Council Approves Tory Transit Plan, Attempts Pet Project Revivals

Toronto Council has approved the transit plan for Toronto featuring Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack line and the Scarborough Subway after a long debate on July 14, 2016. Notwithstanding severe problems with financial pressures and the blind faith needed to expect that the entire package can actually be funded, Council added a few pet projects that never quite fade from view thanks to the efforts of individual members.

LRT proposals for Eglinton East and West survived the vote largely because they are part of larger packages – SmartTrack in the west, and the Scarborough Subway Extension in the east. The subway debate has so polarized camps that “LRT” is synonymous with third class transit simply because it was the heart of the “non subway” option. Without the bitterness of the SSE that required subway advocates to paint LRT in the worst possible light, its potential role in Toronto’s future network might not have been so poisoned while other cities embrace this mode.

Staff recommendations in the report were amended in some respects, and a few new clauses were added, notably one asking for City staff to pursue a co-fare arrangement with GO Transit.

The Waterfront Transit Reset report is a separate agenda item and, at the time of writing, Council has not yet dealt with it.

The Finch West and Eglinton Crosstown LRT projects are under Metrolinx, and they are already underway to varying degrees.

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Toronto Council Endorses Transit Plan, Seeks Background Details

At its meeting of March 31, 2016, Toronto Council passed several motions relating to the proposed rapid transit plan for the city.These evolved first as a set of staff recommendations, then amendments at the Executive Committee and finally amendments at Council. The changes along the way give a sense of how the attempt at a general approach taken in the new transit plan by staff can be warped into an emphasis on individual projects while losing sight of the overall purpose. This is not new in Toronto’s political theatre, but the city and region are at a crucial time when the “big picture” of the transportation network is essential. The challenge for those who would lead this process is to find a responsible balance between wider priorities and local concerns without making every decision only on political merits.

Many of these motions involve requests for additional reports, and at one point there was some concern about whether city staff could actually handle the workload. One might ask whether the city should be making such important decisions if staff are unable to produce sufficient background material and simply want approval trusting their recommendations. While studying issues to death is a well-known delay tactic, rushing decisions without all the details is a classic method of railroading through decisions the city might regret later. There is certainly nothing wrong with asking for a more thorough study of items that have been omitted, provided that the same requests do not surface over and over again.

If anything, Council has been woefully underinformed on transit options, priorities and tradeoffs, and such an environment “debate” often has little to do with the real world. Will every Councillor read every page of every study? No, but at least the material will be there to answer questions, support the good ideas and counter the dubious schemes. We hear a lot about “evidence based planning”, but this can be a double-edged sword where “evidence” might not support fondly-held proposals.

This article groups Council’s motions by topic so that readers do not have to sort through the relationship of recommendations and amendments.

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A Rainbow of Rapid Transit

In Toronto’s never-ending fascination with new transit maps, the City Planning department has released a vision for our rapid transit network as it will be in 15 years.

201602_15YrPlan

Despite much talk of “evidence-based” planning, this is a very political map, and I cannot help remembering then-Premier David Peterson’s announcement of 1990 (not long before he lost an election and Bob Rae wound up as his much-surprised replacement) that amounted to a chicken-in-every-pot map.

There is nothing wrong with network-based planning, and indeed I have been beating a well-worn drum on that subject for years. But let us also remember that the Scarborough Subway exists because of the political clout of Brad Duguid, a former City Councillor, now Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development. Mayor John Tory, in Toronto Life, cites Duguid as saying that “if anyone tries to cancel the [Scarborough] subway, they’ll do it over his dead body”. “Evidence” apparently includes having a large cudgel to keep wandering pols in line.

The map also includes the Mayor’s pet project, SmartTrack, and it’s no wonder that he steers clear of the Minister’s position given the need for a provincial agency, Metrolinx, to accommodate SmartTrack on their network.

All of this is part of the “Motherlode” of public consultation sessions now running in various places around the City, and through Metrolinx in the wider GTHA. Background information and links to related material are available at Toronto’s TransitTO web site.

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TTC Board Meeting March 26, 2015 (Update 2)

The TTC Board met on March 26, and considered a meaty agenda that begins to address some important policy issues.

