Posts Tagged: transit city

Jan 12

Council Scorecard: Did council ever vote on Transit City? Yes, at least seven times

Retro Council Scorecard: Transit City

A retro City Council Scorecard: occasions where the 2006-2010 council voted on Transit City. Click for bigger.

On Twitter Sunday night, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong charmingly asked if it’s “a good time to mention that Transit City was never brought before Council for approval?”

He posed his smug question, I guess, because of this news story, as reported by the Toronto Star’s Tess Kalinowski:

A report by a respected Toronto law firm says Mayor Rob Ford exceeded his legal authority when he cancelled Transit City without city council approval.

Councillor Joe Mihevc, who solicited the legal opinion, will release it publicly on Monday.

It says the mayor had no business entering into a non-binding memorandum of understanding with the province that authorized a new transit plan, including a Sheppard subway and a longer tunnel on the Eglinton light rail line. It says he further overstepped his powers when he told TTC chief general manager Gary Webster to stop work on Transit City.

via Mayor Rob Ford had no authority to cancel Transit City, lawyers say | Toronto Star.

The sad thing is that a legal opinion really wasn’t needed. Anyone with the ability to read sentences would come to the same conclusion that the lawyers did. The Memorandum of Understanding that set the new direction for transit in Toronto, as signed by the mayor and Metrolinx last March, was explicitly a non-binding agreement designed to “provide a framework for the negotiation of agreements to be approved by [the mayor and Metrolinx’s] governing bodies.” In the mayor’s case, that governing body is council.

Further, the City Manager wrote, in a response to an Administrative Inquiry by Councillor Janet Davis, that “any agreements to implement the Memorandum will require Council approval.”

So Ford clearly violated the limits of his power when he went and started implementing his transit plans. And don’t forget: his decision to kill Transit City cost the city more than $200 million in cancellation fees and wasted work by staff and consultants.

That $200 million stands as a bigger example of government waste than anything Ford has identified as ‘gravy’ at City Hall thus far. It’s a figure that exceeds the entire budget of the St. Clair streetcar right-of-way project.

But council was at least somewhat complicit in letting him get away with it. On his radio show yesterday, Councillor Josh Matlow asked Mihevc why he only commissioned this legal opinion now and not, say, a year ago — when most everybody knew Ford had overstepped his bounds. Mihevc was polite in his answer, but his real reasoning seems obvious: it didn’t make sense to make any noise about the mayor’s transit plan at the time because, had a vote on the subject actually come to council, guys like Matlow — and the other middle-aligned councillors — might have supported the mayor.

Things are different now.

But back to Minnan-Wong. He’s not just wrong in his claim that council never voted on Transit City. He is wrong in at least seven different ways.

How council endorsed Transit City at least seven times

I guess the implication when Minnan-Wong and others claim Transit City was never put to a vote is that never did David Miller bring an item to council asking for endorsement on the “Transit City” brand. And it’s true: council never approved the bundling of a number of suburban light rail projects together under that name, nor did they specifically endorse, in advance, Miller and Adam Giambrone’s decision to work with the province to get Transit City included as part of Dalton McGuinty’s MoveOntario 2020 funding announcement.

But council did approve — often overwhelmingly — every element of the Transit City plan that moved beyond early planning stages. Beginning in 2007, they unanimously approved the direction of Transit City as part of a Climate Change action plan. In 2009, as projects really started moving, Council approved capital expenditures of more than $134 million to work on Transit City. That same year, they approved  Environment Assessments for the Sheppard East LRT (no recorded vote), the Eglinton LRT — which at that point was running on the surface at both ends — and the Finch West LRT. They also okayed the acquisition of land from private owners to support various parts of Transit City. In 2010, council opted to make the Scarborough RT rebuild part of Transit City, converting it from a proprietary technology to the same light rail planned for Eglinton, Finch and Sheppard East. (Council also endorsed Transit City as part of a debate on an extension of the Yonge subway into Richmond Hill.)

Lastly, council gave authority to actually begin work on the light rail project on Sheppard East. Only three councillors opposed, including the mayor. This grade separation work was underway at Agincourt when Rob Ford cancelled the project.

No one denies that Ford has the ability to set priorities and direction on the transit file. He’s the mayor. But he is not allowed to move forward with decisions that impact the finances of this city without council’s endorsement.

Council had numerous opportunities to alter or stop forward movement on Transit City. They’ve have had no such opportunity with Rob Ford’s so-called “Transportation City.” It’s moved forward like a runaway train.

Jan 12

Toronto’s Transit Future: Responding to Rob Ford

On January 26, several days after TTC Karen Stintz mused openly about making substantial changes to current transit plans, Mayor Rob Ford made his first public statement on the subject. That statement was then quickly retracted because it was riddled with embarrassing factual errors, including a claim that the TTC had been building subways for 100 years. Toronto didn’t open its first subway line until 1954. The original message also claimed some degree of support for the underground plan by the Pembina Institute. To which Pembina quickly retorted: nope. (The original version, via Jonathan Goldsbie, is here.) On January 28, a revised version of the same message was posted to the mayor’s Facebook page. I decided to respond to it.

All quoted text via Rob Ford’s Weekly Report - week ending January 27, 2012.

