An Invitation to Dinner

At the recent meeting of the TTC Board, Vice-Chair Alan Heisey proposed that the TTC and Metrolinx Boards should meet regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest. Such a meeting took place a year ago, but despite the best intentions at the time, nothing further came out of this. As Heisey said “It’s not as if we don’t have things to talk about” citing fare integration, Presto, the Crosstown project and SmartTrack. Using fare integration as an example, with some discussion already afoot about just what this entails, it will be better to have these discussions earlier rather than later, said Heisey. The TTC should be in front of discussions on how an integrated system will be structured in Toronto.

Heisey went on to mention that at a recent meeting of the Toronto Railway Club, of which he is a member, he learned things about the Crosstown contract he did not know such as that the operation of the Mount Dennis yard will not be done by the TTC, and that although the TTC is supposed to be operating the line, the company delivering the project would really like to do this work. This is the sort of information Heisey hopes would come out in a joint meeting, and he proposes that the TTC host the event (as Metrolinx did in 2016).

It is no secret that far more information is available outside of formal Board meetings at both TTC and Metrolinx than one ever hears on the record. Those of us who attend Metrolinx meetings regularly know that “information” is thin on the ground at these events where the primary function appears to be telling the staff how wonderful they are and luxuriating in the ongoing success of everything Metrolinx, and by extension the Government of Ontario, touches. “Seldom is heard a discouraging word” could be the Metrolinx motto.

Indeed the TTC has become infected with a similar problem recently where whatever new award(s) they manage to win take pride of place at meetings while serious discussion about ridership and service quality await reports that never quite seem to appear. Budgets do not offer options conflicting with Mayor Tory’s insistence on modest tax increases. Getting an award for the “We Move You” marketing campaign is cold comfort to people who cannot even get on a bus or train because there is no room.

Oddly enough, when TTC Chair Josh Colle contacted his opposite number at Metrolinx, Rob Prichard, the word back was that such a meeting might have to await the appointment of a new CEO. The position is now held on an acting basis with the departure of Bruce McCuaig to greener pastures in Ottawa. That is a rather odd position to take. Is Metrolinx policy and strategy so beyond discussion that without a CEO, they cannot have a meeting? How is the organization managing to push trains out the door, let along host an almost endless stream of photo ops for their Minister?

Commissioner De Laurentiis agreed that there are many issues, and warmed to the idea, but suggested an information sharing/exchange session as opposed to a formal meeting. She concurred that the type of information Heisey is gathering “accidentally” should come the Board’s way formally.

Vice-Chair Heisey noted that he was told he could not see the Crosstown’s Operating Agreement because it was confidential. For what they’re worth, here are a few handy links:

These do not include the operating agreement for the line because, I believe, it does not yet exist beyond a draft format and the intention is not to formalize it until a few years before the line opens in 2021. However, aspects of the proposed agreement are certainly known to TTC staff. Whether their interpretation matches Metrolinx’ intent is quite another issue.

Other topics for a joint meeting suggested by Commissioner Byers included Accessibility, and the working relationship between Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario including the topic of risk transfer.

For those who have trouble sleeping, the Crosstown agreement makes interesting, if tedious, reading. One section deals for pages on end with the contractual arrangements between Metrolinx who will procure and provide the fleet, and the project provider who must test, accept and operate (or at least maintain) the cars. This is a perfect example of the complexity introduced by multi-party agreements with the 3P model. Each party must define at length its roles and responsibilities where a consolidated organization would deal with the whole thing in house. Of course some would argue that this simply shows how keeping parts of the overall procurement within Metrolinx adds layers of complexity that a turnkey solution might avoid. That’s a debate for another day, but an important part of any future project design.

Chair Colle observed that just because you invite someone over to your house, they don’t necessarily accept, and the TTC could find itself without a dance partner. Heisey replied that we should invite Metrolinx to dinner and tell them what the menu will be. Dinner invitations are often accepted. Colle observed that any one or two of the suggested items could “keep us well nourished”.

