The PC Ontario Transit Platform: Real Change or Smoke & Mirrors?

The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario released its campaign platform that will take them into the 2018 election on November 25. This contains three pages on “Change that works for Transit Users”. How much of this voters will actually care about when the real headlines are tax breaks remains to be seen, but a review of these pledges is worthwhile to see what’s really involved and how it could affect transit in the GTHA.

The concept of “Change” is hard to grasp when, in many cases, the Tories simply claim that they will do what the Liberals have planned all along anyhow. The platform implies that the Libs really don’t mean to carry through, but that the new gang, given the chance, will make sure all of the promised chickens actually turn up on every pot.

Each of the bullets quoted below begins with the text “Patrick Brown and the Ontario PCs will …” as if Brown and his party were the government. L’état, c’est moi! This is precisely the sort of characterization for which the Liberals have been so rightly criticized.

Fulfill the existing commitments to two-way, all day GO train service and complete major transit projects already under construction, including those in Ottawa, Hamilton, and Kitchener-Waterloo. [p. 52]

Note that this is the “existing commitments”, not any new ones, nor is there any guarantee of service frequency. Many cities longing for full GO service will stay right where they are looking down the track and hoping for more trains to appear. The words “GO RER” do not appear in the platform, no doubt because that is a Liberal program, and it incites the same reaction in the PCPO that “Transit City” did for former Mayor Ford.

The text accompanying this bullet contains a few oddities:

  • The Finch West LRT project is among those the Tories will complete, although there is no mention of the extension to Pearson Airport. By analogy to other items in the platform, this should really be a city project, not a provincial one because it is not a subway.
  • The Hamilton LRT project is included, although some of the local Tories oppose it, and again this is not a subway.
  • The portion of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT now under construction is not mentioned, nor is the planned extension westward to the airport.
  • There is no mention of Waterfront transit which is mired in the “Reset” plan whose report has now been delayed to January 2018. Once upon a time, then Minister Murray “committed” that the sale of the LCBO lands on Queens Quay would go to transit, but that was long ago and commitments evaporate with a minister’s departure.

This point strikes me as avoidance of derailing works that are some ways “down the track” without making any commitments beyond them.

Commit an additional $5 billion to build new subways in the Greater Toronto Area. [p. 52]

This bullet follows a long section of text which trots out some of the usual complaints, and cites Mayor Tory’s desire to get on with actual building rather than endless debate. “Shovels in the ground” is the aim, although this is selectively applied to subway projects: Scarborough, Sheppard East (Don Mills to STC), the Relief Line (unclear as to the short, medium or long versions) and the Richmond Hill extension of the Yonge subway. These are cited as “prime candidates for development”, but to that end, the Tories ante up only “an additional $5 billion” and are quite clear that they expect matching money from Ottawa.

Ottawa already has an infrastructure program, although you would never know it from the Tories’ platform. The main questions here are how much of the national program is earmarked for Toronto, and will Ontario build new subways fast enough to qualify under that scheme.

This brings us to the obvious point that new subways, with the possible exception of Scarborough’s, could only barely be under construction before the 2022 election, and there is no guarantee of the Tories being around to deliver on their “commitment”. Meanwhile, there are Liberal spending plans, although these are equally vague thanks in part to the dereliction by Metrolinx in giving any sense of priorities for, benefits of or costs related to the new Regional Transportation Plan’s components.

The platform cites “the combination of insufficient capital, antiquated municipal accounting rules, and a lack of political leadership at the provincial level” for the long delays in provision of new transit. Physician heal thyself. Two decades ago, the Tories walked away from municipal transit, and the Liberals have been slow to return. Transit continues to be a contest among politicians that their one favoured project might be blessed rather than a collaborative effort to fund and build a network.

The choice of projects is geographically skewed and omits large areas from the catchment of new lines. How the list addresses needs in the GTA overall is a mystery. As for the $5 billion (or $10b if the feds come to the table), the first bite out of this will be consumed by the proposed provincial assumption of the Scarborough subway’s cost (see below), and whatever is left over will be used on other projects. That won’t get those tunnel borers very far, and certainly will not build all of the lines cited in the platform.

As for those “antiquated municipal accounting rules”, possibly the PCPO could enlighten us as to how they would change these rules to free up additional spending capacity for cities across Ontario, not just in Toronto. Those rules exist to require cities to use a more [ahem] conservative set of accounting rules to ensure that they don’t get too deeply in debt, a constraint by which parties of all stripes at Queen’s Park are not subject.

Provide help for commuters across the Greater Toronto Area by ensuring that the provincial government assumes responsibility for maintenance and investments in Toronto’s subway infrastructure. [p. 53]

This is a truly bizarre statement because commuters across the GTA depend on far more than the Toronto subway system to get them to work. Indeed, Toronto shells out considerable dollars through operating and capital subsidies to keep what is really a regional asset operating. The portion of the Vaughan extension north of Steeles will add about $10 million to Toronto’s annual costs with almost no return via new fare revenue or subsidy from York Region. Making Ontario responsible for “maintenance and investments” would certainly be welcome as an upload, but this would be a very large new cost for Queen’s Park.

As I discussed in a previous article, the subway system accounts for about a third of the TTC’s Operating Budget and about half of the Capital Budget. Net of provincial contributions Ontario already pays (gas tax), this would leave Queen’s Park with about $1 billion in new annual costs just to keep the existing system running, and no offsetting revenue because the platform commits to leaving all of the fares in Toronto.

