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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Premier Doug Plays With Toronto’s Train Set

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On March 26, the Province wrote:

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

This bizarre pair of statements suggests that either:

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

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

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

The Scarborough Subway Extension

For the SSE, there are two conflicting proposals:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crosstown LRT Westward Extension

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relief Line South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yonge Northern Extension to Richmond Hill

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

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

Jumping the Gun on Uploading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further System Expansion

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued …

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

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

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

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

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

The Tangled Web of Waterfront Transit and Sidewalk Labs

The Waterfront East LRT (streetcar) is a years-overdue project. Development marches east from Yonge to the Don River along Queens Quay while transit service amounts to a handful of infrequent and unreliable bus routes. I strongly support the LRT plan, and participated in various advisory groups at Waterfront Toronto and the recently disbanded Sidewalk Labs Mobility Advisory Committee with the hope of seeing the LRT project come to life.

Toronto as a city talks a good line about “transit first” in the waterfront, but does nothing to support this. There is always some other project more important. During the early days of SmartTrack, there were even claims that it would make the Waterfront East LRT unnecessary. That was complete balderdash, along with claims that ST would replace every other project, including a Relief subway line.

Now Mayor John Tory has shifted his position on ST’s benefits somewhat, but keeping his personal project alive diverts attention and funding. A Waterfront Reset study now underway by City Planning, Waterfront Toronto and the TTC owes more to the demand for better transit to the Humber Bay Shores than to the new developments in the eastern waterfront. Political dynamics on City Council are such that the western extension could be first out of the gate leaving the eastern waterfront high and dry, so to speak, for better transit. Design for an extension of the existing streetcar track at Exhibition Loop west to Dufferin with provision to go further is already underway. [See the Exhibition Place Streetcar Link tab within the Waterfront Reset page.]

The most contentious part of the Waterfront Reset has been the link to Union Station. One might think that simply expanding platform space there would be the obvious solution, but there are competing interests. Some residents and other activists argue for a surface LRT straight through the Bay & Queens Quay intersection to the eastern waterfront, while the existing Bay Street tunnel would be repurposed for various other technologies including a moving sidewalk or some form of “people mover”. For a while, Waterfront Toronto’s former CEO was pushing for a “funicular”, although the term is more applicable to transit routes on steep hills than in a relatively flat tunnel.

The existing underground streetcar infrastructure, consisting of a ~540-metre long tunnel under Bay Street from Queens Quay Station to Union Station, opened in 1990. This existing link provides connections between the central-western waterfront, TTC Line 1, GO trains and buses, and the lower downtown core. The existing streetcar loop at Union Station is currently inadequate for present service levels, to and from the west only, because of its single, curved streetcar platform, on a single track, with insufficient space for present volumes of waiting and alighting customers, and the loop would not function effectively or safely if additional service from the east was added.

Currently, options for the link between Union Station and Queens Quay have been narrowed down to a short list of technologies: expanding the underground streetcar capacity at Union Station (loop expansion); or, repurposing the existing underground streetcar tunnel with an automated dual-haul cable-pulled transit system. The study area for the Union Queens Quay Link is illustrated below. [Waterfront Reset web page]

Two designs were presented at a recent public meeting, but I did not report on them here as there are still many details to be worked out. Drawings for these options are not available online.

  1. Two new north-south tracks are added under Bay Street, one on either side of the existing structure. Platforms would be built beside these new tracks so that passengers would load and unload along straight segments rather than on the congested curve at the north end loop. Two configurations are possible: in one all unloading would occur on the east (northbound) side with loading on the west (southbound) side, while in the other each side’s platform would serve one of the two waterfront routes. (For example, cars bound for Waterfront East could serve the east side platform while those going west stopped on the other side. The four-track structure would allow cars to bypass each other.
  2. The streetcar tunnel would be repurposed with a “People Mover” using one train in each half of the existing structure. Queens Quay Station would be substantially modified both as a southern terminus for the People Mover, and with a new underground LRT station. A surface option for this setup was dropped from the short list because of the volume of passengers who would be transferring between the PM and the LRT.

It is ironic that the impetus for removing streetcars from Bay Street came from the hope that the existing portal between Bay and York streets could be filled in, and that a new portal east of Yonge would not be required. However, the People Mover option, with its underground station, does not achieve this goal.

The next public meeting of the Waterfront Reset project will be held in the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront, 235 Queens Quay West, from 6:30 to 8:00 pm on Monday, March 4, 2019.

A third route into Union, the Bremner LRT, did not appear in the City proposals. It would, in any event, be impossible in the People Mover configuration. This proposal never made sense as Bremner is not wide enough to host an LRT route separate from Queens Quay West. A third service competing for platform space and track time at Union would make that interchange even more challenging than with only the west and east LRT services. City Planning could do everyone a favour by formally removing the Bremner route from their maps. This would also end a rather contentious debate about how a this route would affect the area west of Bathurst and south of Fort York.

