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.

How Can the TTC Run More Service?

In a previous article, I wrote about the crisis in system capacity across all modes – buses, streetcars and subways – and the danger that Toronto may face years without meaningful improvement in transit capacity.

This is a campaign issue, but one that is embraced only by one major candidate, Olivia Chow, and even then, not very well.

Full disclosure: Early in the campaign, I was approached by the Chow team to advise on what became her better bus service plank, but I certainly didn’t write it for reasons that will soon be obvious.

Her transit plan includes support for LRT lines, GO electrification and the first stage of a Downtown Relief subway line. It also includes this commitment regarding bus service:

A better transit plan starts investing now, with buses. Because 60% of TTC rides involve a bus and as the TTC says, the only way to expand transit now is with buses. So Olivia will invest to boost bus service right away, investing $15 million a year.

When we stack a paltry $15m up against the billions in rapid transit plans, it looks rather puny and gives the impression we are trying to get more service on the cheap. How can small change by transit budget standards stack up against the massive spending schemes of rapid transit networks?

Where did the number come from? Back when the Ford/Stintz crew started to dismantle the Miller-era service standards, the anticipated saving was only about $14m/year. However, reversing the cuts is not quite as simple.

When you cut transit service, you can reduce costs simply by letting old buses wear out and not replacing them, by reducing the operator workforce through attrition, and by cutting plans for a new bus garage (needed for a bigger fleet) out of the capital budget. That’s precisely what happened.

To undo the damage, we need more buses, more garage space and more operators. Some, but by no means all, of the cost will come out of the $15m, but there is much more involved.

McNicoll Garage has a pricetag of $181-million (of which only about $80m has been funded as of 2014), and it is required simply to handle growth in the bus fleet with no provision for better service standards. Yet another garage will be required to support better service, although in the short term one garage will do for both purposes. Also, by 2020, some bus services will have been replaced by rapid transit lines, but we don’t really know how much because the future of various schemes is uncertain.

(Some of the chaos in fleet planning dates from the cancellation of Transit City, and still more from shortsighted cutbacks of the last few years.)

New buses cost about $700k apiece. With current peak service at around 1,500 buses (not including those used for construction service), a 10% bump in fleet capacity means 150 new vehicles at a cost of $105-million.

At the very least, in the next few years, the TTC would face the following capital costs over and above what is already committed:

  • $100m to fully fund McNicoll Garage
  • $105m to purchase 150 buses

Moreover, the McNicoll project must be accelerated for completion before 2019, the current schedule. The idea that Toronto would see no additional peak service for five years is a disgusting testament to the ill-informed folly of the Ford/Stintz era.

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John Tory’s “SmartTrack”: Will That Train Ever Leave The Station?

Late in May, John Tory launched his “SmartTrack” transit line, the centrepiece of his “One Toronto” plan. Media reps gathered for a preview at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and the launch was handled almost entirely by Tory’s staff. All of the background papers are on the One Toronto website, and little has been added since that event.

Even then, in the early days of the campaign, there was good reason to distrust Tory’s grasp of his own proposal, let alone a willingness to engage in debate, when he made the briefest of appearances for a canned statement to give the media clips for the news broadcasts, but answered few questions.

I was modestly impressed that at least a Mayoral candidate was not just thinking at the ward level for a transit proposal, but felt the plan was rather threadbare — a single line to solve almost all of Toronto’s problems.

Wearing two hats that day – as both reporter and activist – I was scrummed by the media for comments, and the Tory campaign chose to lift one phrase out of context as an “endorsement” for SmartTrack that remains online.

Steve Munro, Toronto Transit Blogger, said, “This is very much a refocusing of what transit in Toronto should be.”

What I was talking about was the need to look at the region and at trips to points other than the corner of Bay & Front and times other than the traditional commuter peaks. As to the specifics of SmartTrack, I was rather less complimentary.