Part of Queen’s Park’s new responsibility would involve the greater use of private sector design-build-finance-maintain contracts which, the platform claims, would accelerate the rate of construction on new lines. This would also, as the Provincial Auditor has complained, add to cost and create the need to manage contracts that would not exist if the assets were kept in house. This is part of the creative accounting we have seen under the Liberals and clearly favoured by the Conservatives which converts traditional debt to a long term lease arrangement with the physical property (i.e. a new subway line) as an offsetting asset. Presto! The provincial debt stays down, even though there is an unavoidable long term payment commitment.

The platform states that the government “will assume responsibility for the physical subway infrastructure – tracks, tunnels and stations”, although there is more to infrastructure (notably vehicles, yards and shops) than this list. The TTC would remain as the operator/maintainer under contract, and fare revenue would stay with Toronto. I will return to the issue of fares later.

This would be done “in partnership with the Mayor of Toronto”. It may have escaped the Tories that such agreements are made with the City of Toronto through Council, not the Mayor’s office.

The existing subway system is an asset of the city paid for with municipal, provincial and federal dollars. It is one thing to assume the cost of routine and capital maintenance and operations, but quite another to transfer the asset to the province merely to suit accounting trickery, or worse, to enable future resale.

All of this is intended to “create a structure that takes advantage of the province’s balance sheet to maximize provincial investments”. That goobledygook brings us back to provincial accounting rules and debt transformed into DBFM contracts. Would it be churlish of me to point out how often the PCPO has pilloried the Liberals for creative accounting?

This is all explained as a regional benefit through co-ordinated planning, ensuring that Toronto gets long-awaited subways, relieving commute times across the GTA and increasing economic growth while reducing red tape and arbitrary delays. This is pure doctrinaire BS. Commute times might improve, but mainly for riders in certain sections of Toronto and central York Region, not “across the GTA”. We do not suffer from an excess of red tape, but of the lack of will to spend region-wide on transit.

Enter into discussions with the City of Toronto about air rights over future subway stations that it builds. These air rights should be used to increase housing supply, which in turn promotes housing affordability, and increases economic activity. [p. 53]

In the middle of a discussion of new subway lines, this bullet appears. In that text “subway stations that it builds” actually refers to the province even though the text could imply that they are built by the city. This idea appears out of nowhere as if somehow the housing crisis will be solved by building over subway stations. In fact, only one future station, the one at Scarborough Town Centre, is even in the pipeline, and development around it is already planned. If the Tories were serious about this policy, they would turn their attention to existing stations throughout the network, including the GO stations now surrounded by parking lots.

Assume responsibility for the city’s share of the Scarborough Subway Extension, including the more than $200 million cost escalator that the province has refused to fund, provided that the city makes a significant financial investment in extending the Eglinton Crosstown project to Scarborough’s University of Toronto campus. [p. 53]

The eventual cost of the SSE is an unknown quantity today, and if anything is subject to increase beyond mere inflation as detailed design proceeds. It is standard practice for Queen’s Park and Ottawa to cap their contributions at a fixed value for municipal projects, although Ontario is happy to quote its own projects with a base price plus an unspecified allowance for inflation. This allows the province to low-ball its cost estimates by quoting 2020 work in 2010 dollars. Capping contributions is done specifically to avoid scope creep where municipal plans expand by spending “thirty-three cent dollars”. For example, all of the cost overrun on the Vaughan extension has been funded by Toronto and York Region under their cost sharing agreement with no extra money coming from other levels of government.

A provincial commitment to paying the city’s share of the SSE is like writing a blank cheque so that any design problem can be solved just by sending the bill to Uncle Patrick up at the Pink Palace.

As for the LRT line to UTSC, this was originally part of the consolidated “plan” for Scarborough transit, the deal that convinced subway opponents to buy in because the LRT sweetened the pot. All the money, of course, is now dedicated to the subway extension. It is unclear just what the platform means by a “significant contribution” from Toronto, nor where the remainder might come from for this project.

Call on the Federal Government to match the new provincial subway funding commitment. [p. 54]

Yes. Of course. It’s an Ontario program but someone else should help to pay. A nice 50-50 split to spread the load around just as some federal programs like PTIF assume that others will help to pick up the bill. Given that the Tories’ “commitment” is rather small (especially once the SSE takes its share), Ottawa should have little problem matching it. The real problem will be waiting to see whether any of the projects advances far enough to draw on funding from any government.

Make Ontario’s transit systems more customer friendly, starting with free, reliable, consistent WIFI on GO Trains. [p. 54]

The text accompanying this bullet states:

… customer service levels on the GO train lines are not up to par. The government should focus on getting transit built, but it should also focus on making commuting a better experience.

When I read “promises” like this, I have to wonder how they get into platforms, and whether every post-it note from policy conferences simply was swept up from the floor. Without question, there are customer service and friendliness issues at Ontario’s transit systems (plural), but WIFI on GO is hardly the place to begin addressing this. At no point does the platform address any increase in service beyond that already in the GO RER plans, nor is there any “commitment” to improved funding to encourage the buildup of local transit on which all of these new GO services will depend for “last mile” access.