Mihevc added to the list by suggesting both the Finch and Sheppard LRT projects. That should be an amusing discussion considering that Metrolinx and City Planning have gone out of their way to be agnostic on the subject of Sheppard East’s technology considering that there are Councillors and (Liberal) MPPs who would love to see a subway extension there, not LRT. Both Boards, not to mention their respective management teams, would go to great lengths to avoid implying any sort of commitment beyond the next announcement of another GO parking lot or a long-anticipated subway extension’s opening date.

The biggest problem with the Metrolinx-TTC relationship is the province’s heavy-handed approach whereby any move away from the “official” way of doing things will be met with a cut in subsidy. Indeed, despite increasing outlays from Queen’s Park on transit, they keep finding more ways to charge Toronto for their services. The City gets more money on paper for transit, but spends some of it to buy provincial services in a monopoly market. Even if Metrolinx invites Toronto to dinner, they will expect the City to foot the bill.

As a public service, if only to forestall imminent starvation of the TTC Board, the balance of this article explores some of the issues raised by Commissioners.

The video record of the TTC debate is available online.

[For readers in the 905, please note that this is a Toronto-centric article because it deals with issues between the TTC and Metrolinx. Municipalities outside of Toronto have their own problems with the provincial agency, not least of which is its undue focus on moving people to and from Union Station.]

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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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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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SmartTrack: Now You See It, Now You Don’t!

Oliver Moore in the Globe and Mail reports that there have been major changes to the SmartTrack plan, to wit:

  • The western branch of the service to the Airport district will be provided by the western extension of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT as originally proposed.
  • “SmartTrack” per se will operate as a heavy rail service overlaid on GO Transit with the initial phase running from Mount Dennis to Kennedy Stations.
  • The northern extension of “SmartTrack” to Markham will be a separate phase of the project.

The map from the Globe & Mail is reproduced below.

GlobeSTLRTMap_20160114

According to Moore, the cost of adding SmartTrack to GO under this configuration would be much, much less than the originally quoted figure for the entire line. In turn, this would free up substantial capital spending headroom in City plans for other projects.

SmartTrack service at 15 minutes (the level proposed in Tory’s campaign) is far too infrequent to attract much riding, and especially to make a dent in demand on the existing subway interchange at Bloor-Yonge. We saw this in the June 2015 Metrolinx demand projections that were far more favourable to a Relief Line operating north to Sheppard and Don Mills. However, getting SmartTrack service down to as close a headway as every 5 minutes will be challenging for Metrolinx and for the corridors through which this would operate. There are no details yet on how this would be achieved.

The Eglinton West LRT has always been the superior way of serving this corridor compared to the heavy rail SmartTrack scheme. ST foundered on major problems with constructibility and neighbourhood effects, issues that were dismissed in a stunning display of cavalier “expert” knowledge during the campaign. Planning by Google Maps from an office in the UK has its limitations, but Tory’s campaign relied on this “expertise”. One shameless professor even rated ST with an “A+” in the CBC Metro Morning interview.

Keeping the first phase of ST confined south of Eglinton on both branches limits the operating costs the City must bear if this to be truly a “Toronto” project with “Toronto” fares, and it avoids the complexities of building into the 905.

Indeed, SmartTrack began as a real estate development scheme to make commercial property near the Airport and in Markham more accessible from downtown in a series of studies that actually claimed the market for downtown office space was static and falling. Yet another expert should be eating crow pie from his perch on the Metrolinx board. It was never clear why Toronto should shell out billions to improve property values in the 905, and this task now falls clearly to Metrolinx where it belongs.

The eastern leg of SmartTrack, north from Kennedy, obviously competes with the Scarborough Subway Extension, and there is no need for two routes serving the same demand, especially when GO already plans substantially improved service in the rail corridor. The long-standing issue of SSE demand may be clarified by the absence of SmartTrack as a competing service.

It is no secret that my own position would be to revert to the LRT plan in Scarborough, but that train has probably left the station, especially if the City can “save” a small fortune by scaling back on SmartTrack.

