Tuesday, 2 September 2014

A Labour Day Reflection

Labour Day is just an element of the last long weekend of summer to some, but it was created to celebrate the achievements of workers and the labour movement in Canada. This Labour Day weekend, I actually did reflect on a labour issue, a specific one that is currently impacting Toronto and Thunder Bay.

The New Flexity Outlook and Toronto Rocket vehicles
being manufactured by Bombardier in Thunder Bay.
On Monday, July 14, workers from Unifor Local 1075 walked off the job from a Bombardier manufacturing plant in Thunder Bay, the same one currently manufacturing new subway cars and streetcars for the TTC. As of today (Labour Day, September 1) the strike stands.

A lot of eyes are on this strike because of larger implications for labour across the country. Bombardier has made an offer that it believes is fair, and helps the company 'maintain competitive operating costs' so that they can continue to keep shop in Canada. Unifor has scoffed at this, saying the company has an 'arrogant attitude that people should be happy they are even employed', and accusing Bombardier of attacking workers' pensions (Further reading: Toronto Star).  It's a post-recession standoff between an argument of global corporate competitiveness, and an argument to protect Canadian labour benefits.

The reason I have my eyes on it, however, is that while this stand-off plays out, Toronto's transit future is caught in the middle.  While most of the new subway cars have been delivered and are running on Line 1, Toronto debuted two or three of the new streetcars into revenue service this morning on its 510 Spadina line.  These new streetcars are anticipated to vastly improve the capacity and operation of the streetcar system.  Riders will have more room. Boarding and de-boarding will be faster.  Bunching should be reduced.  Low-floors and ramps will make them accessible. It makes transit more attractive, and gets people out of their cars. It reduces congestion and the costs associated with it.

According to an outdated study constantly cited by Metrolinx and the Toronto Board of Trade put congestion costs at $6 billion in 2008, and that figure has been criticized for being low and not capturing the social cost it has on families and individuals. Nonetheless, that means that for every day the strike and other factors stalling Toronto transit progress continue, the economy loses at least $16.4 million. At least, per day.

That isn't an endorsement for either of the positions of Bombardier or Unifor. It's just a point. To add two more points, each day the strike continues is also a loss of wages for Unifor employees, and a mark against Bombardier's reputation on being able to deliver rapid transit products. 

To me, that sounds like a reason to keep talking at the table. A chance at achieving a win-win-win situation. And a chance to resolve what may be one of the most difficult labour strikes we have seen in recent times.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Privatization of the TTC? Only in Horwath's Dream World

The writs in the Ontario general election haven't even been dropped yet, and it's getting strange already. 

On CBC's Metro Morning today, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath had the following exchange with host Matt Galloway:

Horwath: "We know that the government we had was on a track to privatize the TTC. We don't think that's the right thing to do."
Galloway: "Hold on, where did you hear anything about privatizing the TTC?"
Horwath: "That's part of Kathleen Wynne's plan in terms of the way that they're going to move forward with expansion of the TTC. It's very clear that that's the case. What we're talking about is prioritizing the transit needs of Ontarians. We think that in the downtown, we need to get that relief line put to the top of the agenda. We've actually talked about how we can bring in new revenues to make that happen by pulling in the business community and asking them to pay a share of that cost."
Galloway: "I don't think I've ever heard anything from Kathleen Wynne about privatizing the TTC though."
Horwath: "You do need to look at what their plan is."
Galloway: "We have."
Horwath: "If you look in their budget, their plan talks very much about alternative service delivery and P3s [public-private partnerships] and all of these kinds of things, which are exactly that. In fact there are very serious concerns about how do you actually mix or join projects that are going to be run privately versus ones that are currently being run publicly. These are big questions that I have real concerns about."

P3's and Infrastructure Ontario's Alternative Financing and Procurement (AFP) model are a long shot from privatization. As Kathleen Wynne rightly pointed out later in the day, the projects firmly remain under public ownership.

The AFP process is a regularly used way to deliver public infrastructure projects in Ontario these days. A private company is contracted to build the project, as usual. However, any risk of cost overruns and project delays is transferred to the private sector as well. The Eglinton Crosstown is currently being built using the AFP model, and they have a backgrounder on it.

