TTC Meeting Wrapup: March 27, 2013

The Toronto Transit Commission met on March 27.  This wrapup includes comments on:

  • Purchase of Articulated Buses
  • The CEO’s Report for March 2013
  • The Gateway Newsstand Contract
  • Priorities for Subway Station Elevators

The Leslie Barns project, and the streetcar system renewal in general, received comments in the press recently about the scale of expenditures, and the sense that the TTC estimates understated the full cost.  See the National Post here and here.  I will discuss these issues in a separate article.

Updated April 2, 2013:  Rahul Gupta has addition background on the Gateway issue at InsideToronto.com.

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TTC Meeting Preview: February 25, 2013 (Update 2)

Update 2 on Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 10:00 am:

Additional information from presentations and debates at the Commission meeting has be added to this article.

The Toronto Transit Commission will meet on Monday February 25, 2013.  This month’s agenda is a tad on the thin side, but there are some reports of interest.

  • CEO’s Report (updated)
  • Status Report on TTC Accessible Services
  • Second exit planning & consultation / Response to Ombusman’s report
  • Leslie Barns connection to Queen Street
  • Accommodating strollers
  • Purchase of 126 articulated buses (updated)
  • Amending the Automatic Train Control System contract to include Spadina/Vaughan extension (updated)
  • Update on Bus Servicing and Cleaning Contract (new)
  • Deputation by Merit OpenShop Contractors Association of Ontario (new)

There was also a presentation on new shelter maps and stop poles.  This item is likely to generate a strong response in the comment thread, and I will create a separate article for it.

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TTC Meeting Wrapup for December 19, 2012

The Toronto Transit Commission meeting of December 19, 2012, brought a few items of interest, although the desire to get away for Christmas was definitely in the air.  Nonetheless, the public meeting ran close to five hours.

In this article:

  • Leslie Barn(s)
  • A New Approach to Community Relations
  • Subway Station 2nd Exits
  • Presto Update
  • CEO’s Report
  • Gateway Lease
  • City Auditor’s Report on Wheel-Trans

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Where Should We Go From Here?

Toronto Council’s vote to reconstitute the Toronto Transit Commission may give the new board a better political balance and break Mayor Ford’s stranglehold on transit policy, but that is only the beginning of the work facing our city.

First up will be the March 21 vote on the Sheppard East subway-vs-LRT issue.  Already, the Ford camp claims that it almost has the votes needed to spike the LRT scheme and forge ahead with subway plans.  Even if LRT prevails, a close margin could provide incentive for attempts to derail the project.  The “new” TTC will be in a tenuous position if the momentum of the governance vote does not continue through to the choice of technology.

The future of the TTC, its board and of transit in Toronto is much bigger than the Sheppard decision.  We have a “new” board, and later in 2012 it will grow by the addition of four “citizen” members.  What should this board be doing?

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TTC Meeting Review February 29, 2012

The February 29th meeting of the Toronto Transit Commission was one of the shortest in my long memory of these events.  The agenda was trivial with an utter absence of meaty issues for debate, and the real action would follow in press scrums.

Accessible Transit Services Plan: 2011 Status Report

This generally upbeat report was approved without debate.

Notable by its absence is any mention of the operating budget challenges faced thanks to cutbacks in funding by the City of Toronto.  Recently, the Commission diverted $5-million intended to support regular bus service quality into the Wheel Trans budget.  For the long term, Council must address the fact that cutbacks to the Wheel Trans subsidy have much more severe effects, proportionately, than cuts to the regular system.

The TTC may be improving its accessibility, slowly, but basic questions about whether the service is adequate to meet demand receive little public debate.  This is not just a question of Wheel Trans for those who cannot use the conventional system, but of recognition that mobility affects many who are ambulatory, but whose neighbourhoods and destinations may not be well served by surface routes.

What’s In A Name?  Stations on the Spadina Extension in Vaughan

The Commission adopted “Highway 407” and “Vaughan Metropolitan Centre” as the names for the two stations north of Steeles on the Spadina subway extension on a 5-2 vote.

For some time, staff and some Commissioners have pressed for the simpler “Vaughan Centre”, but the City of Vaughan Council prefers the longer (and somewhat more pretentious) name.  Sadly, the opposition to the long version came from Commissioners whose credibility leaves much to be desired, although their comments might in other circumstances be cogent.