Dear Friends,

Mr. Mayor! Hi. Sorry about how things have been going for you lately.

From 1910 to 2007, the City of Toronto has based its transit planning around subway lines (built or anticipated). It is now time that we get back to this sort of transit planning to make certain residents will continue to have rapid transit as a mode of commuting.

This is more historically accurate than your original claim that Toronto’s transit system has been based on subways for 100 years. But pointing to 1910 as the year the city started basing its transit planning around subway lines is still a little fishy. While a mayoral candidate that year did support subway construction, he was defeated. On New Year’s Day in 1912, the people of Toronto rejected the possibility of a Yonge subway line when it was put to ballot. The city didn’t get serious about subway construction until 1946.

It’d probably be more accurate to say that, historically, Toronto based its transit planning around streetcars. The TTC once operated a network of streetcar routes that crisscrossed the city, including very busy ones on corridors that later became part of Toronto’s subway system.

And it’s not like we’ve stopped looking at subways, either. There’s a subway extension to York University (and beyond!) currently in the works. And the Downtown Relief Line, which can only be heavy rail subway, is a critical infrastructure project for this city that deserves far more attention than it gets.

For the past 50 of those 100 years of planning transit around subways, the Yonge-University and Bloor-Danforth lines have continually served as arteries that take in thousands of people each day from near-by surface routes and get them to their destinations quickly.

No argument there. They’re great.

But just for the hell of it, here are some numbers you might find interesting: 714,000. 495,000. 48,000. 39,000. Those were, in 2010, ridership counts for the Yonge subway, the Bloor-Danforth subway, the Sheppard subway and the Scarborough RT respectively. The latter two figures are comparable with — and in some cases lower than — several bus and streetcar routes.

We are now at a juncture where we must expand on our established transit infrastructure to ensure people can continue getting to where they want to go in a fast and efficient way.

Great news! Glad that whole war on cars thing is over.

As you know, I have continually pushed for an underground LRT that will span from Jane/Black Creek to Kennedy Station. I have done this because residents have repeatedly stressed that they do not want streetcars that are marginally faster than busses and take up lanes of traffic. Lastly, it is important that Scarborough, the fastest growing region in Toronto, is finally provided with a rapid transit line that can help move its 625,000 residents faster.

Well, sort of. In your mayoral campaign, you pushed for no transit improvements on Eglinton at all. You told a crowd at a debate held at York Memorial Collegiate in September 2010 that the Sheppard Subway was “all we can afford.”

We’ll get to the speed of light rail transit (or ‘streetcars’ as you kind of derisively call them) later on, but let’s focus on the idea that you’re just doing what the people want you to do.

In a January 2011 Leger Marketing poll, taken at the height of your popularity, only one in four people believed that we should build subways because it’s what you promised during the election. One in four! Considering you won the election with just under half the popular vote, it’s probably reasonable to say that only about half of your base — of Ford Nation — saw your subways plan as an important driver of their support.

In the coming days you are likely to hear some comments from City Hall that will suggest we should go back to Transit City. Proponents will argue that Transit City is an effective way to get around Toronto. I argue, however, that the best way to move people across Toronto is with rapid transit – which you simply cannot have with the surface rail lines.

Sure you can. Speed is a function of design, not technology. Our subway system averages about 30 kilometres-per-hour across the whole system, but that figure is a lot lower if you look only at the downtown section, where stations are close together and the trains have to wait longer at stations due to crowding.

Similarly, speeds on the eastern part of Eglinton were designed to be a bit slower than they would have been on the western part, even though both were to be surface rail. In fact, the part of Eglinton that was to venture into Ford Country in Etobicoke was planned to run at speeds roughly equivalent to the Bloor-Danforth subway.

Metrolinx estimates that the average trip for a rider will be reduced by half on the underground Eglinton Crosstown. Scarborough transit riders on an underground line could travel from Laird Avenue to Kennedy Station in about 14 minutes. This is a vast improvement from the estimated travel time of 24 minutes on a surface rail line.

That feels a bit disingenuous. That section of the line had at least four more stops to service when it was on the surface. If speed is the priority, it’s well within your mandate as the mayor of Toronto to talk to Metrolinx about tweaks to the design that can achieve that. (By the way, here’s what’s decidedly not within your mandate: unilaterally deciding to spend $2 billion dollars to bury a section of rail track on Eglinton Avenue.)

And, even then: transit is inevitably about trade-offs. Does reducing travel times by ten minutes for some commuters justify leaving 50,000 riders on the Finch bus with no improved service?

It is also important to remember that an underground rapid transit line has considerable savings for taxpayers. Underground lines and the vehicles that travel on them require less maintenance since they are spared the wear and tear of Canadian summers and winters. This will result in infrastructure that lasts longer and keeps the capital replacement costs down.

Pretty sneaky, but I’m not sure this holds up. With underground transit, maintenance costs are mostly folded into operating expenses — after you or I take the last train home at night, the TTC lets loose with a phalanx of maintenance staff who work in the subway tunnels to keep things running smoothly on an ongoing basis. Our existing on-street rail, on the other hand, tends to be maintained through sporadic work paid for via the capital budget.

It’s hard to make direct comparisons between ongoing maintenance and operating costs and TTC budget data isn’t overly helpful in helping calculate costs.