The Union loop should and could have been expanded during the extended shutdown of streetcar service for the reconstruction of Queens Quay West and the nearby work on GO’s Bay Street Concourse (to which the expanded loop will connect), but there was no political will to spend money on streetcars at Union.

The Union Station connection will be the most expensive part of any upgrade to waterfront transit facilities, and this cost has been a drag on political decision-making. The Waterfront Reset is supposed to report to Council in April as part of an omnibus report on transit projects in Toronto. Once again, the waterfront could take a back seat to the favoured projects: SmartTrack and the Scarborough Subway Extension.

This is the context in which Sidewalk Labs and their proposed Quayside development join the story.

Quayside

Development of the waterfront has followed a standard pattern. Waterfront Toronto, funded jointly by all three levels of government, upgrades infrastructure (mainly utilities and roads), and manages the process for inviting development on public land that is serviced by the new facilities. Private developers bid for the sites, and Waterfront Toronto maintains input through its desigmn review process. (Some privately owned sites ignored WFT, but the majority of the land is in public hands.)

The Quayside site spans Queens Quay mostly between Sherbourne and Parliament Streets. What is quite striking here is the huge size of the Port Lands to the east and south compared with Quayside itself. [Map from Sidewalk Toronto website] The Port Lands are almost 30 times the size of Quayside and the same size as a large chunk of downtown’s business district. A share in any development there is a big prize.

Waterfront Toronto took a different tack with invited bids for a futuristic centre where new technology would be at the heart of the Quayside development. This would not simply be another new set of condos on the water. The winning bidder was Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. which is also the parent of Google. This company has very deep pockets. Sidewalk Toronto is their local presence.

Original concepts for the area stirred both excitement and skepticism, but the debate quickly focused on technology issues related to invasive monitoring of activities at Quayside, the ownership of data collected, and the role of technology generally including autonomous vehicle (AV) technology from Waymo, another Alphabet company.

Central to the Quayside proposal is the reduction of the carbon footprint both through building design (construction and operating effects) and by shifting much transportation demand to modes such as walking, cycling, shared vehicles and transit. Transit is particularly important because the projected volume to and from the eastern waterfront exceeds 3,000 passengers per hour. The origin-destination pattern for these trips is not conveniently within the Quayside precinct, but spread over downtown. Incoming school and work trips originate even further afield. This is not a demand that autonomous vehicles can touch both for capacity and for reach of service in the foreseeable future, certainly not in the period when the waterfront will develop and be populated.

For me, the Mobility Advisory Committee was a frustrating experience. There was a clear conflict between Sidewalk telling us about their wonderful technology and the committee’s ability to review and comment critically, if only thanks to time constraints, the number of committee members and infrequent meetings. There was far too much “sizzle” and far less hard detail, not to mention a sense that Sidewalk was rather full of themselves about their brave new technology world. The design for Quayside includes provision for AVs, and to some extent the proposed road layout was gerrymandered to increase the contiguous territory where AVs could operate without having to deal with a major artery such as Lake Shore Boulevard.

A fundamental problem with any discussion of AVs is that Quayside is quite small, and most of the local trips within it would be taken on foot or by cycling. AVs might be handy for some journeys, but they would not be the backbone of travel because most trips started or ended well outside of the Quayside area. If AVs were going to have any meaningful presence in Quayside, the project scope had to expand, but how this would occur was not obvious until the Star’s revelation of Sidewalk’s and Google’s designs on the wider waterfront.

A parallel and much more high profile controversy related to the data that would be collected by a very technologically active environment integral to the Quayside proposal. This is a transit blog and I will not delve into all of the threads that debate took, but the discussion served an unexpected purpose. With all of the focus on privacy and the integrity of personal data, other aspects of Sidewalk’s scheme and their wider designs faded into the background. The cynic in me suspects that for all that this might have annoyed Sidewalk, there was an advantage that the bigger picture of development scope and infrastructure funding did not receive the same attention, at least until the Star broke the story.

There was always a nagging suspicion that the real prize for Sidewalk was the wider waterfront, but most discussions looked only at the comparatively small Quayside district. The problem with only reviewing that small precinct is that neither transit nor any AV scheme will rise or fall on the comparatively modest demand of one development district, but of the combined effect of building throughout the waterfront.

A Leak at Sidewalk

On February 14, the Star’s Marco Chown Oved revealed that Sidewalk had designs on the entire Port Lands. His article is based on a presentation deck that has not been released. I asked, and he replied:

A revised presentation was issued by Sidewalk, but it does not include some of the more contentious text cited in Oved’s article.

The foundation of Sidewalk’s proposal is that they would not only finance infrastructure installation throughout Quayside and the Portlands, but that they would be repaid by tapping into future municipal revenues. They would not become developers, but would reap their reward as others built in the area they had serviced.