Updated March 29, 2015 at 3:45 pm: The presentation on One Person Train Operation (OPTO) given at the meeting has been added along with comments.

Updated March 24, 2015 at 8:10 am: After this was published, the TTC posted the CEO’s Report.

In a previous article, I wrote about the Spadina subway extension project update. This will undoubtedly be the main attraction both for board members and the media. Other items of interest include:

  • An overhaul of system key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • A door monitoring system for Toronto Rocket trains and one person train crews (Updated March 29)
  • Revision and consolidation of the resignalling contract for the Yonge-University line
  • A study of express bus routes
  • CEO’s Report

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TTC Board Meeting: July 23, 2014 (Updated)

The TTC board met on July 23 with some items of modest interest on the agenda. This is the second last meeting of the current board before the October municipal election sweeps away at least some of the current crew. Nothing of real substance will happen until the new Council takes office, and a new Mayor attempts to forge an agenda for transit that is more than a simplistic, pandering slogan.

Included in the agenda are:

  • The monthly CEO’s report;
  • A purchase amendment regarding the new TR trainsets to retrofit additional handholds and to provide speakers outside of cars so that riders can hear door closing announcements;
  • The Transit Project Assessment (TPA) for McNicoll Garage (a proposal already contested by the neighbourhood where it will be built);
  • The proposed sale of the Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) used for the Spadina Subway Extension;
  • A proposal from Commissioner Heisey that the City of Toronto seek a change in TTC and Metrolinx governance so that one member would be cross-appointed between each board; and
  • A request from newly minted Commissioner Pasternak for a report on his pet project, the Sheppard Subway extension west to Downsview.

Update: An additional item came in via correspondence: a request for an express bus route from Liberty Village to downtown.

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Neptis Reviews Metrolinx: A Critique (I)

In December 2013, the Neptis Foundation published a review of the Metrolinx Big Move plan authored by Michael Schabas. This review received prominent attention in the Toronto Star and is regularly cited in their coverage of transportation issues. Some elements also appear in recent comments by Transportation Minister Glen Murray, and it is reasonable to assume that his view of Metrolinx priorities has been influenced by the Neptis paper.

Since its publication, I have resisted writing a detailed critique in part because of the sheer size of the document and my disappointment with many claims made in it, and a hope that it would quietly fade from view. Recent Ministerial musings suggest that this will not happen.

The stated goals of the report arose from four basic questions posed shortly after The Big Move was released in 2008:

  • What evidence suggests that the projects in the Big Move will double the number of transit riders and significantly reduce congestion in the region, as promised by Metrolinx?
  • Does each project offer good value for money?
  • Do all the projects add up to a substantial regional transit network or is the Big Move just an amalgam of projects put forward by diverse sponsors?
  • How do the projects in the Big Move relate to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, its land use equivalent? [Page 2]

The report itself addresses a somewhat different set of questions and notably omits the land use component.

  • Will the Big Move projects achieve the Metrolinx objective of doubling transit ridership?
  • Are these projects consistent with Metrolinx’s own “guiding principles”?
  • Are they well-designed, consistent with international best practice, and integrated with other transport infrastructure?
  • Will they support a shift of inter-regional travel onto transit?
  • Are there alternative, more effective schemes that should be considered?
  • What changes would help Metrolinx produce better results? [Page 14]

Schabas’ work is frustrating because on some points he is cogent, right on the mark.

Metrolinx has bumbled through its existence protected from significant criticism, swaddled in a cocoon of “good news” and the presumed excellence of its work. To be fair, the agency operates in a political environment where independent thought, especially in public, is rare, and years of planning can be overturned by governmental whim and the need to win votes.

That said, Metrolinx is a frustrating, secretive organization conducting much of its business in private, and tightly scripting public events. Schabas rightly exposes inconsistencies in Metrolinx work, although his own analysis and alternatives are, in places, flawed and blinkered.

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Neptis Reviews Metrolinx: A Critique (III)

This article is the third section of my critique of the December 2013 review of the Metrolinx Big Move Plan written by Michael Schabas for the Neptis Foundation. It should be read in conjunction with Part I and Part II.