Still, let’s look at an obvious cost advantage surface rail has over underground: when you run on the surface, you don’t need station infrastructure. This eliminates a number of ongoing expenses, including cleaning, security, building maintenance, heating & cooling, landscaping, and so on. A 2007 study that looked at station operating costs across 12 different transit systems (including Toronto’s), pegged the annual cost of a transit station at anywhere between $150,000 and $4.3 million. The median cost was about a million dollars.

But even ignoring station costs, let’s be charitable and say that putting all of Eglinton underground will save us $5 million per year over the long term. At that rate — ignoring interest — it would take only 400 years for your $2 billion investment to pay off.

The people of 2412 will thank you for your foresight. And then they’ll fly to work using their jetpacks.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Thanks. You too.

P.S. Hey, wait, isn’t it weird that, only a week ago, you were talking about how the city couldn’t afford to spend $5 million to keep bus routes operating and now you’re out in public arguing that we shouldn’t skimp on transit?

Just thought that was kind of funny. Anyway, take care.

P.P.S You have no chance in hell of winning a vote on this issue.

Jan 12

Eglinton LRT resurfaces as Karen Stintz breaks with the mayor

The Globe & Mail’s Adrian Morrow:

Karen Stintz argues it makes more sense to put the LRT underground only along the most congested part of the route, in midtown, while building it on the surface in the spacious suburbs.

“If the decision is to go with an LRT, it should be at-grade,” she said. “If there’s a decision to put it underground, it should be a subway.”

via TTC head favours surface LRT on suburban stretch of Eglinton | Globe & Mail.

At this point, this issue seems to have enough critical mass to make some serious waves at council. I don’t believe the mayor would win the resulting vote if he worked up the courage to ask council to endorse current transit plans.

Morrow states rather emphatically that “any rethink on the [Eglinton] line, however, would lead to further delays.” But a report by the Star’s Tess Kalinowski disagrees: “if the TTC returned to the original environmental studies for surface LRT – part of former mayor David Miller’s Transit City plan – there would be no delay.”

For what it’s worth, Steve Munro seems to agree with the Star. Last week, he speculated that the province “wants to keep their options open as long as possible depending on whatever position Council eventually takes.” Because, for them, not having to do new design work for the tunnel and stations along the eastern section should actually save time and money. And with an in-median route, there’d be no question about how to deal with those sneaky goddamned valley crossings which are vexing the hell out of engineers.

The best — and most obvious — outcome of all this would be for council to endorse moving the eastern section of Eglinton back to the surface and using the savings (which should approach anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion) to build some form of higher order transit on Finch West. The LRT design for that corridor is sitting on a shelf somewhere and it wouldn’t take much to put those wheels in motion once again. (Last year, David Miller described reactivating the project as like flicking a switch, which is probably overly simplistic. But not too far off.)

Still, there’s reason to be concerned that we’ll just go from one goofy transit plan to another with this move. In her interview with Kalinowski this morning, Stintz floated the idea of using the savings from un-burying Eglinton to build the mayor’s desired Sheppard extension.

Not only does the Sheppard subway offer far less in terms of cost-benefit than the Finch route — any subway extension will add way more to long-term operating costs than surface LRT –, such a move would also seem to require the city to renegotiate the agreement they made with the province last year with their Memorandum of Understanding.

In that memo — which famously was never approved by council, even though it was supposed to be — the province pegged their maximum contribution to the Sheppard project at $650 million. And they said that the money would only materialize should Metrolinx come in under budget on the $8.4 billion Eglinton project. (This past summer, the mayor sat down with Dalton McGuinty to try to get him to release that money ahead of schedule. The premier, more or less, told the mayor to get bent.)

But Rob Ford can be stubborn, and reports out of the mayor’s office are that he’s not shown much willingness to compromise on his Sheppard Subway campaign pledge. Trying to get the province to agree to devote more funds to Sheppard is likely to cause further undue delays as things get sorted out. Meanwhile, riders on crazy overcrowded bus routes will continue to suffer.

Another reason to worry: there’s a small-but-terrifying chance that the province — which is flirting with big-time austerity measures at the moment — may seize on this debate as a golden opportunity to decrease their total financial commitment to transit in Toronto. Queen’s Park has to be getting nervous about their capital commitments beyond 2015, when the bulk of this spending is due, and a fractured and indecisive council is only going to embolden Metrolinx to swoop in and start tinkering with Toronto’s transit plans.

So here’s the plea to council: get the transit file in order soon. Find a plan that works for a strong majority of people across Toronto and that fits within the current funding envelope. Then tell the province, unequivocally, that this is what Toronto needs.

Then just build the damn thing.



Nov 11

The Don Revelation: renegade valley may thwart Rob Ford’s underground transit vision

There is a little known geological phenomenon that divides Toronto’s east and west sides. Planners — whose grand visions are frequently thwarted by this useless gaping chasm — call it the “Don Valley.” It is truly a scourge that continues to strike when we least expect it.

Its latest victim might be the Mayor’s bold, never-voted-on plan to bury the entirety of the Eglinton LRT. The mayor’s unilateral decision to bury the line came with a $2 billion price tag and two casualties, killing light rail projects for Finch West and Sheppard East.