Internal documents obtained by the Star show Sidewalk Labs plans to make the case that it is “entitled to … a share in the uptick in land value on the entire geography … a share of developer charges and incremental tax revenue on all land.” … estimated to be $6 billion over the next 30 years. [Oved]

This sounds promising if you are a politician accustomed to finding someone in the private sector to take costs off of your hands, at least in the short term. However, it is a form of borrowing just like any debt, and there is no indication of the return Sidewalk (or its funding parent, Alphabet) would expect on its investment. Moreover, there is a risk that economic circumstances will change over coming decades and development could slow or stop in Toronto. Would that risk be part of any deal, shared with Alphabet, or would they expect payment even for infrastructure supporting vacant lots?

Development Charges are poorly understood in Toronto. They are levied city-wide against all new buildings, both residential and commercial, to recoup part of the cost of infrastructure upgrades. They are not site-specific, and buildings everywhere pay the cost of new infrastructure regardless of where it is needed. For example, new buildings downtown helped pay for the Spadina subway extension. (Provincial rules on the DC formula require that the portion of any benefit to existing properties be excluded from the calculation.) It is far from clear that the DC revenue from the Port Lands would be needed only to pay for infrastructure there.

As for tax revenue, property taxes support many municipal services of which only a small portion is capital debt service. Scooping marginal new revenues to pay back Sidewalk’s investment would starve the city of money it needs to support the new population, and this would also dilute the funds available to service City debt overall. (I will avoid the black hole of explaining how City debt financing works here.)

The idea of “Tax Increment Financing” (TIF) has been floated before and it was central to John Tory’s SmartTrack scheme. This something-for-nothing mirage has evaporated. We will now see the City investing substantially in new GO stations while having no control over the service provided to them or the fares charged. Indeed, some of the waterfront lands Sidewalk eyes for TIF benefits were likely also part of the original SmartTrack scheme. One can only collect a tax increment once, and one might even debate which of several projects (SmartTrack, GO RER, Relief Line, Waterfront LRT) contribute to the uplift in land values and taxes.

The revenue streams Sidewalk seeks are municipal, and their proposal is silent on any investment from the provincial or federal levels. Waterfront Toronto, by contrast, is built on a tripartite arrangement with all governments, notably in its signature project the Don Mouth regeneration. If Sidewalk expects to be repaid for its contribution, where are the other “partners”?

Looking more broadly, other financing entities might be interested in this project, and Sidewalk/Alphabet should not be given any preference. One way or another, the investment has to be paid back, and the affected governments will have to get the best deal (including possibly some self-financing) among whatever is on offer.

Earlier I mentioned that it was clear that Quayside alone was too small to be significant in its own right for some of Sidewalk’s goals. Oved quotes Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff:

“We don’t think that 12 acres on Quayside has the scale to actually have the impact on affordability and economic opportunity and transit that everyone aspires to,” Doctoroff said.

This is not exactly news, but a great deal of “consultation” took place on the basis that only the 12 acres were under consideration.

Brand new in the Sidewalk proposal is a new Google Canada headquarters located on the west side of New Cherry Street, a prime spot within “Villiers Island”, a new island that will be created as part of the Don Mouth project. [From p. 10 in the updated Sidewalk presentation deck]

This would have an interesting effect on the initial size of Sidewalk/Google’s presence by placing a major employment node on Villiers Island. If Google/Waymo want a testbed for AVs, this would put their HQ firmly in the neighbourhood and would increase the initial scope of “AV territory”, although this requires that streets be “AV friendly”.

One big concern about AVs is their co-existence with the LRT line. In an illustration of the new Queens Quay, an AV is clearly shown in front of a streetcar on the “LRT” right-of-way. Bad enough that there is a conflict with AVs stopping on the right-of-way, but with the expanded scope possible to serve the Google HQ, will Waymo expect to use the LRT right-of-way throughout the eastern waterfront? Would this be a condition of the contract for any financing of the LRT project?

Sidewalk knows that the LRT is an important component of waterfront development.

To encourage development, Sidewalk will finance an LRT expansion through the area and fund the construction of “horizontal infrastructure” such as “the power and thermal grid, and waste removal.”

“This is something that is on nobody’s realistic drawing board. We would ensure it gets financed and all we want to do is get paid back out of the increase in value in terms of property taxes and developer charges that are only possible when that LRT gets extended,” said Doctoroff.

“To be clear,” Doctoroff said. “We would not own the LRT. It would remain public.” [Oved]

However, it is not clear how much of the LRT Sidewalk would actually finance, and if this were only the eastern end through Quayside, this could leave the critical link to Union Station in doubt.

In the wider scope, Sidewalk envisages a second phase with an LRT extension south of the Ship Channel to serve land that is now intended to be primarily industrial (at the east end) and recreational (at the west). There is no sense of whether this is a tactic to increase future returns, or simply blue-skying by Sidewalk’s planners. Going over the Ship Channel (twice) will be an expensive proposition as lift bridges will be required to provide clearance for ships entering and leaving the channel. (The existing bascule bridge on Cherry Street will remain, but it cannot carry an LRT line.)