Make Ontario’s transit systems more customer friendly, by harmonizing fares where possible, allowing for online ticket purchases for GO services, and by ensuring all facilities accept the same forms of payment. [p. 54]

More “customer friendliness” including fare “harmonization”, although there is no description of just what this might mean. Online ticket purchases are already possible with Presto, and that system is used in much of the GTHA thanks to the heavy hand of Queen’s Park. “Forms of payment” is a rather broad term that takes us all the way from the simplest of Smart cards up to bank cards and mobile apps. The real issue with “ticketing” is a harmonized back end system that can handle multiple ways a rider might identify themselves and charge rides to their account. This item has the feel of a platform written by someone who rarely uses transit.

Fulfill the existing commitments to complete the environmental assessment for the Southwestern Ontario High Speed Rail project. [p. 54]

That and a few billion will get you a somewhat faster train to London and beyond, but don’t hold your breath. The High Speed Rail project (and a kindred boondoggle, the Hydrogen Train) are great exercises in appearing to be doing something while “committing” to schemes that are either unaffordable or technologically immature. This “commitment” simply avoids the Tories looking like they oppose HSR without actually making any plans to built it.

A much more useful platform, from any party, would be a wider discussion of passenger rail and bus services, and not just in southern Ontario. However, the Tories have written off transit in all but a few markets.

The next section of the platform is entitled “Change that works for Drivers”, and it is a screed against the evils inflicted on motorists by the Wynne government. Oddly, it is less than half the length of the transit section, although clearly the Tories are playing to the idea that too much attention goes to transit riders and projects.

Overall, the PCPO platform share with all such documents a certain lack of editorial rigour having been pieced together from a variety of proposals originating in multiple policy conferences. Some were accepted, some were modified and some were rejected – the result has a stitched-together feel and an assumption that most people will only read the sections they care about. Such is political life. The “money” platform is always key and, as usual, voters will be bribed from their own pocketbooks.

How much of the transit platform will actually be implemented once the complexities and costs become evident? That is quite another question.

Selective History Colours Transit Commentary

In a recent column in the Toronto Sun, Gordon Chong advances the argument that transit developments are too much about politics without enough professional planning.

The politics of transportation, published Saturday March 4, 2017

Up to that point, he and I agree, but our analysis of the situation quickly differs. Chong writes of decisions that were influenced by political considerations. He uses the Wynne flip-flop on support for tolls, and the ongoing question of how much the Scarborough Subway will cost, as jumping-off points, but then lists:

  • Cancellation of the Spadina Expressway by Bill Davis in 1971
  • The TTC/City decision to reverse plans to eliminate streetcars in 1972
  • The current emphasis of reimagining King Street rather then concentrating  on a Queen Street subway

Chong is acerbic, to put it mildly, in his remarks about Davis and the Spadina calling it

One of the most egregious examples of political self-interest and, some would say, spinelessness in transportation planning …

He goes on to say that stopping Spadina was important:

Holding the downtown riding, where the Spadina Expressway was deeply unpopular, with a tough, capable and popular Jewish cabinet minister was important to the Conservatives.

It is amusing to think how readers would react if some other group were the target of Chong’s ire, especially considering the role of the Shiner family in fighting for the expressway. Regardless of how one feels about the issue, it is the planning merits that should be debated.

Citing former Transportation Commissioner Sam Cass, certainly the “black hat” of the expressway battles, Chong argues for “balanced” road and transit networks. Nobody has ever been able to define just what should measure this so-called balance, and cynics among us translate the term as “an expressway for me, transit for everyone else”. Toronto is about to spend $1 billion to maintain that sort of “balance” with the Gardiner East rebuild project.

Chong goes on to talk about how the Spadina would have provided relief from the northwest into downtown instead of the current status, a “virtual parking lot”. He ignores the effect the expressway would have had on the city. Unlike the DVP which was built through an unpopulated area, the Spadina would have torn through established neighbourhoods setting the stage for a Crosstown expressway parallel to the CPR tracks at Dupont, and an eventual extension south to the Gardiner. The renaissance of downtown’s west side could not have happened with an expressway in place.

Relief and the Queen Street subway? Yes, there was another transportation plan on the books in the 1960s, and it was a Queen Subway that would have turned north to Don Mills and Eglinton, what we now call the “Downtown Relief Line”. That didn’t get built either thanks to a shift in attention from the downtown to suburban rapid transit lines.

As for the streetcars:

Another misguided political decision occurred when the Toronto Transit Commission’s Streetcar Elimination Program was stopped in its tracks by an alliance of local citizens and aldermen (now councillors) delaying the sensible transition to subways and buses capable of maneuvering more easily in traffic.

Unfortunately, the streetcar lovers prevailed and motorists are now stuck behind slow moving and frequently disabled streetcars and LRTs in the downtown core.

Chong has been beating this drum for years, and he forgets that the subway to which streetcars might have “transitioned” has never been built. I was part of the group who fought to retain streetcars, and our argument then as now was that the routes streetcars serve require higher capacity that would be difficult to provide with buses. In the early 1970s, the TTC ran almost twice as much service on most streetcar routes as it does today, and the problem with a shortage of vehicles is not a recent one. Ever since the 1990s recession when ridership fell and the TTC was able to cut back on the size of the fleet, there have been almost no improvements in streetcar service. A fleet well beyond its design life limps along attempting to provide service.

Buying more cars is long, long overdue, especially now that the near-downtown areas served by these routes are starting to redevelop. King Street is the most pronounced example, but more residents and potential transit riders are coming to the other routes even though the TTC has no way of providing better service. Bombardier’s glacial delivery rate for new streetcars is only the latest of problems, but the TTC’s inaction on buying more streetcars predates that order.