Here’s John Lorinc, writing for the Globe & Mail:

Under the Transit City strategy, the LRT was to emerge from a tunnel east of Laird and continue eastward on a right-of-way in the middle of Eglinton. But because of Mr. Ford’s changes, Metrolinx officials have spent months grappling with the question of how to get the Crosstown line across the Don Valley.

A tunnel may prove to be too deep and too steep for light rail vehicles, so Bruce McCuaig, president and CEO of Metrolinx, said the agency is looking at building a grade-separated bridge for the LRT as it crosses the ravines. Public consultations on an environmental assessment examining a bridge and other tunnel configurations will begin in early 2012.

via Tunnel plan for Eglinton Crosstown LRT could stymie Ford | Globe & Mail.

Despite continually being reminded that the taxpayers told the mayor that they wanted subways — not streetcars! — and that the war on the car is over, this lazy, insubordinate valley refuses to budge.

Metrolinx is said to be looking at bridge options, but that’s a dangerous path to go down. Lengthy environmental assessment processes threaten to re-politicize transit expansion, forcing council debates and public consultation sessions. In addition, any elevated bridges will almost certainly mean cost overruns and delays, pushing the completion date for the Eglinton project back from the already-distant goal of 2020.

Running the Eglinton line in a median over existing road bridges is, of course, workable. It’s what Transit City called for. But going back to that strategy could potentially jeopardize plans to use automatic operation for the line.

Operating the line in an exclusive, right-of-way on the bridge-crossing sections also immediately brings up another question: why not save a bunch of money and build the line in a protected right-of-way across other sections of Eglinton?

Under Transit City, the surface sections of the Eglinton LRT were always designed to operate at speeds close to or exceeding that of the Bloor-Danforth subway line. Eglinton’s status outside the core as a wide arterial means there’s plenty of room for transit without impacting automobile traffic. In fact, the only upside to burying the entirety of the line is that drivers won’t have to contend with limited left-turn access along the length of the route.

How much is that worth? Is it worth a billion dollars? How about two?

Undermined confidence

Stories like this only serve to undermine any confidence Toronto residents had in ongoing transit plans. At this point, people are so jaded by the planning process that only the true faithful believe that they’ll ever see the projects politicians trip over themselves to point out on maps come election time.

That Metrolinx planners are only now coming to terms with the existence of the Don Valley shows how haphazard this process is. The provincial government made a political decision to appease Rob Ford, but they seemingly never had any idea how to make the mayor’s new transit vision work.

And so we end up here: with a bunch of planners working to overcome the unforeseen problem that is one of the city’s most well-known natural phenomena. Oh, Don Valley. You bastard.

Oct 11

Transit City, rise from your grave! (Or, at least, let’s build something on Finch)

On Councillor Josh Matlow’s radio show this week, the councillor half-wondered if the Transit City plan could be resurrected, given the recent flavour of council, which has shown a willingness to go against the mayor.

NewsTalk 1010’s Russ Courtney:

Matlow says transit advocates believe that because the mayor has been forced to alter his agenda the time could be right to return to the plan scrapped by Rob Ford after taking office.

“They smell blood in the water, says Matlow. “They’ve seen the Mayor not win every single vote. They’re wondering if this is an opportunity to revive Transit City from the dead.”

“Any discussion about whether or not (Transit City) get revisited would be done in conjunction with Metrolinx,” said TTC chair Karen Stintz.

via NEWSTALK 1010 – IN-DEPTH RADIO :: Matlow Wonders If Transit City Could Rise From the Dead – Local News :: Local News Stories.

As John Michael McGrath over at OpenFile notes, Stintz’s response on the issue is surprising, because you’d expect an outright denial and instead she side-stepped.

Reviving Transit City — and by Transit City at this point we mean the surface/underground alignment for the Eglinton LRT, the Sheppard LRT, and the Finch LRT — is challenging, but not so far outside the realm of possibility. Given construction timelines, switching the plan for Eglinton back to surface operation on the eastern and western edges of the line is doable. That said, I’m not sure Metrolinx — who has positioned the crosstown as a regional line with future links into the 905 — would be eager to accept yet another change to the plan.

I get where Matlow’s coming from, though. Given council’s newfound enthusiasm for rejecting the mayor’s most unworkable ideas, a council debate on the current transit strategy is warranted. We’ve been promised a council vote on these issues for months now. Even if the idea of reviving Transit City doesn’t come to the forefront, a thorough look at the mayor’s quest to privately fund a Sheppard Subway extension deserves scrutiny.

Remember, there’ still $300 million in committed funding from the federal government for transit on Sheppard. No one is entirely sure where that’s going. Attaching those funds to a Sheppard Subway extension that probably won’t ever happen is a waste. Applying that cash where it’s needed — say, on Finch West, in the form of light rail or a bus rapid transit project — could provide immediate, transformative benefit to an overcrowded corridor.

Aug 11

Ford administration demonstrates total incompetence with transit file

Mayor Rob Ford has proven himself almost entirely incompetent when it comes to transit policy and planning.