Conclusions

I cannot avoid the sense that Sidewalk has badly overplayed their hand, and in the process has compromised whatever discussions were in progress on their plans.

According to Oved:

One slide states there have been “weekly briefings with officials from the three levels of government,” and “regulatory dispensations,” have been drafted to allow the plan to go ahead.

The whole Sidewalk process has been shrouded in confidentiality agreements, and this has not engendered trust with folks like me, not to mention Council members, who try to keep tabs on what is happening. It is a classic problem of public-private partnerships where all critical debate and decisions happen behind closed doors beyond the ability of anyone outside an inner circle to review.

How much has actually been committed is impossible to know. Sidewalk may have been told “if you want to do X, then you will need dispensation Y”. What we do not know is whether those dispensations are simply for discussion or have the active support of staff and politicians in the various governments.

Sidewalk’s position is further undermined when they reveal that they view problems with public perceptions to be related to the narrow issue of technology use and control [see Oved]. The broader implications of a runaway development scheme cooked up behind closed doors are not mentioned. Implications of widespread information technology presence are understood by a relatively small group, but questions of “done deals” and influence in high places are political issues everyone understands.

The entire proposal contains many sweeteners including sustainability, support for the emerging industry of wood buildings, and supposed improvements in the infrastructure of delivering services to a community. These may offset concerns about invasive technology, but are all of these simply a smokescreen for a much bigger grab for control of the Port Lands?

The ink was barely dry on the Oved story when David Rider reported that a source at Queen’s Park told the Star’s Robert Benzie that the plan “had no chance of proceeding”.

“There is no way on God’s green earth that Premier Doug Ford would ever sign off on handing away nearly 500 acres of prime waterfront property to a foreign multinational company that has been unable to reassure citizens their privacy and data would be protected,” confided the high-ranking Progressive Conservative insider.

All public agencies and officials involved in this project need to go on record about their knowledge of and support for the Sidewalk proposal. This is not the time for bromides about the wonders of new technology and much-needed development.

If we are giving away control of the waterfront, it’s time we all knew what is going on.

Toronto City Budget 2019 and the TTC

The City of Toronto launched its 2019 budget on January 28 and as usual the overwhelming preoccupation is to keep property taxes down. This has pervasive effects throughout the budget in ways that are not always obvious.

The TTC has been granted an increased subsidy for 2019 (matching the one built into their own recently-approved budget) of $22 million. This is a combination of a $25.3 million bump for the “conventional” system and a $3.3 million cutback in Wheel-Trans funding because ridership growth has not been as strong as originally projected for 2018.

Another big bump lies in the Toronto Police Service who will get $30.3 million more for 2019. An important difference between the police budget and the TTC subsidy is that the City only funds about one third of total TTC costs, and so the proportionate increase on the gross TTC budget is much lower. Every City dollar going to the TTC has to be matched by two dollars from riders.

Across most other City departments and agencies, the money dedicated to the large agencies drains the pot available to everyone else.

Operating Budget and Property Taxes

The City budget process begins with the presumption that residential tax rates will go up by the rate of inflation which, for this year, is 2.55%. Other property classes rise at a slower rate as a matter of policy (a practice dating back to the Mike Harris era) driving down the ratio of non-residential to residential rates to make Toronto taxes on businesses more competitive with the 905 municipalities.

  • Commercial rates will go up by 1.28%, half of the residential increase.
  • Industrial rates will go up by 0.85%, one third of residential.
  • Multi-unit residential (apartment buildings) have a 0% increase courtesy of a provincially imposed freeze a few years ago.

Eventually (projected at 2023 in last year’s budget), the commercial and industrial ratios to residential will reach their target, and these taxes will start to rise at the same rate as inflation. However, in the meantime, although we have an “inflationary” tax increase, the City does not get the full benefit of that across all property classes and the overall revenue increase is only 1.8%. In turn that applies to the 37% of the total budget that comes from property taxes. The rest comes from user fees like TTC fares and transfers from other governments which might not rise at the rate of inflation, if at all. Any shortfall in that 63% of non-tax revenue directly eats away at programs and creates demand for better support from the property tax base.

The TTC gets its $22 million (one of the smaller increases in subsidies in recent years), but the budget problems are far from over.

Within the TTC budget, as I previously reported, there is a $24 million unspecified reduction that is hope to arise from various sources that together are worth about $32 million. The TTC has to “win” on 75% of these to find the savings they need, but they start behind the 8-ball with about 25% of the total being a claim against Metrolinx for the cost of supplementary bus service thanks to congestion from the Crosstown project. If Metrolinx doesn’t pay up, the TTC will have to run the table and get every other potential saving to break in their favour.

On the City side, there is more creative accounting.