Keeping the streetcars was not just a matter for the existing network, but for suburban expansion, something that would have been ruinously expensive with subways back in the 70s and 80s, let alone today. But Queen’s Park preferred its high tech trains (now known as the SRT), and the promise of inexpensive suburban expansion evaporated with them.

Suburban transit in Toronto has been badly served by a succession of administrations going back to pre-amalgamation days. In 1990, then Premier David Peterson announced a “network” of rapid transit lines amounting to “a chicken in every pot” planning. This included a Malvern extension of the SRT, a Sheppard Subway from Yonge to STC, a Yonge/Spadina loop subway via Steeles, an Eglinton West subway from the Spadina line out to the Airport, a Bloor subway extension to Sherway, and a Waterfront LRT to southern Etobicoke. The first the TTC heard of this plan was when the Premier announced it.

Peterson lost the election, but the Rae government, looking for make-work projects in the face of a recession, kept the Sheppard and Eglinton projects alive, although the latter didn’t get far, and was killed off by Mike Harris five years later. The only part of the Waterfront line built was the new connection via Spadina and Queen’s Quay into Union Station. (The Spadina streetcar and the Harbourfront connection to Bathurst came later.) The Sheppard line survived the Harris regime only because he needed Mel Lastman’s political support for amalgamation, and that subway was part of the deal.

By 2007, David Miller proposed the Transit City LRT network with the intention of bringing better transit to routes that were not all aimed at downtown Toronto. The lines served the city’s “priority neighbourhoods”, not necessarily locations where civic egos dictated prestige transit lines. That network was sabotaged first by Premier Dalton McGuinty’s cutbacks in transit support, and later by Rob Ford’s visceral hatred of any plan that had Miller’s name on it, not to mention his loathing for streetcars.

LRT (as streetcars on some degree of reserved right-of-way are known) is used in hundreds of cities around the world, and two substantial networks in Calgary and Edmonton are the core of their respective transit system. But none of that matters to the subway boosters in Toronto.

Chong argues for both a Queen subway and a Relief Line, but presents this as an alternative rather than as a complement to the streetcar service on King.

Now, city council is considering a King Street traffic mitigation plan giving priority to streetcars and pedestrians over cars, when it should be looking at Queen Street and how to complete the planned subway along it, linking it with the long-awaited downtown relief line.

They are two completely separate projects, especially considering we are unlikely to see a DRL until the early 2030s at best. Meanwhile, King needs substantially improved transit service with larger streetcars and priority for transit movements over cars.

The Relief Line suffers, as we have repeatedly seen, by its characterization as “Downtown” by those who would exploit suburban feelings of transit inequity. Politicians prefer to play to their voters with inaccuracies and slurs, always implying that “someone else” is getting what their voters deserve.

Finally, Chong puts in a plug for the Sheppard West subway connection.

There are many other examples of short-term thinking and aborted transit plans requiring a 50- to 100-year vision, such as completing the Sheppard subway.

The Sheppard connection from Yonge to Downsview was one of two options before Council, and it was in direct competition with the line to York University. That route, and the possible further extension to Vaughan, had better political connections, and a higher likely demand. The subway ends today at Downsview (soon to be renamed Sheppard West) because that was common to the two possible routes. It was the only extension Council could agree on. But now, integration of a Sheppard service with the Spadina line is impossible due to mixed train lengths and incompatible headways on the routes. At best there would be a transfer between the lines.

Political intervention in transit planning? Certainly, but this goes well beyond the few battles Chong trots out. Transit battles have led to the bizarre combination of paralysis, the inability to actually build, and intense pressure to build specific projects with high political profile, one that has been artificially inflated by populist rhetoric, not by good planning.

Why write an article about an opinion piece in the Sun by a has-been politician? Simple. Gordon Chong is a Tory, and he was both Vice-Chair of the TTC, and Chair of the predecessor agency to Metrolinx. He can be expected to lobby for some position of influence over Toronto’s transit plans if Patrick Brown’s PCs take control at Queen’s Park. His selective view of history is something we can do without.

Toronto and the GTHA have major transit and transportation issues for any government after the 2018 election. Fighting old battles on long-expired pretenses is no way to plan the city.

Creative Writing From the Mayor’s Office

Back in June, an Op Ed from Mayor Tory appeared in the Toronto Star extolling the virtues of the Scarborough Subway. Torontoist, intrigued by how this piece came to be, made an FOI request for correspondence in the Mayor’s office. The result is an article and associated copy of the FOI response.

Tory’s article triggered a response from Michael Warren, a former Chief General Manager of the TTC. I have no brief for Warren himself, but what was intriguing was how the Mayor’s staff reacted with a need to debunk Warren. The following memo from the Mayor’s Chief of Staff is among the FOI materials.

chriseby20160630remichaelwarren

This memo is full of misinformation, but it gives a sense of the mindset in the Mayor’s Office and why so many statements from Tory simply do not align with reality.

… greater use of existing GO rail tracks … six new stations …

The original SmartTrack plan was for a “surface subway” that would carry 200,000 passengers per day using capacity in the GO Transit corridors. However, this plan depends on key factors including good integration with TTC service and much more frequent trains. SmartTrack is now reduced to nothing more than GO’s already planned service stopping at six extra stations. That is not “greater use” of tracks beyond what would have happened with GO’s RER plan. Even the ability to make these stops with little or no penalty in travel time results from GO’s planned electrification, not as part of SmartTrack.