Norm Kelly mentioned the “conceit” of former cities within Metropolitan Toronto which created “town centres” such as in Scarborough, Kelly’s home turf.  This is deeply ironic considering that it is the failure of Scarborough Town Centre to attract employment that is part of the argument against the Sheppard Subway extension which Kelly supports.  Frank Di Giorgio worried that everyone will make a case for special consideration on station names.  Di Giorgio, it should be remembered, is the advocate for total obedience to Mayoral fiats by city staff, and if Rob Ford had a position on station names, it would take precedence over everything.

Meanwhile Maria Augimeri had hopes her “Black Creek” would get equal consideration when it comes to formally naming “Steeles West” station.

After the meeting, a group of my colleages agreed that one of my local stations, Chester, should be renamed as “Riverdale Metropolitan Centre”, although I might add the word “Organic” in deference to the neighbourhood.

It is unclear how the TTC will handle placing the long version of “VMC Station” on its maps and other signage.

St. Clair at Keele/Weston

Commissioner Palacio asked for a report on improving traffic conditions at the St. Clair and Keele intersection where, because of the rail underpass just to the east, traffic is constrained to a single lane by the streetcar right-of-way.

Restructuring the Commission

In a scrum after the meeting, Chair Karen Stintz announced that she had reached a compromise for the proposed change in the makeup of the TTC.  A report coming to Council on March 5 (whose origin lies in the machinations of the Ford camp to enhance control of all agencies by the Mayor) recommends a nine-member Commission (as at present) with five citizen members and four Councillors.  The Chair and Vice-Chair would be a Councillor and Citizen member respectively.

The new proposal would see an 11-member Commission with six Councillors.

After the firing of Gary Webster by Ford’s Gang of Five, many Councillors have talked about restructuring the Commission to be more representative of Council as soon as possible, including at the March 5 meeting.  Stintz feels that she has the votes for the compromise arrangement, and that a major shuffle of the Commission would not occur until June when the citizen appointments are confirmed by Council.

The next move is up to Council itself on March 5.

Subways and only Subways

While the TTC was meeting, across on the other side of City Hall Mayor Ford was hosting a bevy of developers for a luncheon discussion of subway funding.  After the TTC meeting completed, there was a scrum outside of the Mayor’s office (with Chair Stintz nowhere in sight) in which the Mayor and his circle claimed that there was broad support in the development industry for subways.  When pressed about funding, Mayor Ford didn’t want to get into the details beyond pointing to the Chong report, but claimed that the development community was totally onside.  Onside maybe, but the developers all slipped out the side door and avoided the media lest they have to go on record supporting or, worse, opposing the Mayor.

Of course developers love subways because they offer an opportunity to squeeze higher densities out of the city than they would get otherwise.  We have been down this path before with the Sheppard Subway.  However, don’t ask the developers to pay for subways, certainly not through development levies that would make their brand new condos uncompetitive with buildings downtown, the really hot part of the condo market.

See Robyn Doolittle and Royson James in the Star (the photo suggests Ford is less than engaged in the event), and Elizabeth Church and Kelly Grant in the Globe.

The strangest part of the whole scheme is that funding the subway depends on new revenue sources many of which Ford is on record as hating, and one (the vehicle registration tax) which he killed early in his term as a swipe at Toronto’s alleged appetite for higher revenues rather than reduced expenses.  Even the normally supportive Toronto Sun cannot believe what their hero is up to.

All of this leads up to a March 15 21 special Council meeting where the “expert panel” convened to look at Sheppard options will report that LRT is the preferred option.  Will Mayor Ford have a credible financing scheme in place, or will this be more smoke and mirrors, more claims that the money is there without any commitment to actually raising the levies needed to build the project?

TTC Commission Meeting Wrapup for October 2011

The Toronto Transit Commission met on October 19, 2011.  With the exception of one item, it was an uneventful agenda.  This article deals only with matters where significant new information came to light beyond that reported in my initial review of the agenda.

28 Billionth Rider

In case you were wondering, the “official” 28-billionth rider chosen to mark the TTC’s 90th anniversary on September 1, 2011, was not chosen with a countdown clock, but from the pool of the TTC’s Metropass Discount Plan subscribers.  The lucky rider gets a free Metropass subscription for one year.

I did not win, although I have been using the Metropass since its inception in 1980, and became a subscriber as soon as this was possible.  By the 100th anniversary (if the TTC still exists by then), we will all be using Presto.  Sigh.