In brief, SmartTrack would see electric multiple unit (EMU) trains operating primarily on GO Transit corridors between Unionville on the Stouffville line and Mount Dennis on the Weston corridor (the Kitchener-Waterloo line). At Eglinton and Weston, the line would veer west along the former Richview Expressway lands to the Airport Corporate Centre, but not to the airport itself.

The route would charge regular TTC fares with free transfers to the existing system, and with frequent all-day service at peak levels of every 15 minutes. Over its 53km it would have 22 stations, and might, according to the campaign, carry over 200,000 passengers per day.

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RER, UP(X), (D)RL, SmartTrack, W(W/E)LRT: The Frustration of Competing Plans

Updated Sept. 9, 2014 at 12:50 pm: NOW Magazine has published an article by Rob Salerno detailing the problems with the right-of-way on Eglinton West that John Tory’s SmartTrack plan assumes is available, as well as questions about the need for both a frequent service on the Stouffville GO corridor and the Scarborough Subway.

Toronto is beset by a love of drawing lines on maps. We have stacks of rapid transit studies going back to the horsecar era. We have competing views of regional and local transit. We have the pandering “I have a solution for YOU” approach tailored to whichever ballot box needs stuffing. Almost none of this gets built.

Fantasy maps abound. The difference between the scribblings of amateur transit geeks and professional/political proposals can be hard to find.

Common to both is the sense that “my plan” is not just better, it is the only plan any right-thinking person would embrace. Egos, both personal and governmental, are literally on the line. Once pen meets paper ideas acquire a permanence and commitment that are almost indelible.

If transit networks were cheap to build and operate relative to the resources we choose to spend on them, transit would be everywhere and blogs like this would be reduced to debating the colour scheme for this week’s newly-opened station. Transit is not cheap, and the debates turn on far more complex issues than which shade of red or green is appropriate for our two major networks.

Another election with competing views of what is best for Toronto brings a crop of proposals. I hesitate to say “a fresh crop” as some schemes are long past their sell-by dates. Candidates may strive to bring something new to the discussion, but these attempts can discard good ideas simply to appear innovative. Perish the thought that we might embrace something already on the table when we can wave a magic wand and – Presto! – the solution to every problem appears in a puff of smoke, a well-timed entrance and an overblown YouTube video.

Moving people with transit is not simply one problem with one solution. Nobody pretends that a single expressway could cure all the ails of Toronto and the region beyond. A single highway – say, a “401” in a Toronto that had only recently paved Sheppard Avenue – would be recognized for its limitations. But once a plan is committed to paper – even the dreaded coffee-stained napkin, let alone election literature –  resistance is futile. At least until the next election.

This article reviews several dreams for new and upgraded transit, and tries to make sense out of what all these lines might achieve.

As I was reading through all of this, I felt that some of my critique will sound rather harsh, and inevitably I would be challenged with “so what would you do”. If you want to see my answer, jump to the end of the article, remembering that my scheme is not a definitive one.

Although some of my comments touch on proposals of various Mayoral candidates, I will leave a detailed review of those for a separate article. A good regional plan is more important than any one campaign, and the debate on what we should build should not be dictated by this week’s pet project, whatever it might be.

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The National Post Discovers “Streetcarnage” (Updated)

The National Post has two articles about the utter frustration of streetcar riders with what passes for service on the TTC:

Readers erupt with tales of anguish about riding TTC streetcars

Overcrowded streetcars, uninterested drivers part of the rolling horror show on Queen

Updated July 17, 2014 12:30 am: The National Post has published two additional articles. My comments are added at the end of this article.

Fare evasion and aging fleet large part of streetcar problem, TTC says

A TTC streetcar driver’s view on the Queen line chaos

These articles focus on the streetcar as a problem, but this is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise at the TTC: the refusal to acknowledge and publicly report on the crisis in the amount and quality of service actually provided on the street. This affects the entire surface system, not just the streetcars, but because there are so many more people trying to ride the streetcar lines, the effect is more concentrated. On top of everything else, the entire city is suffering through a huge number of concurrent construction projects.