GO Transit has no interest in the work of upgrading signals on their corridors to accommodate the level of passengers implied by that all day count, and hence the network “relief” claimed for SmartTrack cannot possibly materialize without significant new investment.

Tory’s campaign literature talks about a “London-style surface rail subway”. In Toronto, the word “subway” means service that is at worst every 5 minutes, not every 15, and it’s that convenience the campaign expected people to key in on. Some of the timetables for London Overground do feature very frequent service at a level GO’s signal system (let alone Union Station’s platform arrangements and passenger handling) cannot hope to accommodate.

A recent City backgrounder on proposed new stations shows that they will attract some, but not a vast number of new riders. That’s why they were never in GO’s short list of potential stations to begin with.

At these six new stations, trains will come every six to ten minutes in rush hour. That’s better than what candidate Tory promised … every 15 minutes or better. And to be clear, the provincial RER model sees trains coming every 15 minutes.

Actually, the provincial RER model already sees trains coming more often than every 15 minutes during peak periods and the improvements are not confined to the SmartTrack corridors (Stouffville and Kitchener) or to the City of Toronto. Queen’s Park has made no move to bill Toronto for extra service above levels planned for RER, and therefore we must conclude that none is planned.

SmartTrack was always envisioned as a beefed up version of RER; more stations in Toronto, more access for riders, faster frequencies and a TTC fare.

In fact, there is no “beef” in SmartTrack, and its only contribution will be for those who live or work near the six new stations. The service levels are part of GO RER, nothing more. As for a TTC fare, this is far from decided, and the likely cost to Toronto to support such an offer is fraught with problems. There is the obvious question of where the operating dollars will come from, but moreover riders on other GO corridors within the city might reasonably ask why they don’t get the same deal.

Conversely, some of the Metrolinx machinations about “Fare Integration” have suggested that subways might be treated more like GO Transit with a fare by distance model. If that’s what a “TTC fare” for SmartTrack really means, that’s not what Tory was selling in his campaign.

… Warren suggests tax increment financing … has been abandoned. That’s flat out wrong. City staff are preparing to report back … and have already stated it “may be the appropriate revenue tool for funding …”

Warren may have been incorrect that TIF has been abandoned, although it is hard to tell because his original piece “was edited to make clear that John Tory still supports his TIF transit financing scheme” according to a correction notice following the online version of Warren’s article. Whether Tory still supports TIF is of little matter because City staff recently reported that it cannot support the full cost of SmartTrack and additional revenues from other sources will be required.

Warren … talks of the abandoned LRT option, which he says will cost $1.8 billion … The TTC said this week that building the LRT would now cost as much as $3 billion.

The infamous “Briefing Memo” from the TTC about LRT vs Subway costs provides that higher estimate, but this is based on the assumption that the LRT line would be build much later than originally planned. Most of the cost increase is a function of inflation. Also, of course, the LRT option would serve much more of Scarborough than the subway, including the Town Centre planning precinct, a fact Tory’s Chief of Staff conveniently ignores.

As for additional costs, the provincial commitments to various transit plans, including its own, have always included inflation to completion, although undue delay caused by Toronto Council’s inability to make a decision might reasonably considered beyond the level of Queen’s Park’s generosity. All the same, the $3 billion estimate assumed a leisurely LRT project schedule compared to what would have been possible with dedication and leadership.

Under the Mayor’s leadership, Toronto is moving ahead with the most ambitious, and badly needed, transit expansion in its history.

A great deal of the expansion now underway was in the works before John Tory was elected. Indeed, his campaign claimed that SmartTrack was the single project that would solve every problem, and no other transit schemes, notably the Relief Line, need even be considered. Tory has changed his tune on that, but the RL is still treated as something we will need, someday, maybe. There is no leadership on his part in demonstrating how this line would serve suburban riders with additional commuting capacity.

debate … should be guided by fact, not distortions and rhetoric

That comment speaks for itself.

Thoughts On A Liberal Government

This blog has been churning along since January 2006, and for almost all of that time, Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have been running Canada. The idea that Ottawa would have a significant role in transit beyond the occasional showcase project simply was not part of the landscape.

Now, to everyone’s amazement, we have a Liberal majority government, one whose campaign platform includes a very substantial presence in infrastructure spending including the public transit portfolio.

We will get our communities moving again, by giving our provinces, territories, and municipalities the long-term, predictable federal funding they need to make transit plans a reality.

Over the next decade, we will quadruple federal investment in public transit, investing almost $20 billion more in transit infrastructure. [Liberal platform p 12]

That is a lot of new spending, but is has to stretch over the entire country and the next ten years. Advocates of many schemes will project their enthusiasm onto that pot of money saying “Look! We have funding”, but it’s not that simple.

It is instructive to look at how funding is divided up today. The federal gas tax allocations for 2014-15 totalled $2-billion of which $750-million went to Ontario, and of that about 20%, $150-million, to the City of Toronto for transit capital spending. On a proportionate basis, this would yield only $1.5-billion “more” funding over the next decade. This has to be read in the context of targeted funding for specific projects such as the Spadina subway extension that lies outside of the gas tax stream. If all of the new Liberal funding comes from that $20b pot, the actual change, all things considered, may not be as generous as expected.

Other funding lines in the Liberal platform focus on housing and non-transit infrastructure. These are not to be ignored especially to the extent that they relieve municipal governments of spending where they have carried a substantial share of the programs. However, if total spending goes up, Toronto may be forced to bump its investment level in transit and other portfolios because “we don’t have a funding partner” will no longer be a convenient excuse for inaction.