That’s the only conclusion I can come to after learning the details behind the mayor’s meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty. Early speculation had it that the meeting — held early yesterday morning — would be about potential uploading and cost-sharing strategies to mitigate the city’s 2012 operating shortfall, but that actually ended up as seemingly only a small part of the agenda. The real dominating topic, at least according to media reports, seemed to be the mayor’s plan to expand the Sheppard Subway west to Downsview and east to Scarborough Town Centre. While Ford had expressed nothing but confidence throughout his first eight months in office that he would be able to build the extension solely with funds from the private sector, it became clear today — when the mayor asked for some $650 million in provincial funds for the project — that that confidence has been shaken.

Here’s the National Post’s Natalie Alcoba:

Mayor Rob Ford insists his prized Sheppard subway extension will be built, but he needs the provincial government to put up $650-million sooner, rather than later, to help make it happen.

Mr. Ford issued his plea to “accelerate” provincial funding in order to nail down money from Ottawa during a closed-door meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty on Wednesday, before he goes into full provincial campaign mode.

This is not the first time Mr. Ford has acknowledged that government money is required to tunnel under Sheppard. But his demand of the province betrays a more urgent tone, with critics noting that the private sector won’t jump on board a major transit project until the public sector is committed.

via Ford pushes McGuinty for subway funding | National Post.

The only way to read this is as a tacit admission that the Sheppard subway plan, as it’s been explained to us for months now, is a total pipe dream. Private companies are not going to roll the dice on a low-ridership transit line with limited opportunities for residential and commercial development when the public sector won’t sit at the table with them. The Sheppard Subway deal, as pitched by Gordon Chong and the rest of Toronto Transit Infrastructure Limited, is a high-risk, low-reward affair, and they’re trying to sell it in the face of a world economy that is fraught with peril and bad news stories.

That the plan isn’t workable isn’t a surprise. But yesterday’s events, which all add up to a public indication that the mayor might actually be wrong about something, are definitely interesting. Rob Ford is not one to readily admit his own mistakes.

How Rob Ford might cost the Toronto more than $300 million in committed transit funding

The numbers behind Ford’s request to McGuinty tell a fascinating story of their own. In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and McGuinty emerged from a streetcar at a TTC maintenance shop and announced joint funding for the Sheppard East LRT, which was to be the first line constructed under former mayor David Miller’s Transit City plan. That line was to cost about $950 million, with the province kicking in about two-thirds of that figure, leaving the federal government to pick up the rest of the tab.

When McGuinty agreed to roll over all Transit City funds into the new transit plan announced last March, the province’s portion of the Sheppard funding got moved over to the now all-underground Eglinton LRT. It would now appear that the mayor’s office made an oversight with the remaining federal funds — which total more than $300 million — and they now risk losing them.

In short, the federal funds for Sheppard will expire if they’re not used by 2014. They seemingly can’t be moved over to projects. And the kicker: now that the province is providing no money for any transit project on Sheppard — ostensibly at the mayor’s own request — the agreement between the federal government and the city may be rendered entirely invalid. Without the province’s share of the cost, the federal money won’t flow without a new deal.

It seems likely that between the three levels of government, something will be worked out and the federal contribution for transit expansion won’t be lost. But that this administration has even put themselves in a position where we risk losing that money is demonstrative of their continued inability to effectively manage the transit file.

It’s worth noting, as always, that the Sheppard East LRT would have opened before the next municipal election, improving the daily commute for thousands of Scarborough residents and providing the basis for a network of light rail transit lines across suburban Toronto.

No talk of uploading for TTC operating?

Notably not part of today’s conversation between McGuinty and Ford, according to media reports: the potential uploading of a portion of the TTC’s annual operating costs. Ford’s silence on the issue is conspicuous, especially in light of an item, passed 41-1 with the mayor in favour at the July council meeting, calling for a reinstatement of the previous “fair share” funding agreement for transit, which saw the province pick up half the cost of the TTC’s annual operating budget.

Actual analysis of the City of Toronto’s budget from the mid-1990s until now reveals that the downloading of TTC operating costs onto the city — a ‘gift’ from Mike Harris — correlates with the beginning of Toronto’s budget problems. A return to a 50/50 agreement with the province would wipe out almost all of the so-called structural deficit facing the city.

But why would the mayor want that?

Aug 11

Listening to Toronto: On Transit

One Toronto taxpayer has a bold idea to pay for transit in Toronto

Respondent 2-625 has ideas for public transit in Toronto. Big ideas. “We could hold the first North American Electric Motorcycle Race,” writes the Toronto taxpayer. “These bikes are fast.”

Pushing for a world class racetrack up at Downsview Park, the respondent indicates that a private sector partner — like “Apple or RIM” — would sponsor a subway station connected to the race track that would host “world events in our backyard” with fast bikes and cars and so on. This, it’s said, is a “potential goldmine.”

“I can see it now,” he or she concludes,  “no more boring expensive walkways to the train, I see a walkway that brings your senses alive before you watch million dollar cars race for the day.”

Out with the boring, bland walkways in our transit system — in with the racetrack-adjacent walkways that bring your senses alive.

Let’s hear from Toronto

Earlier this year, the City of Toronto embarked on an extensive public consultation process as a precursor to a planned Core Service Review. Over 13,000 people filled out an online survey while hundreds attended public meetings held across the city. Unfortunately, soon after the data gleaned from this process was released, high-ranking members of Mayor Rob Ford’s Executive Committee dismissed it as irrelevant. The sample was “self-selected,” said one councillor.