Budget and Efficiency Reviews

The Operating Budget was mentioned only in passing in the context of planned public consultation on “Customer Service”, and the service cuts for January were treated as a done deal that is not subject to discussion.  This is rather odd considering that Council has yet to finalize its budget, and “what if” questions about various funding scenarios will be an obvious part of the debate.

For example, the current TTC budget requires a 10-cent fare increase to balance the books.  What further cuts will be needed if this is not implemented?  We don’t know.  Indeed, we didn’t even know what cuts the present budget would bring until the detailed list found its way to me earlier this week.  Officially, the TTC was still working on the cuts (probably true in the strictest interpretation), but a detailed proposal had already been posted for staff information.

If a higher fare increase were implemented, what could be done with the added revenue?  This type of question, of planning, was at the heart of the Ridership Growth Strategy which, thanks to Mayor Ford, was jettisoned as an unwanted leftover of the Miller era.  With the fundamental assumption that any improvements cannot be afforded, or worse, might be “gravy” undeserved by the beneficiaries, Toronto finds itself cut off from the basic debate of the worth and quality of its services.  The present crew of TTC Commissioners colludes in this by avoiding discussion on alternative budget strategies.  “What if” is a question nobody wants to hear answered.

Meanwhile, Chair Karen Stintz focuses on “good news” stories about things the TTC did, or appeared to do, well.  She is dancing on the deck of the Titanic.

Several issues raised in the KPMG “Efficiency Reviews” are now under study by TTC management.  While many of the areas addressed here are worth studying, they represent comparatively small efficiencies and, moreover, they are one-time savings.  Improvements in the affected cost areas may be found, although some may not bear fruit until 2013.  However, an “efficiency” cannot be repeatedly applied to yield new savings year after year, and the TTC will have do deal with ridership and inflationary pressures in 2013 and beyond without the one-time reductions applied in 2012.

One large “saving” comes from the designation of the TTC’s Pension Fund Society as a “jointly sponsored” plan which does not require full solvency of future liabilities.  If the TTC had been required to fully fund the plan, this would have added $40 to $45-million annually to the Operating Budget through about 2022.  This is really only an avoided cost, not a saving against current spending.

In a separate study, the City is reviewing the consolidation of various pension plans, including the TTC’s.  The possibility of such a move and its financial implications have not yet been reported out to Council.

Wheel-Trans Operating Budget

Commissioner Cesar Palacio tabled a request that staff consider moving from the current 60/40 ratio of contracted versus TTC-provided service to a new target of 80/20.  The question of using private operators to carry more of the WT customers has come before the Commission many times before, although in this case it crept into the agenda unexpectedly with Palacio’s motion.

The fundamental problems with previous attempts at private operation of WT vans/buses has been with the quality of staff, vehicle maintenance and passenger treatment.  How this will be address in the 2013 budget cycle remains to be seen.

One point TTC management has not yet addressed is the degree to which high in-house costs are a function of poor dispatching that affects vehicle utilization and trip lengths.  A new booking system is supposed to reduce these problems, but we have yet to hear any reports on actual operational or financial benefits.

Fitness for Duty

By far the biggest issue for debate was the question of mandatory testing for drug and alcohol use by TTC staff.  The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 strongly opposes this scheme, and the matter is already in grievance proceedings and likely to wind up in the courts.  The ATU’s position is that random testing is an invasion of privacy, and that it does not fully address the problem of a driver’s ability to perform their job.

The ATU supports the implementation of non-invasive technologies to assess driver alertness that check for response times using video displays, a system already deployed in parts of the USA.  The ATU’s position is that this would monitor for all forms of fatigue including those due to tiredness or illness, not just test for the presence of drugs or alcohol.

This is not as straightforward a situation as it may appear.  For one thing, privacy and especially health privacy laws in Ontario are much more strict than south of the border.  The TTC also claims that it is interested in whether someone is impaired at the time a test is taken, not whether there is evidence of past use.

TTC Management and the Commission appear to be exploiting a recent collision between a bus and truck which caused a passenger’s death to push through the new policy.  The driver was charged with “criminal negligence causing death” and it is unclear whether a separate charge for marijuana possession has any bearing on this case.  I will not comment further on this matter, and will edit out any comments that speculate on this subject because it is before the courts.

What is clear is that until various legal and labour proceedings work themselves out, the new policy will be in limbo.