Whatever money does appear on the table, it will not be enough to build every single pet project, and Toronto cannot evade hard decisions about priorities claiming that the Feds will shell out for everything. There is also the delicate question of how much new matching funding will arrive from Queen’s Park Liberals who do not share the deficit spending plans espoused by their federal cousins.

Capital projects, especially on the scale of transit infrastructure, require a long view. Projects may be “shovel ready” in some cities, although Toronto has little in that status thanks to years of dithering and backtracking on transit priorities. Major proposals would do well to reach significant construction spending within the current federal mandate or even well into whatever follows. Toronto may build a bus garage here or renovate a subway station there in the short-to-medium term, but the big projects are years away.

This brings us to the rationale for new spending. If the idea is to stimulate the economy and create employment in the short term, a clear focus of Conservative programs, then long term project funding is doomed. Conversely, if the aim is to invest in the future of Toronto, the GTHA and cities in general, a longer view is possible at the expense of big, immediately visible results and ribbon cutting.

Inevitably, the conflict will be between one shot announcements and “long-term predictable funding”. These address very different political goals and produce very different outcomes. Without a shift away from unpredictable ad hoc decisions (the Scarborough Subway and SmartTrack promises are two examples), local pols will continue to jockey for yet more isolated planning to suit quick political ends, rather than looking at broad-scale goals and benefits. Long-term funding only works with long-term planning.

Absent from any federal platforms was new federal money for transit operating costs. These will grow through the combined pressures of inflation, population growth, shifts from auto to transit and eventually the need to operate all of the new buses, LRVs and subway trains that might arrive thanks to higher capital spending. Operating subsidies, service quality and fare strategies will challenge municipal budgets, and the long-standing question of provincial funding, of getting back to the “Davis formula”, cannot be ignored.

There is a new government, a new outlook on national priorities, and the debate on our transit future begins today. We all want more transit, but nothing is free, and even the “new” money has its limitations. Let us spend it wisely.

New Fares and Service Improvements Coming to the TTC (Updated)

On January 19, 2015, Mayor John Tory, TTC Chair Josh Colle and TTC CEO Andy Byford held a press conference to announce major changes for TTC riders in 2015.

  • Adult fares will rise by 10 cents (from $2.70 to $2.80, or 3.7%) with proportionate increases for passes, senior and student fares.
    • Children under 12 will ride free (the current fare is $0.75 cash or a ticket for $0.60).
    • The cash fare will remain at $3.00.
  • All day, every day services that were cut in 2011 will be restored.
  • A network of key bus and streetcar routes will have 10 minute service except overnight (after 1:00 am).
  • Crowding and wait times off peak will be reduced by modifying the loading standards.
  • Proof-of-payment and all-door loading will be extended throughout the streetcar network.
  • Twelve new Blue Night routes will be added to the 22 now in operation.
  • Fifty new buses will be acquired for service improvements.
    • Crowding and wait times during the peak periods for 21 busy routes will be improved.
    • Four new express bus routes will be added.
    • The pool of buses available for maintenance will be increased.
    • Temporary storage will be obtained to house the buses pending new garage construction.
  • Trains on the YUS and BD subways that are now held on standby for emergencies will be scheduled into the regular service.
  • Route management will be improved for streetcar routes to provide more reliable service and better utilize the capacity of vehicles in service.
  • The reliability of signals, track and communication systems will be improved with more resources for maintenance.

Updated Jan. 19, 2015 at 4:00 pm: One sour note in the announcement is the fact that the Metropass multiple will go up from 49 to 50 giving a new price of $141.50 vs the existing $133.75, an increase of 5.8%. In the midst of an otherwise upbeat, positive set of recommendations, it was a poor choice not to mention that frequent users would pay a higher increase for TTC fares. This continues TTC management’s desire to bump the pass pricing up on the basis that frequent users are getting too high a subsidy. If that’s the official position of the Mayor and TTC Chair, they should have said so in the press release.

FareIncrease2015

Much of this program arose from the August 2014 “Opportunities” report from TTC management.

At the time, then-candidate Tory argued against these proposals on the grounds that they were unfunded, and behind the scenes, the Tory camp complained that the TTC was supporting another candidate’s platform. To his credit, now-Mayor Tory recognizes the importance of better transit service that can be delivered in the short term, and he has embraced advice from Andy Byford wholeheartedly. Among the lessons he learned was that TTC’s off-peak ridership is higher and growing faster then peak demand, and that investments in off-peak service will benefit a very large number of riders throughout the city. This is an important change from a focus just on peak period, core-oriented capacity.

Tory has reluctantly dropped his proposed fare freeze saying that Toronto cannot do this and get on with improving transit. He now argues that fares will go up a bit more, but that riders will get a lot more service.

During the press conference, the Mayor made pointed, repeated references to “my predecessor” and “the previous administration” saying that the policy of service cuts and subsidy freezes was wrong. One can be gleeful seeing the Ford era openly criticized by the new Mayor, but that’s not the important point. Simply by making the statement, Tory puts allies inherited from the ancien régime on notice. Better TTC funding is not simply a predictable request from the usual activists and left-wing Councillors, but part of the Mayor’s program.