Although the solid waste rate increase looks as if it is “inflationary”, the rebate reduction is a hidden tax increase because it involves $35 million in cost (the rebate) that in previous years was paid from the property tax. The City’s intent is to roll back all of these rebates over the next three years so that all solid waste fees represent the full cost of sevice rather than a subsidized one. The effect is somewhat like reducing transit subsidies while failing to mention that fares were going up. This dodge was picked up immediately by the media, and is among the many bits of sleight of hand Matt Elliott describes in his new City Hall Watcher blog.

The refugee contribution is hoped-for subsidy from Ottawa matching their 2018 payment toward housing refugees. The issue is under discussion between Mayor Tory and the Feds, but if this does not come through, it will leave a big hole to fill with cuts elsewhere.

The Capital contribution reduction relieves the spending pressure in the Operating Budget, and hence on property taxes, but this comes at a cost. More capital works are paid for with debt rather than from current revenue, and the projected jump in 2020 to get back on track with this item will make balancing that budget harder. Capital-from-current, or CFC, is the equivalent of renovating your house, but paying some of the cost out of today’s income to reduce borrowing. If you get in the habit of borrowing more, it is much harder to return to a budget where you pay-as-you-go at a comfortable rate. The 10 year Capital Plan foresees CFC rising from $340 million in 2019 to $426 million in 2020 and more than doubling to $754 million by 2026.

Finally, there is $10 million in an unspecified reduction that the City Manager hopes to find within management staff, and indicated that similar savings might be attempted in future years.

Not shown in this list is the Land Transfer Tax (LTT) because it is assumed to bring in the same revenue for 2019 as it did in 2018 even though the monthly numbers have been falling through the latter part of 2018. City staff offered little beyond fond hopes that this revenue stream will recover through 2019.

Collectively between the City’s and TTC’s budget, there are many changes that cannot be reproduced year-over-year, or which depend on economic luck to work in our favour. We might muddle through 2019, but in 2020 we could be in for a shock.

One cut that was buried in the details is that the transit Fair Pass program, Phase II, will not be fully implemented as originally planned. In this phase, recipients of Child Care or Rent Supplement allowances were to become eligible, but in fact only those getting the Child Care allowance will join the Fair Pass program in 2019. Another problem with the Fair Pass pricing – many “eligible” riders don’t use transit enough to make buying the pass worthwhile – is a separate problem not even addressed in the budget.

Capital Budget

The Capital Budget faces severe funding problems in the 2020s because the City’s appetite for new projects, not to mention needed ongoing State of Good Repair (SOGR), exceeds its available borrowing headroom. The City’s target is that debt service costs not exceed 15% of tax revenues. This used to be a hard cap so that no individual year could crest above the line, but is now treated as a moving average.

The problem with this chart is quite obvious. Years 2020 to 2026 are all “above the line”, while 2019 is “below the line”. This means that no borrowing can be added until years beyond 2028 while the Cit digests the years of higher borrowing. The future poverty of our capital budget is baked in to this chart.

That bulge in the 2020s also matches the bulge in the TTC’s capital needs, most of which are unfunded, in its 15 year Capital Plan.

During his presentation, the City Manager observed that the City was taken by surprise by the TTC plan which represented a five-fold increase over spending the City “knew about”.

Horsefeathers.

The TTC has been producing a Capital Budget for some years that clearly shows about $6 billion in funded projects plus another $3 billion in unfunded items, and many more that are “below the line”, not even formally in the 10-year budget. To this must be added an extra five years’ worth of spending in the 15-year budget, and the long overdue acknowledgement of some capital projects that were no secret to any TTC watcher.

The change simply is that the City can no longer pretend that only the approved $6 billion worth of projects actually exist.

The City’s overall SOGR level appears to rise moderately over the next decade, but this too is an illusion as City staff pointed out during their presentation.

In the chart below, the green line shows the total backlog which rises from $7.759 to $9,506 billion, a modest 22.5% increase over 10 years. However, the other lines split out three components:

  • The Gardiner Expressway’s reconstruction from Jarvis to the DVP eliminates its SOGR backlog (red).
  • Toronto Water’s ongoing investment in new plant reduces its backlog from $1.453 to $0.208 billion (blue).
  • All other components of the backlog rise from $4.227 to $9.243 billion or more than double (amber).

Without the $3.5 billion backlog from the Gardiner and Toronto Water, the 10 year increase in the SOGR deficit is far from modest, and shows a city unwilling to pay to maintain what it already owns.

Looked at in more detail, the situation for some accounts is even more dire.

  • Transportation Services (mainly roads and bridges) goes up to three times its current backlog.
  • The TTC backlog grows from a sliver to $0.755 billion, and this does not include expansion projects nor the formerly below-the-line items now in the TTC’s Capital Plan.
  • The TCHC backlog increases by 80% leaving a large amount of public housing in Toronto in much worse shape than it is today.

To put the TCHC backlog in proportion, it is only slightly less than the cost of the Scarborough Subway Extension. Why do we have money for a new subway, but not for housing?