Subway Station and Vehicle Cleanliness

The TTC received a presentation on the cleanliness of its stations and vehicles.  In case you have been wondering why TTC vehicles might be a tad grubby, we now know that the only daily cleaning they get is a “dust and sweep” except for the bus fleet which gets an exterior wash as part of the daily fuelling cycle.  Streetcars don’t need to be fuelled, and they go straight to the yard.

Now that the wash tracks at Wilson and Greenwood are back in operation, subway trains do look a lot better, although some cars remain grungy, notably on the BD line, possibly because the long period without cleaning has left dirt and grease more or less permanently part of the cars.

Audit results for the condition of stations and vehicles show that there has been some improvement, but the TTC is still not at its hoped-for targets.  The streetcar fleet, in particular, is well below the hoped-for level of litter although this is probably due to the relatively large number of vehicles staying in service all day and evening without a mid-day break where basic housekeeping might be possible.

The TTC plans to transfer some subway cleaners from carhouse duties to subway terminals where they can clean out trains at the end of each trip.  It is unclear whether there are enough cleaners for this during all service hours.

Some tile and grout work now underway at a half-dozen locations should be finished by year-end.  However, there was no comment on the many locations where portions of station walls were removed for inspection, and the due date for replacement recedes into the future.  Similarly, there was no comment on locations like St. George where the trackside walls remain filthy even while work continues on the platforms and stairwells.

Did Wheel Trans Botch A New System Implementation?

Recently, I received an email from a reader reporting a major problem in the implementation by Wheel Trans of a new booking system.  Here is the relevant part of the note:

On August 6th, Wheel-Trans took down its online booking system to install a “New and Improved’ reservation system. Two days later the new page was up and running — sort of. Wheel-Trans had cleansed half of our list of “preregistered addresses” and, in so doing, had forced us back upon the hugely overloaded and barely functional phone reservation system.

The consequences were devastating. Bus operators, contract minivan owners, taxi drivers, reservationists and customer service agents, and the customers, all felt the effects; customers arriving late to appointments or not able to book rides or make cancellations, drivers attempting to meet an impossible schedule while driving to cancelled or abandoned calls, and agents and reservationists facing a never-ending flood of calls from frustrated, desperate, and, in some cases, irate customers. Like a locomotive shunting cars, each missed or late call rippled down the whole system; drivers run further and further behind in their schedule, customers wait longer and longer for their ride which, increasingly, as the day wears on. are abandoned or never arrive at all. And the traffic on the phone system grows and grows.

Even those not directly involved with the system— customers’ employers, physicians and therapists, hospitals and labs, friends and families—are all dealing with missed or late appointments.

Everyone I’ve talked with over the past few weeks, customers, Wheel-Trans drivers and phone staff, and health care professionals has a story to tell. And not one has a happy ending. Although everyone has different tale to tell, they all want a return to the old setup. But no one knows how to make this happen.

This has all the earmarks of a botched IT project although the exact reason has not come out yet.  In my own IT experience, this could be a question of bad specifications, of the official client not understanding how their own system works, or a badly executed data/functional migration that wasn’t properly tested before the system went live.

I am not a Wheel Trans user, although I have heard enough horror stories about the service it provides.  It’s a vital service for users, and yet the TTC and City are entertaining a cutback to the amount of service or the eligibility of riders, not further enhancements as part of the 2012 budget.

This article is intended as a repository for comments about that service, and in particular about the effects of the recent changes to the trip booking system.

Toronto’s Core Services Review Contemplates Transit Cuts

This morning, while TTC Chair Karen Stintz, Mayor Ford and other luminaries were dedicating the inaugural run in service of a Toronto Rocket subway train, the agenda for the July 28th Toronto Executive came out.  The city’s “core services review” has reached its agencies, including the TTC, and the consultant’s findings can be found starting on pdf page 161 of their report.

The premise of the city-wide review is that there is some sort of “standard” above or below which services are provided.  In some cases, reference is made to other cities, but in the case of the TTC, the “standards” appear to be pre- and post- David Miller’s mayoralty.  If something was done in the “Ridership Growth Strategy”, it is by definition “above standard” and up for elimination.

This is a strange way to evaluate services especially in the North American city lauded for the quality of its transit system and the economic benefits this brings.  Never does the consultant address the value of good service, only its cost.

The consultant, KPMG, show their colours on the title page with the double-entendre corporate motto “cutting through complexity”. Continue reading