The financial proposal is that the TTC’s budgeted subsidy from Toronto will rise from $440.1-million in 2014 to nearly $479m in 2015. The fare increase plus added ridership (projected at 545m in 2015, up 10m from 2014) will bring in $43m more, net of the elimination of children’s fares ($7m). (The subsidy includes approximately $90m in provincial gas tax revenue which is paid to the City. This amount has not changed in many years.)

Further details will be revealed in the City Budget Launch on January 20, and at the TTC Board’s own budget meeting on February 2. Implementation of this plan is contingent on Council approval, although the new fares (which can be approved by the TTC itself) will take effect March 1. Service changes require lead time for planning, staffing, and in the case of the new buses, acquisition of vehicles and a storage yard. In practice, the changes will likely roll out beginning later this spring with the majority of service improvements coming in September or later. This will also limit the cost of new services to a smaller part of the year, although full-year costs will have to be absorbed in 2016.

The maps in the Opportunties report (linked above) show the range of routes that will likely be affected by the various proposals. I checked with TTC officials at the press conference, and although there may be minor changes, these maps give substantially a good idea of where the improvements will be.

Of the many opportunities proposed in August, the one which is notable by its absence is the two-hour fare. There is only so much money to spend on a new fare structure, and rebuilding service takes priority this year. However, the need for a simpler “transfer” mechanism on the TTC will be forced by the Presto implementation which Andy Byford is pressing Metrolinx to complete by the end of 2016. This will more-or-less force the question as part of next year’s budget planning.

During the scrum, the inevitable question to Mayor Tory was “how will you pay for all of this”. Tory demurred saying all would be revealed at the Budget Launch. An important point, however, is that he plans to keep tax increases to inflation, but the Scarborough Subway tax will be outside of that “inflationary” envelope.

This is a very good start for the Tory/Colle era of TTC policy-making. Rather than cherry-picking a handful of improvements that might benefit only a small segment of Toronto, they have opted for a variety of changes addressing many submarkets within the TTC’s ridership. If this continues in future years, by the time the TTC and Metrolinx open new rapid transit lines, Toronto will have a much improved surface network linking riders to new and improved trunk routes.

Why I Voted For Olivia

On the first day of the Advance Poll, I was down at City Hall queued up to cast my vote, and it went to Olivia Chow.

Why Olivia? Just for starters, she is the only candidate talking about the quality of transit service, not simply pie-in-the-sky plans for rapid transit lines we might build some day, if only a whole army of Tooth Fairies descends on Nathan Phillips Square.

Full disclosure: I was asked to advise about better bus service back at the start of the campaign, but what I advocated and what wound up in the platform were quite different. Chow’s platform was rightly criticized as being inadequate to the problem, and this was compounded when the TTC started shooting holes in her proposals. I can just imagine how a Tory or a Ford would have reacted to a city agency undermining their campaigns, but Chow just soldiered on and even bought a chunk of the TTC’s position.

Olivia Chow believes in LRT lines even in the teeth of a brigade of Scarborough politicians who convinced their voters that only subways are good enough, and not just for Scarborough but for all of Toronto. I agree with Olivia, and fully expect that one or two election cycles from now, people will be wondering where all those promised transit improvements are.

Riders will still be out in the cold waiting for a bus that never shows up or a jammed streetcar because a Tory or Ford mayoralty means more of the starvation diet for the TTC, more cutbacks in the name of watching taxpayer dollars. Earth to Mayor’s Office: transit riders pay taxes too, and we also pay a good chunk of the cost to run the TTC.

Olivia Chow also believes in subways, where they are justified, notably on a Relief Line, whatever pseudonym we use to disguise construction south of Bloor Street from the jealous suburbs. Indeed that whole suburbs vs downtown fight is a political creation brewed up not to benefit the city, but to pit factions against each other with the eventual result that nothing gets done.

Olivia isn’t just about transit, although that’s one big plank in her platform. I’m not going to walk through every portfolio here, but the common thread is that Olivia cares about the city, about all of the people who live here, and about making Toronto better for everyone.

The advocates of strategic voting caution that I am wasting my vote, that a true blue anti-Ford vote has to go to John Tory. There are several reasons I won’t go down that path.

First off, lest anyone think I am soft on the Fords, I believe that they are a blight on Toronto that must be expunged. Yes, people voted for Rob and they will vote for Doug, in many cases because they don’t see anything better on the ballot. They’re entitled to their view.

Toronto does not need four more years of a pitched battle among Council factions and the Mayor’s Office. It won’t be smiles all around, but we certainly should not be facing rampant incompetence and bullying in our city leadership, let alone the need for Council to seize control of the Mayor’s powers.

Second, John Tory can be a nice guy, friendly, he chats with lots of people, but he can also be maddeningly thick on basic issues. His classic radio interview starts with a long, error-filled polemic which the hapless guest spends valuable time trying to correct.

On the transit file, he has one answer, SmartTrack, that will solve everything. It doesn’t matter where you live, or what your travel plans might be, SmartTrack is the ticket. Heck, it might even be a solution to world peace. In fact, most of SmartTrack is cribbed from the Metrolinx “RER” plan, and the one significant add-on is a poorly considered, unbuildable fantasy on Eglinton West. For funding, see “Tooth Fairy” above. What has become clear as the campaign wore on is that Tory’s “experts” more or less made up the plan on the back of an envelope, notwithstanding their glossy literature. They don’t have the detailed answers anyone with an $8-billion plan should be more than willing to provide.