And, sure, okay, maybe it would be a stretch to call this data statistically sound, but it still represents the collective opinions of thousands of Torontonians. Isn’t that, by its very nature, something worth considering? Something worth exploring?

I think so, and that’s why I’m doing this: over the next few weeks, I will write brief summaries of all eleven of the Core Service Review qualitative reports. These reports contain thousands of comments written by the citizens of Toronto on a variety of topics. Today, we start with transit. (The numbers refer to the survey question, followed by the response number. All data is anonymous.)

Duh, Transit is important

Seems obvious, but let’s start here: Of the 13,000+ responses, 4,569 reported public transit (or something related to it) as one of the most important issues facing our city in 2011. Many were colourful with their description of the problem. Respondent 1-9’s major issue is listed as “Public transit sucking hard.” 1-306 writes “We need more public transit now!”  2-64 just writes “TRANSIT!!!!!!!” Respondent 1-509 despairs over “the rising price of TTC and the terrible service they provide,” while 1-621 is rather forceful with the belief that “the TTC is the worst transit system of any major metropolitan area in North America.”

The prevailing trend is that people are tremendously protective of the TTC and the role it plays in our urban lives, but, also, simultaneously, they despise it with the fire of a thousand suns. Customer service is noted as a major issue. Respondent 1-2404 lists, as a top issue facing the city, “seemingly deliberate, rude, ornery, poor service among TTC [and other] employees.” 3-20 points out “when you’re paying ever increasing fares on the TTC and dealing with service disruptions, filthy stations and (some) rude staff, the combination is really unappealing.”

Cost comes up a lot, with many decrying the service as already unaffordable.”The TTC relies too heavily on service fees,” says 3-79. “[It’s] to the point where the fares are completely unaffordable to those on a limited income.” 3-19 makes the case for young people in the city, writing that “$120 is a lot for a Metropass right out of university when you work part time at Indigo and have to pay $700 for a basement apartment.” 2-863 makes a strong point, and is one of many who links the cost of transit to the cost of car ownership, writing “I pay 80% of my bus trip, how much of a car trip is paid for by the user?” (The actual TTC fare box recovery ratio is closer to 70% than it is to 80%, but let’s not split hairs.)

Expansion? Yes! How? That’s up for debate!

The word “expansion” appears hundreds of times in the document, with most agreeing that more service to more places is a good idea. Less universal are opinions on where that expansion should occur, and what form it should take.

There are a ton of voices opposing the mayor’s transit ideas and calling for a return to a more David Miller-esque vision. “MORE TTC SERVICE – MORE LIGHT RAIL (EFFICIENT)…LESS SUBWAYS (COSTLY)” writes 1-355. 1-490 concurs, saying that the city shouldn’t be “building subways when LRT is much cheaper.” 1-591 worries about “borrowing 4 billion to build a useless subway” while 1-640 asks that we be “promoting realistic public transit – not the destruction of it as outlined by Ford.”

On the other side of the fence, there’s 1-469, calling for “Building subways, not high speed railways or light rapid transit.” 1-79 asks for “Decongestion of traffic, ie. via delivering promised TTC Subway extending past Morningside Ave. on Sheppard.”

All in all, responses tilt away from the Sheppard plan, with only a few mild supporters in the bunch. The fabled Downtown Relief Line gets a number of mentions, with 2-1172 calling for “Subway expansion, specifically the Downtown Relief Line NOT Sheppard!” Respondent 2-807 points out that “Downtown subway expansion such as the downtown relief line is essential prior to any extension of the Yonge line into York Region.” Otherwise, the response continues, “Torontonians will be waiting on platforms watching trains full of York Region residents pass them by.”

An overlooked piece of the transit expansion debate also emerges, as many call for better TTC service to Pearson airport. 2-509 sums it up best: “What kind of major city doesn’t have subway or above-ground train to its airport in the year 2011?”

The Ford Nation appears? Killing streetcars and privatizing transit

Response 1-509 lists their top issue facing the city in 2011 as “streetcars-replace with buses.” Similar calls are echoed throughout the report, though they are ultimately a minority voice. Response 2-3762 calls for a “move from streetcars to electric buses in downtown core.” Many indicate a belief that streetcars only make traffic worse (2-319). “Streetcars suck,” writes 2-1135, “I’m happy Ford is removing this stupid Light Rail idea and adding more subways…more! More!”

Another vocal minority calls for the contracting out of bus routes or the complete privatization of the TTC. 3-571 says “if you can find somewhere to contract out TTC services, somewhere that does not use a a bloated union and employees are earning outrages salaries for regular jobs, I say do it.” Much of this desire stems from a belief that TTC workers are overpaid. Respondent 3-96 believes the “salaries of TTC workers should be cut…all TTC workers have inflated salaries.”

Fighting traffic congestion with transit

The big takeaway, expressed by hundreds of people in this document, is the common belief that traffic congestion can be solved with more public transit. Response 4-505 proclaims that “Toronto is choking on traffic,” but adds that the “solution cannot be more roads.” 3-237 says that “we need to set up our city as a walkable, and transit-able city. We can’t support the traffic we have now and as the city grows it is only going to get worse.”