These changes could also foreshadow a revised schedule for the LRT projects at a time when “shovel ready” projects are in demand to soak up new federal spending. Eglinton West’s LRT extension is relatively easy to build, and it could be started soon enough to complete concurrently with the main Crosstown route. There is also the matter of the Sheppard East LRT including its proposed service linking to UofT Scarborough campus.

Coming weeks may bring many sputtering denials, or possibly, much improved clarity and acceptance of an – at last – realistic plan.

 

 

A Smarter SmartTrack

The SmartTrack scheme was born of an election campaign, but it was John Tory’s signature project, one he is loathe to relinquish despite its shortcomings.

What’s that you say? I am just being one of those “downers” who cannot see our manifest destiny? What’s that line about patriotism and scoundrels?

At the recent Executive Committee meeting, Tory actually had the gall to say that during the campaign, he didn’t have access to a squad of experts and had to make do with the people he had. Funny that. This is the crowd that estimated construction costs on the back of an envelope, who “surveyed” the line using out of date Google images, who ignored basics of railway engineering and capacity planning to make outrageous claims for their scheme.

When the dust settled and John Tory became Mayor Tory, I thought, ok, he will adapt his plan. Indeed, it didn’t take long for a reversal on TTC bus service and the recognition that Rob Ford had stripped the cupboard bare and then started to burn the lumber at the TTC. A campaign attack on Olivia Chow’s (far too meagre) bus plan changed into championing the restoration of TTC service to the days of the “Ridership Growth Strategy” and beyond. Good on the Mayor, I thought, he can actually change his mind.

SmartTrack is another matter, and what Tory, what Toronto desperately needs is a fresh look at what GO, SmartTrack and the TTC could be if only the fiefdoms and the pettiness of clinging to individual schemes could be unlocked. That would take some leadership. I wonder who has any?

Inevitably comments like this bring out the trolls who say “so what would YOU do” (that’s the polite version). Here’s my response as a scheme that bears at least as much importance as a way of looking at our transit network as the competing visions in the Mayor’s Office, Metrolinx, City Planning and the TTC.

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Finch West LRT Soon, Sheppard East Not So (Updated)

Updated April 28, 2015 at 8:20 am:

The decision to push construction of the Sheppard LRT out to the 2020s was taken quite recently as shown by two separate reports.

In today’s Globe & Mail, Oliver Moore reports:

According to Mr. Del Duca, the delay on Sheppard was because of the difficulty of trying to do too many big projects at once. “The plan right now is to have the procurement begin for the Sheppard East LRT after we complete the Finch West LRT,” he said.

There was no firm timeline available for the Sheppard line. If it starts on its new schedule and takes about as long as Finch to build, it should be ready some time after 2025.

This timeline is sharply at odds with the information given to a reporter in the provincial budget lock-up on Thursday. The government’s position then – given on background and not for attribution, under the rules of the lock-up – was that the Sheppard line would open about a year after Finch. Mr. Del Duca’s spokesman did not return a message Monday seeking clarification of what had changed.

On April 27, over an hour after the LRT announcement, one of my readers, seeking clarification from Metrolinx received the following email:

From: Metrolinx Customer Relations <customerrelations@metrolinx.com>
Date: April 27, 2015 at 10:43:26 AM EDT

Dear [x]

Thank you for contacting us about the status of the Sheppard East LRT.

The Sheppard East LRT is fully funded and approved. The Sheppard East LRT underpass construction at Agincourt GO Station has been completed.

Preliminary design and engineering work will be happening over the next few years. Construction is expected to begin in 2017 and be completed by 2021.

I appreciate you taking the time to contact us.

Sincerely,

[x] Customer Service Representative
GO Transit, A Division of Metrolinx

One wonders just what triggered a change so last-minute that it was not communicated to Metrolinx’ own “communications” team. The Minister claims that the delay is because there is only so much construction work that can be undertaken concurrently, but this seems to have more to do with avoiding a politically difficult decision.