Tory’s standard response to criticism is that this is just naysaying, a preference to carp and obstruct rather than believing in Toronto’s future. Well, John, wrapping yourself in the flag is an old trick, but it’s a poor response especially to people like me who want to improve transit plans generally regardless of who is Mayor. If you assume that you are right and everyone else is not just wrong, but can be ignored as disloyal to the cause, well, that’s no way to build a collegial environment at City Hall.

I do not play golf, other than mini-golf in my now-distant youth. It did not qualify as a career-advancing move.

I am a strong supporter of the arts both as an essential part of the city, an industry deserving of support in its own right, and for the benefits arts can bring not just to the big-ticket “high culture” companies, but to neighbourhoods across the city. Even in his arts platform, Tory drags in SmartTrack claiming that resentment for arts spending downtown is caused by the fact people can’t get there as consumers. He is silent on whether SmartTrack will provide better access to golf courses so that the deprived among us can build better business networks.

Tory may talk a good line about communication and co-operation across the political aisle, so to speak, but the ability to compromise or to even consider alternatives during the election is notably absent. If we have a Tory administration, I hope it’s not just Rob Ford policies with Rosedale manners. We need a mayor who really will work with Council, not dictate an agenda that brooks no dissent, criticism, or improvement.

John Tory will probably be Mayor, but I am convinced he has more than enough votes to defeat Doug Ford without my help.

Olivia Chow should have as strong a showing as possible. There’s an outside chance she could win, but placing second would show Toronto that Ford isn’t even good enough to be second choice. She is my candidate, my first choice for Mayor.

SmartTrack: That Pesky Curve in Mount Dennis (Updated)

Updated October 17, 2014 at 4:15pm:  Information from Metrolinx about the revised design for the Air Rail Link spur line from the Weston subdivision to Pearson Airport has been added.

John Tory’s SmartTrack proposal has been roundly criticized by various people, including me, on a number of counts. When one looks at the scheme, it is the technical issues — the degree to which SmartTrack will crowd out the Metrolinx RER scheme (or simply take over its function), the question of capacity at Union Station, the route along Eglinton from the Weston rail corridor to the airport. But the biggest challenge is the link from the rail corridor to Eglinton itself.

Let’s get one issue out of the way up front. Writing in the Star on October 6, Eric Miller states:

And it’s interesting to note that very little criticism deals with the basic merit of the proposal as an addition to Toronto’s transit network. The design logic to address major commuting problems is self-evident; analysis to date indicates high ridership and cost-recovery potential that is expected to be confirmed by more detailed post-election studies; and it is modelled on successful international best practice.

Criticisms have, instead, focused on the line’s “constructability” where it meets Eglinton Avenue W. and on Tory’s proposed financing scheme. As already briefly discussed, however, the constructability issue is truly a tempest in a teapot. And with respect to financing I would suggest that all three mayoral candidates and most of the popular press still have this wrong.

In fact, constructability and the technical issues are precisely what could sink this proposal. Dismissing this as a “tempest in a teapot” is a neat dodge, but it is the academic equivalent of “you’re wrong because I say so”. Many who support Tory’s campaign see criticism of SmartTrack as the work of naysayers who, like so many before us, doom Toronto to inaction.

This is tantamount to saying we cannot criticize the plan because doing so is disloyal to the city’s future. Never mind whether the plan is valid, just don’t criticize it.

Miller’s comments in his op-ed piece (linked above) also don’t line up with statements in the “Four Experts” article of October 9 where he and others talk about what SmartTrack might do. Miller is much less in agreement that SmartTrack could achieve what is claimed for it. Should we dismiss his comments as being irrelevant or counterproductive? Of course not.

This article deals with the challenge of getting from the rail corridor to a point under Eglinton Avenue West at Jane Street, the first stop on the journey west to the airport. To put all of this in context, it is vital to look at the details of both the Eglinton Crosstown LRT (including amendments) and at the Metrolinx Georgetown South project in the rail corridor.

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Olivia Chow’s Lost Momentum on Transit

That I would prefer Olivia Chow, of the three major candidates, win the Toronto mayoralty is no secret. All the more disappointing that her campaign has aimed low playing to the “no new taxes” mentality of the Ford years rather than showing ambition for what the city could have if only someone had the leadership to actually pay for it.

My comments, as with those on the Tory and Ford programs, are on the Torontoist site.

Updated October 12, 2014 at 2:00 pm:

The Chow campaign objected to an original remark I had made:

… missing from her proposal is the substantial capital funding needed for stopgap repairs to old buses, and to permanently increase capacity by purchasing additional vehicles and adding more garage space. Moreover, Chow’s plan is silent on the streetcar network, where service has not improved much in 20 years.

Details of a capital funding plan were included in an early September announcement about a proposed bump in the Land Transfer Tax. Unfortunately, Chow took the TTC’s August proposals for service improvements uncritically and simply plunked down $184-million that would purchase:

  • The missing half of the funding for McNicoll Garage ($100m).
  • 10 additional streetcars (part of the proposed 60-car add on, $60m).
  • 40 additional buses ($24m).

Most of this money would not in fact allow Chow to provide the service improvements she proposed, but would simply backfill holes in the TTC’s long-range capital plans. 40 buses won’t go very far especially with a peak service of over 1,500, and with a delivery date out  in 2018.

The most disappointing part of this? Chow could have demanded that the TTC be more responsive and show what it could do. It’s hard to imagine a mayor Tory or Ford putting up with a shrug and “we can’t do it” as an answer from staff, especially when alternatives should be on the table at least for discussion.