To suggest that this translates into a plan to privatize the TTC is pure nonsense. It also shows Horwath is incompetent, which is a strong word to use, but clearly is justified. If you want to lead this province, you better have the proper understanding of how public projects are currently done here.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

A Subway Relief Line is Not Assured

With the way the Toronto mayoral ballot is rounding out, and the main contenders identifying the Subway Relief Line as one of their first key commitments, things are looking up for getting this critical project built after 50 years of planning.

There are members of council that will line up in support of a future mayor keen to champion the new line. Metrolinx, the TTC and city staff are progressing on the planning aspects. TTC CEO Andy Byford favours it to be the next project built, and is even earning the ear of the Prime Minister.

But don't be fooled. This is far from a done deal. The price tag on this puppy is $7.2 billion, and despite its critical need, it is still subject to political axes (I'm talking cuts, not graphs).

The last time we tried to build new subway lines, we got a fraction of one. Political flip-floppery led us to a chopped version of the Sheppard line, and pure spitefulness saw the provincial government cancel the Eglinton West subway and fill the hole with concrete. Until Metrolinx is given control and discretion of dedicated transit revenues, any transit project project will be subject to political perils instead of proper planning.

We must be very conscious of this as we move forward on the relief line. It would be all too easy to defer the line, kicking the can down the road, or chop it into such a small fraction of the original version that it is ineffective.

Sometimes we have to choose between what is right and what is easy. This time, we need to step up and make sure the relief line is built as envisioned.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Old Macdonald Had A Station...

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong has proposed to rename Toronto's Union Station after Sir John A. Macdonald. I never though I would say this, but it may be crazier than the Scarborough subway proposal.

I take it back. I can understand Councillor Minnan-Wong's thoughtfulness. Macdonald is a father of Confederation, our first Prime Minister, and responsible for a railroad from coast to coast which united the country. Why object to a fitting honour?

I think Councillor Adam Vaughan says it well. From the Toronto Star:

“I don’t think you obliterate history to honour history.”
"I think connecting it to the rail system is understandable but Union Station is Union Station. It’s part of the fabric and history of the city. It’s not something that you just sort of break out a chisel and carve the name.”

History Lesson

Union Station can trace its steps all the way back to 1858, when the Grand Trunk Railway built the 'first' Union Station west of its current placement. The space was shared with the Northern Railway and the Great Western Railway. It would be replaced by the 'second' Union Station in 1873. Canadian Pacific Railway began operating out of it 11 years later.

After another major rebuild and the Great Toronto Fire of 1904, the 'third' and current Union Station was commissioned by Toronto Terminals Railway, a 50/50 joint operation between Grand Trunk Railway (now part of Canadian National Railway or CN) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CP). Toronto Terminals Railway still exists today, maintaining the track corridor between Strachan Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway.

Not Our First Rodeo

The TTC is no stranger to proposals that came forward without regard to history, local geography, public desire, or common sense.

1. Black Creek Pioneer Village Station
This name will (sort of) live on. Originally known as Steeles West, this will be the fourth of six new TTC subway stations as part of the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension. The TTC's reccomendation to stick with typical naming conventions were set aside by councillors on the TTC board, despite the fact that Black Creek Pioneer Village is still 450 metres away from the stop. The TTC has since chopped it down to "Pioneer Village"; after all, hearing "Black Creek Pioneer Village Station" on the subway is too much to add to an already exhausting commute.

2. Nelson Mandela Station
First stop on the proposed Scarborough subway? Nelson Mandela Station. NDP leader Andrea Horwath introduced the motion in the provincial legislature in December 2013, only a week after Mandela passed away. The McCowan Road and Lawrence Avenue East area is attributed to Mandela because...well, it isn't. I guess Horwath felt prudent to include it with the other meaningful proposals for transit in Toronto she has such as...well, she doesn't.

3. [Place Your Company Name Here!] Station
Everyone knows the TTC is badly underfunded and in need of cash. But in June 2011 the city was looking selling right out: selling station naming rights to companies that were willing to pony up. You think people were upset about renaming the Skydome as the Rogers Centre? This would have been a whole different ball game.

A Final Thought

If you are looking for a tribute to Sir John A., you can find one here in Toronto: a statue at Queens Park.