[Adapted from City Budget Presentation at p. 46]

The City Budget Appendices break down planned spending into departments, agencies and projects. The last page includes planned spending and borrowing.

The Scarborough Subway Extension is near the bottom at a cost for the next 10 years of $3.328 billion. This is based on the current SSE cost estimate which is to be revised in April 2019 based on current design work. Note that there is comparatively little borrowing for the City’s share of this project thanks to the accumulated revenue from the SSE levy which is bringing in about $40 million annually.

SmartTrack does not appear explicitly in this budget because it is currently bundled in the line for Facilities Management under Corporate Services. The project estimate will be updated in April, and at that point the project line, at least for funding purposes, will be moved to the TTC budget.

The Gardiner also does not appear here with its own line because it is part of the Transportation Services budget.

There is no money for any other substantial TTC expansion, only for design work on a few projects included within the TTC’s budget.

In April 2019, City staff plan to bring forward a compendium report on all of the major projects (SSE, SmartTrack, Waterfront, Gardiner and others) with up to date estimates. This will obviously trigger changes in the Capital Plan as published here.

As yet there is no sense of how the City of Toronto and other governments who help to fund transit will actually pay for everything the politicians have put on maps, and for everything Toronto needs.

Brill Bus Fantrip July 29, 1972

As a holiday gift to the fans of old buses (and I know you’re out there even if you think this is really a streetcar blog), a photo gallery from a fantrip I organized many years ago using one of the TTC’s Brill coaches. Bus 1935 dates from 1955, and was retired in the mid 1970s.

For more information on the TTC’s fleet before the arrival of the GM “New Look” buses, see Before the New Looks on Transit Toronto.

504 King vs 501 Queen Speed Comparisons (Part II)

This article continues the analysis of transit vehicle speeds on King and Queen Streets downtown over the past two years. The first installment of the article compared travel times between the vehicles on each street at specific times of the day and periods over the course of two years. Here, the same data are arranged to show the evolution of travel times on each street over time both before and after the implementation of the King Street Pilot.

King Street

Westbound

Here is a sample chart showing King Street westbound in the hour from 8 to 9 am.

Three periods in 2017 (January, September and early November) are plotted in “warm” colours (pink, red, orange), while periods in 2018 with the pilot in operation (January, July and October) are plotted in “cool” colours (green, blue and purple). This makes it easy to distinguish the groups of data that belong to the “before” and “after” periods.

As this is westbound data, the chart is read from left to right. A common pattern that shows up here is the different location of low speeds corresponding to stops once the pilot is active with “before” data dipping ahead of the intersection, and “after” data dipping following. The degree to which “after” data also includes a nearside dip indicates how traffic signals can compound the stop service time with farside stops. Note especially the green line which shows data from before the re-activation of Transit Signal Priority (TSP). At Jarvis, for example, there is a decided reduction in nearside delay comparing the blue (July 2018) and purple (October) lines with the green (January) one. There is also an improvement at York Street and at University Avenue.

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Metrolinx, New Stations and the Auditor General (Updated)

The Ontario Auditor General released her 2018 annual report on December 5. Many topics were examined by the AG, but two related to Metrolinx bear examination by anyone concerned with the future of transit planning and management with more responsibility shifting to the provincial level.

This article deals with the station selection process and the controversial recommendations for new stations at Kirby and at Lawrence East. I have written about this process and related issues before:

Updated: Links to Articles & Interviews

The Auditor General appeared on Metro Morning on December 6 speaking about, among other things, the cost of policy changes regarding LRT lines, and the evaluation of potential stations.

Former Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca, wrote an opinion piece in the Toronto Star claiming “I wasn’t meddling, I was building transit”. This is rich considering the effort Metrolinx went to in revising its evaluation of new stations.

Del Duca was notorious during his Ministry as using Metrolinx as an unending source of profile-building photo ops. He uses the Relief Line as an example of his intervention to get the project going despite early reluctance at the City and TTC level. This is a convenient rewriting of history and, in particular, of the huge difference between an RL ending at Danforth, and the one later evaluated by Metrolinx running north to Sheppard. The RL became popular and scored well once its extent and projected demand produced a significant dent on the Yonge line so that the Richmond Hill subway might be feasible.

A Few Thoughts About the Metrolinx Board

Although the Metrolinx Board meets in public from time to time, the legislation governing this body allows most issues to be debated and decided in private. There is no reason that this will change for the better. The chronologies set out by the Auditor General reveal situations where the Board was advised privately as issues evolved and met publicly only for the formality and patina of respectability conferred by their “approval” of matters already decided.

Throughout the station evaluation process, Metrolinx revised both published analysis and supporting documentation. This obscured the net economic costs estimated in the original business cases, making the results of the business-case analysis—both on Metrolinx’s website and in the published report to the Board—much less clear and transparent. [p. 315]

What is unclear is whether the Board actively participated in directions to staff that would lead to the rewriting of reports and recommendations, or merely chose to avert their eyes from the mechanics of political sausage making.