There is significant support amongst respondents for new revenue tools for transit, primarily road tolls and congestion charges, though many ask that they only apply to 905 residents who come into the city. Respondent 4-401 echoes a common sentiment: “Our services are used by thousands of 905ers every day who don’t necessarily contribute to paying for them.”

We’ll let 4-327 have the last word: “Congestion is ridiculous and the answer is not widening roads and providing more capacity. The answer is is providing higher order transit and alternatives to the single occupancy vehicle. Rethink your priorities please, Mayor Ford.”

Which is a fair enough point — especially considering at least one member of Ford’s Executive have gone on record with their belief that more roads will solve congestion issues –, but still, I’m thinking we should just circle back to the beginning and really work out a strategy for funding transit with electric motorcycle racing. Those bikes are fast.

Jun 11

Sheppard Subway plan a “big black hole of wasteful spending”

The cost of the Mayor’s much-bragged-about Sheppard Subway extension has risen by $500-million. The 11% jump comes before the project has reached even the planning stages, as Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd. (TTIL), led by Gordon Chong, continues to develop a strategy for moving forward with a feasability study that, if successful, would lead to an exploration of potential private sector partners who would help deliver the project.

The Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney:

Pegged at $4.2 billion initially, the estimated cost has risen by $500 million, according to the head of the company created to make the business case for a publicly and privately funded subway extension.

“The Sheppard project is projected to be around $4.7 billion,” Gordon Chong, president and chief executive officer of Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd. (TTIL), said Friday.

A TTIL working group needs 12 to 18 months to come up with a more detailed look at the scope, design and cost of the Sheppard subway extensions the mayor wants to build, to determine if it’s feasible.

Chong estimated it could cost $250 million to $300 million to complete the work needed to determine if the project is feasible.

via Sheppard subway cost soars –

The real concern at this point should be finishing this thing before teleportation technology becomes commercially viable and transit systems are no longer necessary.

TTIL’s report is an interesting read. Steve Munro points out that several of the potential revenue sources Chong identifies are, in fact, just taxes. They include things like a “special city-wide transit development charge” and “Left-over Metrolinx funds from the Eglinton project.”

Meanwhile, Metrolinx continues to indicate they want absolutely nothing to do with Ford’s subway project. The report excerpts a letter from Metrolinx on page five, stating that “any work that you undertake on this [Sheppard Subway Project] City project [sic] needs to be allocated to a separate account and funded by the City. Any invoices to Metrolinx should not include these costs.”

The report also includes a point, underlined for emphasis, indicating that “pre-feasability and/or full business case cannot be completed without more detailed design and data.” It also concludes with a nice budgetary note: “The existing budget is woefully inadequate to complete the tasks of the Working Group.”

In other words: despite campaign promises that said we’d have a subway by 2015, we’re a long way from actually building this thing.

Councillor Doug Ford was steadfast, of course, telling the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat “As sure as I’m standing here, we’re getting subways … I can’t be any clearer, there is going to be a subway on Sheppard.”

It was Councillor Janet Davis who summed things up best, however, in the same article:

“You’re now contemplating taking up to 18 months to complete not just the preliminary financial analysis but the feasibility study,” she said. “It’s a plan for a plan for a project that will take us into 2013 before we see anything that presents evidence one way or another about whether the Sheppard subway can be funded.”

“It feels like this is a big black hole of wasteful spending,” she said.

via Councillor Ford guarantees Sheppard Subway | Toronto Sun.

Government change, at any level, is the biggest threat to this plan. The reason Metrolinx exists in the first place is to allow long-term transportation planning that won’t fall to the whim of every newly-elected major, premier or prime minister. The Sheppard subway, falling far outside the purview of Metrolinx, is offered no such protection. Neither was Transit City.

Worth noting, as always, that the Sheppard Subway extension is now set to cost nearly five times more than the original plan for LRT on Sheppard. The Sheppard East LRT, as the first Transit City line, would have opened before the end of this council term in 2014.

Jun 11

Ford’s transit plan: still unapproved, still lacking

On Monday, Rob Ford’s Executive Committee briefly discussed the City Manager’s response to Councillor Janet Davis’ administrative inquiries regarding the mayor’s transit plan and the steps necessary to officially adopt his plan over the previously-approved — and started — Transit City plan.

You’ll recall that the City Manager confirmed in his response that “any agreements to implement the Memorandum [between the province and the city, regarding the new transit plan] will require Council approval.” That’s a requirement that Rob Ford has continued to ignore.

Still, Ford was defiant at the meeting, as reported by the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat:

“We’re working on [my transit plan], everyone is going to see it, everything is on track, pardon the pun,” Ford told reporters.

He dismissed Davis’ concern that his transit plan hasn’t been approved by council.

“I campaigned for close to a year, I was crystal clear that I want to build subways and that I was going to kill Transit City or Streetcar City or whatever you want to call it…the people spoke loud and clear.”

via Ford’s opponents try to block his transit plan | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

(For sanity’s sake, let’s just ignore the bit where the mayor seems to imply that things he perceives as popular don’t require council approval.)

While Ford did campaign for close to a year, his transit plan was not unveiled until his team released it via YouTube on September 7, 2010. A mere 48 days before election day.