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Development Charges and Transit Expansion

The City of Toronto Executive Committee will discuss the matter of a new Development Charges Bylaw at its meeting on July 3, 2013.  This is a statutory requirement as the current bylaw expires in April 2014, and it must be replaced in order for the city to continue collecting these charges.

Already press reports show a real estate industry apoplectic at the possibility that these charges will double.  With all the concern over a possible softening of the market for new units, the last thing they want is yet more cost added to the purchase price.  However, what we are seeing is a combined effect of the rising population and the exhaustion of surplus capacity in existing infrastructure, notably transit and water.  Much of the new development is concentrated in the central city in former industrial areas that do not possess the infrastructure needed to support their coming new populations.

(Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat observed at the “Feeling Congested” session earlier this week, about 70,000 people will call places like Liberty Village and the waterfront neighbourhoods their new home over the coming decade.)

There is bound to be lively debate, especially from the “no new taxes” brigade on Council, but the simple fact is that the city cannot have new development without some way to pay for the supporting infrastructure and services.  In this article, I will talk only about the transit component which is the single largest piece of the new DCs rising about 150% from the previous level for residential development.  (DCs overall will go up 86% because other categories have lower increases.)

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Feeling Congested Part 2: Setting Priorities

The City of Toronto’s Planning Department is consulting with the public for the development of an updated Official Plan.  The plan’s transportation component falls under the rubric of “Feeling Congested” with a website devoted mainly to transit issues.  In the first round of meetings, the focus was on “what is important”, what goals should the new plan try to achieve.  In the second round, the topic is the prioritization of goals and how these might drive out different choices in a future network.

This parallels work that Metrolinx is doing on their Big Move plan, but it includes additional options for study that are city initiatives such as transit to serve the waterfront.

A survey now in progress (until June 30) seeks feedback on the evaluation criteria for transit projects, and also for the goals of the cycling plans.  Some of this makes more sense if one first reads the toolkit, but even then the presentation will leave skeptics unhappy because there is no link to the detailed study explaining how the proposed criteria have been measured for each of proposals.  (A summary chart on page 14 does not include the subcategories within each of the eight criteria that generated the total scores .)

Even with this background, an exercise asking whether the methodology is sound seems to be an odd way to survey public attitudes without a stronger discussion of the implications for a preferred network.  This is rather like discussing the colour of a magician’s hat rather than the effect this might have on the rabbit he pulls out of it (or if there’s even a rabbit at all).

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TTC Madness: A Subway for Everyone

Today’s meeting of the transit commission was expected to be a modest affair with approval of the Downtown Relief Line study’s recommendations, and a few other housekeeping items.  What happened was a complete upending of the transit expansion policies we thought were put in place by the Karen Stintz coup d’état that bounced Rob Ford’s crew off of the TTC board back in the spring.  Stintz herself didn’t even have the nerve to stand up to the runaway proposals from her fellow members preferring to keep peace, for now at least.

To make sense of this debacle, I have to recount some of the earlier events.

The main act was a presentation by TTC staff of the DRL Study, and it contained few surprises relative to coverage we have already seen in the press and on this blog.  One comment caused attentive ears to prick up, namely that spending $1-billion expanding Bloor-Yonge station might be less cost-effective than providing additional capacity with a new line.  Would that the TTC would look at all components of its subway plans that way (a topic for another article), but it’s a refreshing point of view.

The study and presentation make explicit reference to potential shortfalls in GO Transit capacity as part of the problem.  Although these will no doubt annoy Metrolinx (is there a TTC meeting that doesn’t anger Metrolinx?), that agency’s basic problem is that long-term secrecy about what it might actually build forces assumptions to be made.  That said, nothing prevented the TTC from modelling improved service on the GO northern corridors just to see what this would do to demand flows on a “what if” basis.  After all, the whole DRL study is a “what if” exercise.

Councillor Parker asked about Main Station as an alternative DRL/Danforth subway connection.  Staff’s position is that there are advantages to a north-south connection further west that would potentially serve Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Parks, and line up with the Don Mills corridor.  (I will address DRL options in a separate article.)  There were humourous remarks about how staff were trying to buy Parker off with a subway to his ward.