In any event, the process detailed by the AG throws into question everything that Metrolinx has done. Can anyone trust an organization whose professional opinion is so pliable, and which will defend recommendations, threadbare though they may be, so strongly? This is not just an issue for Metrolinx but for many public agencies involved in transportation planning notably the City of Toronto and the TTC.

To its credit, Metrolinx is developing a standard methodology for Business Case Analysis and will publish this in April 2019. However, the problem remains of just how well this will protect against hidden interference from politicians and their friends.

Metrolinx Business Cases

For many years, Metrolinx has used a methodology to evaluate projects that purports to establish the worth of a scheme, which could be negative, such as a new transit line or a significant change to existing facilities. The framework includes multiple factors examining projects from different points of view.

The Strategic Case looks at how a scheme works within the network and the wider public goals of supporting regional development. Factors include:

  • Ridership projections
  • Revenue and Operating Costs
  • Population and employment served
  • Travel time changes
  • The reach of a new/revised service
  • Effects on greenhouse gas emissions from trips shifted to transit

The Economic and Financial Cases review a proposal from two different monetary viewpoints.

  • The Economic Case measures benefits such as auto operating cost savings, reduced emissions and air pollution, travel time savings, health benefits and reduction of accidents.
  • The Financial Case looks at the cost and revenue estimates to produce a net operating cost as well as a “net financial impact” stating the total revenue over the study period minus the capital and operating costs.

The Deliverability and Operations Case concerns the implementation plan, procurement, operations, maintenance and risk management.

These factors overlap and the calculation machinery includes many assumptions such as future population and employment patterns, fare structures, operating and capital costs, trip diversion rates to transit, and the value of various benefits both to transit riders and society in general. Many of these are not published at a level of detail that would permit an outsider to understand how each factor behaves, and there is considerable leeway to affect the outcome by “twirling the dials” on factors readers cannot easily review.

A big issue with these analyses has been the question of how benefits are valued. For example, if a new transit service attracts people out of their cars, then this reduces the operating cost of those vehicles and produces environmental benefits, but it can also reduce travel time both for new riders and those on existing services. The values assigned to these and other benefits do not accrue to Metrolinx, but to the wider population. These savings, whether they be tangible (lower driving costs) or intangible (the value of time saved) are used to offset the hard costs of actually building and operating a service. While there may be an overall balance, the savings do not pay the bills which must rely on future revenue and subsidy.

A major contribution on the “benefit” side of the analysis is almost always the travel time savings for riders. For example, in the recent GO Expansion BCA, this is the overwhelming contribution to “value” in the analysis. Any factor that increases travel speed affects this measure, and in the case of stations “less is more” is the rule. Fewer stations make for faster trips and that translates to a higher modelled benefit. This has been at the heart of Metrolinx analyses for years and drives a pressure for wider station spacing even on urban lines like the Crosstown project. Adding a station to any route triggers a requirement to find an offset elsewhere such as a stimulus to riding that will drive up total rides even if they are all a bit slower.

A further problem with Metrolinx analyses is that the time period for comparison of costs and effects has grown to a 60-year horizon with the effect that far-distant benefits are shown as potentially offsetting short to medium term costs. This requires assumptions about the future of the transit system, the economy and regional development far beyond a period where anyone can reasonably know what will happen. In an effort to temper this, Metrolinx performs sensitivity analyses by changing factors to see what the effect would be. For example, if a more conservative set of assumptions goes into the model, what happens to the benefits, or does the proposal even fall into negative territory? How “successful” does Metrolinx and the region have to be in order to achieve its goals?

Needless to say, with such a timeframe, most of the readers, let alone authors, of these studies will be long gone before we could challenge their long term validity. The more subtle problem is that showing such long term benefits tends to paper over the fact that in the short to medium term, new facilities (particularly those requiring large capital investments) will not achieve anything near profitability and this shortfall must be financed. I will turn to this in more detail in a review of the Metrolinx GO Expansion BCA in a future article.

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Superlinx: A Big Solution or A Big Con? (Updated)

Updated November 7, 2018 at 1 am: Details of the Environics poll conducted for the Toronto Region Board of Trade have been added to the end of the article. The content does not change my argument here, namely that the specifics of a new agency, its potential benefits or problems, were not presented in detail. The poll only measures a response to a generic scheme for provincial control to the extent that respondents might know about it. Of particular note, the Superlinx proposal came out in fall 2017 and had little media coverage in the period preceding the poll conducted almost a year later.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade published a proposal in November 2017 for the amalgamation of all transit agencies and operations in the “Toronto Corridor”. Ostensibly, this was written as input to the updated Metrolinx Regional Transportation Plan aka “The Big Move”. However, the guiding policy framework is clear in the first paragraph of “The Board’s Vision”:

The Toronto Region Board of Trade (the Board) has a vision for a modern transit authority that is best in class globally. This regional transit authority would plan and oversee a system that pays for new lines and superior service enhancements substantially through commercialized transit related assets—not new taxes. This modern transit authority would quickly deploy smart technologies and service features systemwide, thanks to its unified planning and operations platform. It would ensure public transit land is maximized to meet housing and commercial needs. It would plan and fast‐track the delivery of a super regional transit network to meet the needs of Canada’s most populous and economically active region—the Toronto‐Waterloo Corridor (the Corridor). [p. 3]

The key point here is that transit improvements, both capital and operating, would not require new taxes. This is a political holy grail, the “something for nothing” of political dreams in any portfolio. However, at no point does the Board of Trade actually run the numbers to show that this would actually work, that the money available from “commercialized transit assets” would actually pay “substantially” for the transit the Toronto region so desperately needs.

The Board speaks of the “Corridor” with an emphasis on the Toronto-Waterloo axis, but this simply restyles a region made up of what we now call the GTHA into a larger unit, and it includes substantial areas that remain rural where transportation needs and planning policy options are very different from those of the urbanized parts of southern Ontario.

At the time, I did not comment on the scheme, but with the change in government at Queen’s Park and the arrival of dogma as the central driver of policy choices, another look is in order.

On October 31, 2018, the Board of Trade published the result of a survey which claims to show overwhelming support for complete amalgamation of transit systems. Their press release is entitled “Greater Toronto and Waterloo region voters support Superlinx concept”. However, it is by no means clear that their panel is made up of actual voters, only adults. The spin begins before we even get into the substance of the release.

This was duly covered by the media, including The Star and The Globe and Mail.

The Environics poll of 1,000 adults in southern Ontario claims:

The concept of a single regional transit agency funded by the provincial government received support from 79 percent of regional respondents and 74 percent of Toronto respondents.

It is worth noting that the article on Environics’ site, identical to the Board of Trade’s press release except for the title, is not a detailed analysis of the results. It does not include the context in which questions were placed, and so it is impossible to know exactly what people thought they were “supporting”. No margin of error is cited because of the poll methodology, according to Environics. With only 1,000 responses that are further subdivided among seven municipalities, the sample for any one of them will be quite small. The sample size and demographics for each municipality are not included, nor is there any indication of transit usage patterns among the respondents, only car ownership. With the relatively low transit usage outside of Toronto, one can reasonably assume that the poll overwhelmingly reflects the opinion of people who do not use transit as their primary or only means of travel.

Among the measures polled was “satisfaction with the local transit system”, and this ranked second lowest at 59% in Toronto with York Region, at 55%, bringing up the rear. The high, at 71%, was in Peel Region. Ironically, Toronto and York also have the lowest agreement that the “commute has worsened in the past 12 months”. There is widespread support for the concept that “regional transportation systems require a significant overhaul”, but there is no sense of what this might entail. The Superlinx scheme also has strong support, but again we do not know how it was described to respondents.

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Many Questions About A Subway Takeover

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

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

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

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

Understanding the TTC Budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Challenges For TTC’s New CEO

Late in 2011, Andy Byford was hired by the TTC as Chief Operating Officer, a role in which he would understudy the then Chief General Manager, Gary Webster. Little did Byford know that he would inherit the top role faster than planned, in March 2012, after Webster was summarily fired for his failure to support the Scarborough Subway Extension at City Council. The term “to be Webstered” entered the Toronto lexicon as a synonym for what happens to those who speak truth to power.

The position of CGM was renamed as Chief Executive Officer in keeping with common use in business. As such, Byford launched a five-year plan to remake the TTC in his image, a process for which Toronto eventually won the American Public Transit Association’s “Transit System of the Year” award in 2017. Although frequently misrepresented, this award was not for the best transit service on the continent, but for the achievement of a management turnaround plan.

In late 2017, Byford became President of New York City Transit Authority, a role he had long dreamed of having, despite frequent claims in Toronto that he wasn’t planning to leave. This opened the TTC’s CEO position, and the former Deputy, Rick Leary, has been Acting CEO since Byford’s departure.

What challenges does the new CEO face? Broadly, these fall into three categories:

  • The political situation at Queen’s Park is in flux with a new Conservative administration headed by a Premier for whom subways answer every question, and who has talked of shifting responsibility for Toronto’s rapid transit network to Ontario from the City of Toronto.
  • Toronto’s Council and Mayor send mixed signals on transit’s importance for the city’s economic prosperity and the good of its citizens, while keeping the TTC hostage to a tax-fighting dogma that demands ongoing restraint in budget and subsidy growth.
  • The long-term effect of policies by all governments has been a wide gap between the funding needs – both capital and operating – and the money the TTC is actually allowed to spend. Many “big ticket” items are special projects like subway extensions, funded in part for their political benefit, but the hole left in day-to-day project funding continues to deepen.

Underlying all of these is a basic question: what is the TTC supposed to be?

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