Before the YouTube reveal, Ford’s comments on transit did tend to stick close to his “subways good, streetcars bad” position, but it was never a top-of-mind issue when he was campaigning. His supporters were, I’d argue, most moved by the “stop the gravy train” rhetoric. His other policy positions were background noise.

Ford’s anti-LRT position hinges on a number of incorrect assumptions. First, he wrongly believes that LRT as proposed with Transit City is synonymous with the city’s downtown streetcar network. It’s not. Second, he believes that LRT will inevitably remove road space used by vehicles. But it doesn’t. Transit City didn’t propose any loss of lanes for cars.

He also believes — and I think this is the prime motivator — that on-street LRT construction is inherently more disruptive to businesses and residents (In the campaign-era article I referred to above, he argued “Once you’re going underground you won’t affect the stores and the businesses as much as you did on St. Clair.”). Thus by avoiding on-street construction we avoid situations like we saw on St. Clair, where businesses suffered and children cried and so on.

But the mayor has never really understood that the St. Clair construction –and the recent project on Roncesvalles, for that matter — was about more than just installing a streetcar right-of-way. It was about street beautification, improving the pedestrian realm and doing necessary utility upgrades, among other things.

Now that construction for the coming Eglinton LRT has shifted underground along the length of the route — at a cost of two billion dollars — some of the same businesses Rob Ford would seek to protect by avoiding another St. Clair situation are actually complaining. Turns out they wanted the streetscape improvements they would have received with the original on-street LRT plan.

The Globe & Mail’s Josh O’Kane:

[The Eglinton light-rail line] was originally was originally planned to be a largely above-ground project, but this spring the province gave in to Mayor Rob Ford’s desire for underground transit, agreeing to fund $8.2-billion for the Eglinton line. Because it will be mostly dug by a tunnel-boring machine, there’ll be few disruptions on the ground. But at Tuesday’s meeting, there was concern that the underground project would mean no revitalization for the midtown artery.

“The street is a mess,” local business owner Arnold Rowe told The Globe. “We need improvement for pedestrian facilities … and the use of roadways.” He asked the city and provincial representatives at the meeting – TTC chairwoman Karen Stintz, Ontario Minister of Transportation Kathleen Wynne, Eglinton-Lawrence MPP Mike Colle and Ward 15 Councillor Josh Colle – if there were plans to work on the street itself as part of the project.

Mike Colle said that there no concrete plans, but that he hoped the launch of the rail line would mean the “reshaping, revitalizing, improving above ground – starting now.”

via Metrolinx seeks to calm anxieties over Eglinton LRT | The Globe and Mail. (Emphasis added.)

It should be noted that underground subway construction is no picnic for businesses and residents that live along the route. Stations still need to be constructed, and stations require on-street access.

Jun 11

For whom the road tolls

So only days after Gordon Chong got caught by Royson James musing about the necessity for road tolls to fund Ford’s much-ballyhooed Sheppard subway, the mayor shut down the idea. “It’s nonsense,” he said. “I don’t support road tolls.”

(Later, Ontario’s Environment Commissioner would champion the idea of road pricing in a report. “We need to reduce the number of single-passenger vehicle trips in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area,” he said.)

Ford’s unwillingness to consider road pricing isn’t surprising. At the very least, however, Chong’s suggestion of tolls seemed to trigger a bit of reflection from other councillors about the reality of the transit funding situation. Even the Ford-allied Peter Milczyn, who chairs the Planning & Growth committee, told the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale and Paul Moloney that “development charges are not going to pay for a subway.”

The transit debate continued at City Hall on Monday, as the Planning committee debated two motions relating to transit on Sheppard and Finch.

Over at his blog, Steve Munro does a hell of a job with a blow-by-blow recap of the meeting:

Councillor Joe Mihevc (former TTC Vice-Chair) argued that avoiding discussion now would lead to a finished product being presented for an up-or-down decision with no time for debate or public input.  He argued that people affected by the cancellation of Transit City want input into alternative plans now.  Stintz replied that Metrolinx is running a series of meetings regarding the Eglinton line, but what these have to do with service on Sheppard and Finch is hard to fathom.

As the debate continued, it was clear that Stintz was being too clever for her own good by trying to treat work-to-date as not part of “Transit City”.  This is an example of the gyrations through which Mayor Ford’s team will go to warp history to fit their agenda.

via Think About Transit on Finch and Sheppard, But Not Yet | Steve Munro.

Munro’s summary suggests that Stintz, even as TTC chair, still isn’t playing a significant role in defining the future of transit expansion in the city. It’s not overly surprising that she wouldn’t be able to provide concrete answers on the future of “Transportation City” given that, a couple of months ago, the mayor surprised her by floating the idea of a new subway line on Finch.

So what next? Nobody really knows. Chong has since backpedaled on his earlier comments, telling the CBC that “tolls would be one of the last things that would be considered” to fund subway expansion. He says he’ll have a business case for the privately-funded Sheppard project in a few months. They’ll get some P3 money from the feds, most likely, but that will amount to less than a quarter of the needed funds.

As for Finch? Buses. Fancy buses, maybe. I’d suggest painting a racing stripe on the side to make them look faster.