For years, no, it’s now decades, the TTC has a stock response to complaints about streetcar service: we have no spare streetcars, and in any event they get stuck in traffic so we can’t do anything. For off-peak service, that excuse is pure crap because the number of vehicles is not the problem, only the will to staff at a sufficient level to actually operate them. Vehicle reliability has been falling over the years, and the ever-receding arrival date for new vehicles leaves Toronto facing two or more winters with most of the service provided by an aging fleet. It is unclear whether the TTC has stopped properly maintaining the fleet it has on the assumption that the worst of the cars will be retired soon, but the non-delivery of new cars will make a hash of any fleet plan now in place. The TTC has still not published an updated rollout plan for new cars (not to mention improved service) that reflects the reality of vehicle deliveries and availability.

On the bus fleet, things are not much better. Thanks to the combined efforts of Queen’s Park, Rob Ford, Karen Stintz and their cohorts, the bus fleet plan is in chaos. The first problem lies at Queen’s Park with the arbitrary changes to implementation dates for the LRT lines that would have replaced busy bus routes and reduced total requirements. Next up are the Ford/Stintz transit gong show with cutbacks to service standards and expansion plans for the fleet and garage space. Current TTC plans indicate there will be no relief for crowded bus passengers until — wait for it — 2019. Heads should roll for such outrageous “planning”, but instead we get platitudes about making more out of limited resources. That line may have played well to the neo-cons (or simply tight-ass tax cutters) now in office, but it was an irresponsible commitment to suggest that efficiencies could make up for inadequate funding especially with riding growth at 2-3% every year.

If there is an “efficiency problem”, it lies with line management and customer service. The problem of maintaining reliable headways (spaces between vehicles) stems from a foul brew of bad scheduling (inadequate time for some vehicles to complete their trips), operators who drive only vaguely on time and often close to the vehicle in front (a minority, but enough to cause problems), a laissez-faire attitude to traffic problems and transit priority by the city’s political elite, and an overriding emphasis on keeping operators close to their schedules to avoid punitive overtime costs.

Customer service falls apart with operators who, frustrated with an intolerable environment, either choose to “see no evil” when passengers misbehave, or to take out their anger on passengers who are just as ticked off with the TTC as the staff are. The TTC’s own performance measures aim for only two-thirds of surface service to be within three minutes of schedule, a target that is routinely broken on many, many routes. For years, the TTC has patted itself on the back for “hitting its target” when that target guarantees riders will encounter problems with their trips on a daily basis. (On the subway, the target is so ludicrously constructed that half of the peak service could be missing, but they would still hit 100%.)

And, as the Post notes, there is the ongoing “left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing” problem of keeping passengers accurately informed about service changes. Multiple notices, confusing notices, contradictory notices, are far too common.

Budget planning has to be mentioned too. On one hand, the service budget (planned number of vehicle/operator hours per year) allowed for modest growth overall. However, the amount of construction and resulting delay/diversion effects has chewed up so much unplanned-for time that service improvements are on hold until, probably, mid-October. When City Council says “you’re only getting X dollars of subsidy, make do”, the real effect on what people experience is neither explained nor understood.

Meanwhile, we have a former TTC Chair, Karen Stintz, more interested in blowing a so-called “surplus” from 2013 on a fare freeze in 2015 rather than addressing the real problem, the amount of service actually on the street. Fortunately, City Council spiked that ridiculous scheme, but the problem of TTC funding remains for the 2015 Council to sort out. Do we have tax revenue to support TTC operations? No, but we can levy a special tax to pay for the Scarborough subway. Such are Toronto’s priorities.

Do we have discussions about strategic planning and options for future budgets at the TTC? No. As we learned recently from a motion by one member, strategy is something the TTC Board doesn’t bother itself with. An attempt by now-Chair Maria Augimeri to bring forward a discussion on service options was spiked by the board’s Stintz faction lest it provide support for Olivia Chow’s campaign to improve bus service. When you freeze in the cold this winter, remember the faded blooms of the Stintz campaign.

