle maintenance (major repairs and replacement, items found in the TTC’s capital budget) would shift to the province leaving day-to-day costs to the City of Toronto. The problem lies in the inevitable tug-of-war between transit expansion and state of good repair. Provincial Treasurer Vic Fedeli, speaking on CBC’s Metro Morning, claims that the investment in new transit lines more than offsets gas tax revenue promised by the former Liberal government. However, this leaves a major hole in planned funding for system upgrades.

Gas Tax Transfer

Fedeli claimed that the Gas Tax can only be used for specific type of spending, but this is not true. The money today goes partly to subsidize day-to-day operations and partly to capital for state-of-good-repair (SOGR). Across the province, few cities are building rapid transit expansions, and their gas tax allocation goes to operation and maintenance of existing systems. Fedeli, in parliamentary language, is “badly briefed”.

The gas tax transfer from Ontario to Toronto for 2018-2019 will be $185 million, and this was expected to double in stages over the next four years. This increase has been cancelled in the new Ontario budget.

Beginning in 2019, Ontario will gradually increase the municipal share of gas tax funds up to a total of four cents per litre in 2021-22. Based on the averages from the past 10 years, gas tax funding is estimated to be about $642 million in 2021-22. There will not be any increase in the tax that people in Ontario pay on gasoline.

Year                            2018-19 2019-20 2020-21 2021-22

Municipal share (cents/litre)   2.0     2.5     3.0     4.0
Estimated funding (millions)    $321    $401.3  $481.5  $642

Source: Enhanced Gas Tax Program, Ontario Government Backgrounder, January 27, 2017

Note that the dollar funding above is for all of Ontario, not just for Toronto, although it gets the lion’s share due to its size.

The Province will not move forward with the previous government’s proposed changes to the municipal share of gas tax funding. The Province will continue to support municipalities through the existing Gas Tax program and ensure it continues to meet the needs of the people of Ontario in alignment with provincial priorities.

Over the next few months, the government will consult with municipalities to review the program parameters and identify opportunities for improvement. This review will be informed by the goals of responsible planning and a more sustainable government to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent as effectively as possible. [p. 75]

Toronto allocates almost half, $91.6 million, to the TTC Operating Budget, leaving $93.4 million for capital in 2018-2019.

Planned spending based on federal and provincial gas tax transfers is summarized in the city’s 2019 budget papers. This document details the allocation of federal and provincial transfers planned over 2019-2028 with $1.358 billion broken out by TTC budget line. Note that this is less than the total that would have been expected over ten years because the “out years” of the TTC’c capital plan is constrained by city financing plans. Many projects are “below the line” in the budget, especially in the outer five years, and the rise in gas tax funding could have helped to bring some of these projects to approved, above the line status.

About 70% of planned provincial gas tax spending by Toronto is for assets that are subway related. If Ontario transfers responsibility for all of this to the provincial level, then this would offset the loss of expected gas tax. However, that depends on just what budget lines Ontario chooses to take on. When capital subsidies began under the Davis government, there was something of a shell game between Toronto and Queen’s Park over the classification of expenses because “capital” received at least a 50% subsidy while “operations” only got 16%. This sort of thing will bedevil negotiations between the two governments on funding of the uploaded subway system’s SOGR projects.

The table below summarizes the categories listed in the city’s budget and splits them between subway and surface networks. The breakdown is based on my experience in reviewing TTC budgets. Although some adjustment of percentages might be argued, the overall balance will not change much.

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Ontario Announces Toronto Subway Plan

On April 10, 2019, Premier Doug Ford announced his government’s intentions to expand transit in Toronto. The plan includes:

  • The “Ontario Line”, a rebranded and extended version of the Relief Line, will run from Don Mills and Eglinton to Ontario Place.
  • The Yonge North Extension from Finch Station to Richmond Hill Centre
  • The three-stop version of the Scarborough Subway Extension from Kennedy Station to Sheppard with stops at Lawrence East and Scarborough Town Centre
  • Extension of the Sheppard Subway east from Don Mills Station to connect with the SSE at McCowan and Sheppard
  • Extension of the Eglinton Crosstown west from Mount Dennis to Pearson Airport

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Infrastructure Canada Backgrounder

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

Not quite.

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

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

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

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

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

Updated March 16, 2018 at 3:25 pm:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TTC Board Meeting February 15, 2018

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

Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The February CEO’s report states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated October 10, 2017 at 10:30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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