File:Sir John A on a sunny day in Toronto.jpg
松林 Lvia Flickr.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Scarborough Rapid Transit Debacle: Episode V

Just when you thought it was over. The idea of a subway for Scarborough subway may go off the rails (transit puns are so overused) be shut down yet again.

To summarize what has happened until this point:
  • Transit City was announced in March 2007, which included the Scarborough LRT
  • Rob Ford takes office as Mayor in December 2010, and declares that Transit City is dead
  • Toronto City Council defeats the mayor's campaign for subways, votes to revive the Scarborough LRT and 3 other LRT lines from Transit City in February/March 2012
  • The City and Metrolinx sign a master agreement on the LRT lines in November 2012
  • Council changes its mind and votes for a subway proposal to Scarborough in June 2013; Metrolinx halts any work on the Scarborough LRT
  • Council votes to confirm it wants a subway in October 2013
Nearly seven years later, we still don't have anything definitive. And Councillor Josh Matlow is trying to kill it once again. Tomorrow, Matlow will put forward a motion to delay a $14.5-million allocation and cancel a 0.5% property-tax increase required to pay for the Scarborough subway.

Some lefty is just trying to give Scarborough the shaft and force them to use these stupid modified streetcars, right? (/s) Matlow's key argument: "This is not the year that we should be hiking our debt and residents’ taxes to pay for a subway extension that, frankly, we know very little about." Clearly appealing directly to those who call them fiscal conservatives:
  • The city will be responsible for (according to Metrolinx):
    • $1.48 billion is the amount still being committed to the subway, if that's what goes forward. The City/TTC must reimburse Metrolinx for $85 million sunk costs put towards the LRT, and any costs to re-negotiate the vehicle contract with Bombardier.
    • Assuming risk for delivering it on time and on budget, and assuming any operation and maintenance costs.
  • The project is subject to an environmental assessment (EA), and Metrolinx asserts the EA must consider all station and alignment configurations, be subject to public consultation, and be receptive to "ridership, costs and benefits, land use, economic development and employment opportunities, providing service to priority neighbourhoods, and the implementation of applicable provincial and municipal policies". It will also present a refined cost estimate; the estimations done to date are very rough.
One may also consider the opportunity costs, both in terms of actual money and time.

Torontoist did an article outlining other things the extra $910 million the City needs to raise for a subway could have gone towards, on top of building an LRT for Scarborough:
  • Malvern LRT: $1,260,000,000
  • Jane LRT: $630,000,000
  • East Bayfront LRT: $300,000,000
  • 50% improvement to TTC state of good repair: $1,250,000,000
Or how about the Subway Relief Line?! If this illustrates anything, it is that the subway wastes money in Scarborough, and takes away from the ability to improve other parts of the city.

Finally, some have argued that it is time to stop debating and just move on with the subway. Forgive me, but if that was a genuine concern, councillors would stop pursuing a subway that still requires EA and design work, and Matlow's aforementioned financial unknowns and risks, and tell Metrolinx to go ahead and start putting shovels in the ground. At the end of the day, it was Rob Ford and flip-flopping councillors pushing for a subway that have delayed the project for three years.

Forget gravy trains, this debacle has been pork-barrelling at its finest.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Condo Politics

I can honestly say I engaged in my biggest twitter exchange today. It all started from a tweet from Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto's wonderful chief planner. After giving Jen a retweet, I looked beyond the gender implication, and thought about how it applied to Toronto. Is Toronto considered a beautiful place? How much of that rests on how much pride and love its own citizens hold for it? What followed was something out of the blue. George Sawision, a candidate for Toronto City Council in Ward 19 (Trinity-Spadina) (and currently represented by Mike Layton, as well as represented federally by Olivia Chow) started raising legitimate issues about whether we are building too many condos, their impact on aestetics, transit, and local retail. Bizarrely, he also started taking shots at China. Below are some of the tweets. It's no secret that I believe Rob Ford is a terrible mayor, and has done much to divide the people of Toronto. But electing a councillor that singles out a certain ethnicity of people for the issues we face? That could be much more damaging and divisive than a conflict of urban and suburban values. Perhaps next week we can return to a meaningful discussion of the issues with condos in Toronto.