Some folks, notably our Mayor, will delight in people slagging the streetcar system when the real problem lies with transit generally, not just the mode serving the densest part of the surface network. Toronto has big problems, but we prefer to talk about wasted spending as an excuse to make cuts to vital services, all in the name of “the taxpayer”. We prefer to use transit as a political soapbox, a way to show we care about people with fare freezes and future subway lines while we refuse to pay enough to operate the system we have today.

Carnage? Yes, but there is far more to this battle than atrocious service on the Queen car.

Update July 17, 2014:

In an astounding admission, the TTC has all but confirmed that although there are supposed to be fare inspectors working the Queen line which runs on a proof-of-payment (POP) basis. in fact these employees are responsible for security system wide and are rarely on Queen.

This is confirmed by comments from an anonymous operator working the route who hasn’t seen a fare inspection in ten years.

From my own experience, I vaguely remember a check well over a decade ago.

How many times has the TTC blamed its frequent riders who use passes for the drop in average fares when they don’t even bother to police their own POP route?

John Lorinc and the Sad Story of Scarborough Transit

For those who may not follow their site, Spacing Toronto has an excellent series by John Lorinc about the machinations at City Hall and Queen’s Park behind the many changes in transit plans for Scarborough.

Reading through this, and in particular the double-dealing at Queen’s Park, not to mention self-serving moves by some city councillors, it is impossible to have any faith in plans or grand statements about the future of our transit system. Even worse, any thought of transparency is a fiction, and transit planning is a secret, political exercise utterly devoid of credibility.

This is not news to those of us who watch the process close up, but seeing the gory details on Scarborough brings a stench of opportunistic grandstanding to every other transit scheme on the table. Does anyone actually care about transit riders, or are we just buying votes with billion dollar promises?

Plans by Murray and Tory: Steve Visits Goldhawk

On June 2, 2014, I appeared on Dale Goldhawk’s radio show talking about both the Murray High Speed Rail plan and the Tory “SmartTrack” scheme. A podcast of the show is available on Goldhawk’s site (running time about 34 minutes).

Even with half an hour, we couldn’t talk about everything including those pesky details that make superficially attractive projects run aground.

SteveMunro-600x339

[Photo by Zoomer Radio]

What Should We Do With $47-million?

In a breathtaking display of political opportunism, mayoral candidate (and former TTC Chair) Karen Stintz attempted to highjack an unexpected “surplus” from 2013 transit operations to pay for a fare freeze in 2015. This move was not derailed, but at least shunted into a siding by an alternative proposal from the current Chair Maria Augimeri. How did we get from a TTC that is desperate to make ends meet to one that can glibly talk about avoiding a fare increase, conveniently in the run-up to an election?

The May 28 TTC meeting agenda included the audited financial statements for 2013 and a report on the unexpected drop in the subsidy requirement for last year’s operations.

The subsidy requirement was much lower than the budget projection because of one-time changes that benefited the TTC:

  • liabilities for Workplace Safety & Insurance Benefits and the Long Term Disability plan were reduced by $6.3-million;
  • various expenses including depreciation, allocation of costs between the operating and capital budgets, accident claims payouts and retroactive pay were below budget by about $18m;
  • variations in non-labour costs netted out to a saving of $16m relative to budget.

Add in the previously reported $7.3m surplus, and collectively, the subsidy needed by the conventional TTC system was $46m below budget, and Wheel Trans was down $1.7m.

Council’s policy dictates that when the TTC has a “surplus” (i.e. the subsidy requirement comes in lower than expected), the money stays with the city and is allocated mainly to capital accounts, including the large backlog of funding needed for TTC’s 10-year capital program. For 2013, the city’s current plans are to allocate any surplus:

  • 75% to the shortfall in TTC capital funding, and
  • 25% to fund TTC post-retirement benefits and and accident claims long-term liabilities.