Parker moved that the Danforth to Eglinton section of the DRL be included in the next phase of the study, but the motion fell short of actually committing to this segment as a top priority.

Councillor Milczyn asked about eliminating parking on King or Queen Streets.  Staff replied that this would be important for improved surface transit, and the idea would be part of a separate Downtown Traffic Operations Study now underway by the City, but that this would not avoid the need for a DRL.

Milczyn also asked about a Lakeshore West LRT and seemed to be mixing the proposal that was one option in the DRL study (an LRT or subway line in the rail corridor) with the Waterfront West LRT (that would run on Lakeshore Blvd.).

Councillor Colle asked about capacity on the Bloor-Danforth line east of Yonge, and staff replied that with the DRL, this would not be an issue.  However, that remark misses the fact that the Danforth subway regularly passes up riders today east of Pape, the point where capacity would be freed up.  More service will be needed on the BD line even with the DRL in place.

Colle went on to ask whether extending the BD line to Scarborough Town Centre would affect the DRL’s alignment by shifting the logical point for “relief” further east.  Staff replied that the demand model already has the extra ridership that the replaced and extended SRT will bring to Kennedy Station built into projected Danforth subway demand.

Councillor De Baeremaeker observed than an overall city plan needs to include subways, LRT and buses, that the DRL is a “good subway”, and that the problems of inadequate GO service and fare structure forcing riders onto the TTC need to be addressed.  We will hear more from De Baeremaeker later.

The staff recommendations with a few minor amendments were passed, and the meeting turned to other matters including a presentation on Transit Oriented Development.  This was something of a Trojan Horse brought in by Build Toronto.  An L.A. based consultant who has done a lot of work on redevelopments around station sites talked about the importance of putting good development (including attractive amenities) around transit stations.  This is the classic transit model which looks nice, but ignores the degree of neighbourhood upheaval that the level of development implies.  When you have a greenfield site, or your client is a totalitarian government, pesky problems with local activists and zoning are rarely encountered.

The moral was that if we are going to build many new stations, we should ensure that development occurs around them.  On the Spadina Extension, this is easier said than done at some sites, and development plans are already in place at others.  On the Eglinton line, many stations are in existing low density areas, and there would be a challenge on threecounts having them all upzoned for development at the scale shown in the presentation.  First, the locals would get a tad upset, and public meetings featuring a liberal assortment of pitchforks, torches and rotten tomatoes would be on order.  Second, developers have to believe that these sites are a market for development.  Third, the transit line’s role in the network must be strong enough relative to other nearby facilities (notably highways) that the new development would actually feed the transit stations.  See Sheppard Avenue for a counterexample.

The main discussion turned on the issue of taxation and the L.A. experience with Measure “R” passed in 2008, and Measure “J” expected to pass in the upcoming elections.  “R” levied a 30-year, 0.5% sales tax on Los Angeles County to generate dedicated funds for transit.  “J” extends this for a further 30 years.  This funding will be used to underwrite debt that will be undertaken during the early period (the next 10 years or so) to build out many new transit facilities.

Unlike Metrolinx, whose Investment Strategy seems to be discussed on a pay-as-you-play basis, L.A. appears ready to take on long term debt with matching long-term funding.  This is not unlike buying a house — you buy and live in the entire house at one go rather than adding a room at a time for 30 years.

By this time, the Commission clearly had a taste for spending money.  The DRL was not enough, and the suburban councillors needed to jump in with their projects.

The opportunity came unexpectedly by way of a public presentation by Alan Yule who often deputes at TTC meetings.  He proposed that the Scarborough RT/LRT conversion could be shortened as follows:

  • Since most of the traffic is between STC and Kennedy, all other stations would be closed, and SRT service would run express between the two points.
  • The intermediate stations would be boarded off (much like what is now happening at the Union Station 2nd platform project) while their reconstruction for LRT proceeded behind the walls.
  • Eventually, the work would have to turn to the right-of-way itself, and the line would close, but presumably for a shorter period.

I won’t go into details, but believe that the really time-consuming parts of the project would not be affected by this scheme, notably the underground work north of Ellesmere and the changes at Kennedy Station.  Alan does good, entertaining presentations.  The Commission thanked him for his work, and then the wheels came off the debate.