A much more honest position would be to say simply that “we’re waiting for the results of various studies now underway on transit for Scarborough”, but leadership, or even a bit of common sense on anything transit-related in that part of town seems to escape the Liberals at Queen’s Park.

Original article from April 27 at 12:11 pm:

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Metrolinx Board Meeting June 26, 2014 (Corrected)

Correction July 1, 2014: In the original version of this article, I attributed a comment to Metrolinx Chair Rob Prichard regarding the sharing of information between bidders on rapid transit projects, and expresssed my surprise that this did not match the process I was familiar with from my own public sector experience. In fact, the remark was with regard to sharing information about questions to Metrolinx from candidates in the municipal election.

The procurement process does include sharing of information via addenda to Requests for Information issued to all bidders as mentioned in the Rapid Transit Quarterly Report. I regret this error and frankly cannot understand how I scrambled two very different topics together.

However, the process for dealing with candidate questions at Metrolinx is completely different from that followed by the City of Toronto. Where Metrolinx preserves confidentiality about questions a campaign might ask, the City posts responses to any query online so that no candidate has the advantage of professional advice not available to others. The basic premise is that the staff works for Council, not for an individual member or candidate.

As a public agency, Metrolinx should be providing information to everyone. The discussion (which starts at about 21:10 of the meeting video) emphasizes that Metrolinx has no part in the election, and yet the confidentiality of information exchanges could offer an advantage to a campaign that is unknown to other candidates.

Original Article  from June 29, 2014:

The Metrolinx Board met on Thursday, June 26 in a quite celebratory air. With the provincial election out of the way and the return of a pro-transit Liberal majority to Queen’s Park, Metrolinx sees a rosy future for transit expansion. They wasted no time telling anyone who would listen about the great work now at hand.

Among the items of interest were reports on:

Another burning question about the recently announced funding is just how much money is on the table, especially how much is new money as opposed to funds earmarked for specific projects like RER or previously announced/expected for projects in the “Next Wave” of Metrolinx undertakings. It didn’t take the assembled media long to notice that the GO RER scheme would gobble up much of the $15b earmarked for transit in the GTHA. I will return to this in a separate article.

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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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Where Will the Scarborough Subway Go?

The Toronto Star reports that Queen’s Park is contemplating an alternative route to Toronto’s proposed Scarborough subway extension via Eglinton and McCowan to Sheppard East.

The key paragraphs in the article are:

“In the next couple of weeks we should have an announcement on what the routing will be, what the design will be and what the cost will be,” he told reporters on the way into a cabinet meeting Wednesday.

Queen’s Park wants to have the subway run on a similar route to the light rail transit plan to “maximize the impact of this line and get it connected to as many people (as possible),” said [Transportation Minister] Murray.

Murray seeks to find out how much could be built with the $1.4b already committed to a subway project.  Using an existing corridor could reduce the cost compared to the McCowan alignment.

This raises questions debated in other threads here of how the subway would be extended via the existing SRT alignment including the configuration of Kennedy Station and whether a route from Ellesmere Station eastward would be elevated or underground.

Recycling some or all of the existing corridor will require a period of shutdown for the RT with parallel bus service, an issue that weighed heavily against the LRT scheme in recent debates.  Will the promise of a subway quell objections to this shutdown?

Murray will meet with Lisa Raitt, the federal Minister of Transport, to discuss funding, but he is already throwing cold water on hopes for assistance from Ottawa for a  “416” project.  Even if the feds bring money to the table, the next questions will be whether the original McCowan scheme or an SRT alignment for the subway are the best use of available cash, and how either subway would fit into a larger network.

The debate comes back to Toronto Council in October preceded by Murray’s announcement likely in mid-September.  Backers of the subway like TTC Chair Karen Stintz and recently-elected MPP “Subway Champion” Mitzie Hunter have stressed that their support for a Sheppard LRT was for a different line in different circumstances.  A Scarborough subway, wherever it goes, will leave large parts of eastern Toronto far from rapid transit.

The LRT debate is not over.  Will Stintz and Hunter become “LRT champions” for other parts of the network?