(Although the TTC budgets for long-term liabilities in the year they are incurred, the city does not pay out the money through subsidies until the money is actually needed by the TTC. This keeps the working capital in city hands, and the future payouts are funded, if possible, from “found money” like the TTC “surplus” rather than from current revenues. From the TTC’s point of view, they are an “account receivable”.)

Stintz proposed that the TTC ask Council to approve that the money would stay in TTC hands and be used to avoid a fare increase in 2015. Riders have put up with a lot with service problems, and they deserve a reward, indeed they should get some of “their” money back, she argued.

Not only is this an unvarnished election ploy, but it runs directly contrary to positions Stintz has taken at the TTC and at Council.

  • The money is a “one time” windfall from better-than-expected conditions, and there is no guarantee that the TTC will perform similarly in 2014 and beyond. Indeed they are already short thanks to lower ridership and the brutal winter just past.
  • In both public and private sector finance the unfunded liabilities for future unavoidable costs such as pensions, benefits, and accident claims are a serious problem, and it is city policy to reduce its exposure to them.
  • Council debates over budgets repeatedly focus on the difference between “sustainable” and “unsustainable” funding practices. If City revenue is up, and this can reasonably be expected to continue in future years, then this is “sustainable”. The same is true for expense reductions that are permanent, not one-time blips. As part of “team Ford”, Stintz was quite insistent on the need for the City to avoid “unsustainable” funding strategies.
  • Stintz herself pushed and defended cuts to service quality both in hours of service and in crowding standards. These changes also led to the removal of a 150-bus order and the deferal of a new garage project in the Capital Budget. All of this was “for the greater good” of the transit system according to Stintz. Now, rather than improving service, she would rather hobble TTC’s revenue stream with a fare freeze.
  • Chair Augimeri attempted to get a motion through the TTC Board in April 2014 asking staff to report on service improvements to the June meeting with a view to including these proposals in the 2015 budget process. This motion was sidetracked by the Stintz faction on the Board who viewed it as an attempt to support her rival Olivia Chow. Staff will still do the work, but the due date is now conveniently beyond the election. Suddenly, with $47m in her pocket, Stintz wants a fare freeze.

During the debate, the question of creating a stabilization fund came up — “profits” from one year would go into a reserve to offset “losses” in another. This is a bit of accounting trickery because, of course, there is no “profit”, only a reduced subsidy requirement.

Nobody at the meeting, including the TTC’s own finance management, bothered to mention that such a fund already exists. It is listed in Note 17 to the financial statements on page 37 (page 41 of the PDF), and the account held $24.666m at yearend 2013. Oddly enough, during the 2014 budget debates, nobody talked about using this to lower fares or improve service for the obvious reason that the reserve is intended to deal with one-time events, and cannot provide “sustainable” funding for anything.

One member of the Board, Al Heisey, asked why there has been no debate on priorities for any spending of this type with a view either to service improvements or capital projects such as buying buses. This is part of a more general malaise at the TTC where broad policy objectives are not discussed by the Board. This is quite a change from the days of Chair Giambrone whose activist term routinely spawned many policy discussion through requests to staff for discussion papers that came to the public TTC agenda.

It is ironic that the city policy (keeping back any “surplus” from the TTC) arose in part due to Giambrone’s activism. If the money stayed in the TTC’s hands, it could be used to launch new programs without an explicit Council authorization. There was no guarantee against one-time “surplus” money funding a change that would require long-term subsidy funding in future years by Council. Stintz was trying to pull off precisely the type of funding trickery that Council spiked when it stopped putting TTC surpluses in the stabilization reserve.

In the end, the Board moved to ask the city to treat its budgets on a five-year basis so that a surplus from one year could be carried over and used to fund shortfalls the next. Whether the $47m will actually limit a fare increase, or even stay with the TTC, will be a decision for the new Council, one that, if polls are to be believed, will certainly not include Karen Stintz.