Councillor De Baeremaeker (he of the we need all modes in the network comment above) moved that staff report on the merits of a subway extension from Kennedy to Sheppard & McCowan.  De Baeremaeker’s position, following on from the One City Plan that briefly surfaced in June 2012, is that the difference in construction cost for a subway is only $500m greater than the cost of the LRT project, and this makes the subway option a great deal.  What he misses is that the comparator subway estimate is only for a line to STC, not to Sheppard.

That extra 3.6 km will cost roughly $1b and push the delta for the subway/LRT comparison much further apart.

Correction: The extra 1.7km will cost $700-million more than the LRT project according to a 2010 estimate. Moreover, the LRT runs further going east to Sheppard and Progress where extension to Malvern is possible.

(The question of comparative costs was discussed back in December 2010 in this article.)

De Baeremaeker should know this already, but it suits his role as the Superman of Scarborough transit to continue the charade that we can have a subway replacement for LRT at only a modest additional cost.  He also does not address the much higher operating cost of a subway line, especially given that it would be on a new, underground alignment, not at grade as the RT/LRT would be.

TTC CEO Andy Byford stayed clear of this debate, but recently in an interview on CBC he expressed guarded support for extending the Danforth subway.  This sends a mixed signal to the politicians and suggests that staff are not firm in their support of the LRT network.

Oddly enough, the staff position on the DRL continues to paint this as something for the medium to long term, at least 15 years away, with the option of adding capacity elsewhere in the interim.  This provides a window into which other subway construction projects might try to slip, an idea clearly on de Baeremaeker’s mind.

Not to be outdone, Councillor Milczyn asked that staff also report on looping this extended subway west from Sheppard & McCowan to Don Mills Station.  This is the Sheppard East subway, but reborn at least entirely on Sheppard itself rather than going through an industrial district to STC.  Such a line would obviously replace the Sheppard LRT.

Need I remind Commissioners of a phrase we heard a lot back during the subway/LRT debates:  Council’s will is supreme.  Council has voted, with not a little blood on the floor, for an LRT network which the province is supporting (to the degree that is possible in the current political climate).  Indeed, the Commission voted today to give CEO Andy Byford the authority to sign the operating agreement form the four-line LRT network.

Metrolinx’ hands are not completely clean in this on a few counts.  Most importantly, as recently as two days ago (Oct. 22), a representative presented an LRT project overview at a public meeting that includes a five-year shutdown for the SRT rebuilding.  However, Metrolinx own VP of Rapid Transit Implementation, Jack Collins, has said that during the contracting stage, Metrolinx hopes to get proposals from bidders that will be under 3 years, maybe only 2.5.  However, such a change has not been blessed by a Ministerial statement, and so we still hear “5” which scares the hell out of Scarborough transit users.  Toronto is ill-served by Metrolinx’ lack of accurate details in its public statements, of which this is only one example.

As if all this isn’t bad enough, the Commission has asked for these analyses to be available for its January 2013 meeting even though staff will be pre-occupied with major work on the 2013 budget for the next few months.  The date may slip, but what is clearly going on is that somebody wants information for use in a coming provincial election campaign.

What we see here is a Commission that claims to understand the limits of spending, that claims it should focus on subways where they are really needed, but which insists on revisiting LRT proposals over and over in the hope that they can be upgraded.  Saying “no” is very hard for a politician to do, especially when constituents have been convinced that LRT is a distant second class option.

The Star reports Councillor Parker’s reaction to the vote:

TTC commissioner John Parker, who was out of the room praising the decision on a downtown relief line, confronted his commission colleagues afterwards, telling them that voting in favour of subway studies was “a stupid, stupid, irresponsible thing.”

“Irresponsible” does not begin to describe my feeling about this vote, one which proved that the current Commission, given half a chance, will be just as irresponsible about the subway/LRT debate as the Ford-friendly crew they replaced.  It is not enough to say that we are getting more information for a better debate.  We have had this debate, and only people with a distaste for the hard truths about subway costs can pretend that this option is viable.