Monday, 23 November 2015

TTC Fare Hikes: Too Much, Too Soon

Today, the TTC Board voted to take the following action in regards to fares:

CC BY-NC-ND: Stephen Rees 
  1. Freeze Metropass fares
  2. Increase tokens by 10 cents
  3. Freeze student/senior tickets
  4. Increase cash fare by 25 cents
I am fairly supportive of the way this unfolded in principle. There should be an increasing price in outdated fare media that requires regular administering at a certain cost; the TTC spends 8% of fare revenues collecting fares. The same can be said for Metropasses, but handling of coins and paper is a daily thing. The less frequent, the better. Especially cash, as this is a heavier security operation that has put TTC staff at risk. With the PRESTO card on the way, the incentive to switch to a lower-cost fare collection operation will be greater. Fare equity for students and seniors was also maintained.

The one part I don't agree with is the way PRESTO is equated with token prices. Adult PRESTO users will also see their fares go up by 10 cents, as confirmed by TTC Head of Communications Brad Ross. He pointed out there are administration costs to PRESTO as well, but electronic transactions from a fare card with a long lifetime are inherently lower, but also mentioned that changes are coming to the TTC's fare policy. Hopefully, this can be fixed.

Anyway, all of that is based upon principle. In reality, these increases are too much, too soon. 

The fare increases will take effect January 1, 2016. This is one year before the target the TTC and Metrolinx have set to implement PRESTO system-wide; all subway/RT stations, streetcars and buses. But this is not a guaranteed date. The project may be implemented behind schedule, which would be no surprise to anyone; see miscellaneous other TTC projects big and small. The manufacturer may produce behind schedule; see Bombardier's late delivery of streetcars. And there may be extra readers required above original estimates; again, see Bombardier's late delivery of streetcars.

That means that lower income adults that do not need the TTC every day (do not need Metropasses) got hit the hardest today. These individuals are more likely to live in northeast / northwest Toronto and other isolated pockets where designated Neighbourhood Improvement Areas and other lower income neighbourhoods are served by far flung bus routes. PRESTO is currently available at subway stations and on two streetcar routes, and while the TTC is committing to roll-out on buses by the end of 2016, it will be a uncertain patchwork until then, and if it is on time.

It is also after fares have outpaced inflation, at no fault of the TTC. Ridership has been surging, even as it has fallen short of forecasts since the system is getting too full. It is also matched by a lack of operating subsidies, which are the lowest in North America.

So while raising prices on physical fare media is a good idea in principle, any fare increases should have been held off for at least a year until PRESTO was fully rolled out, and full analysis and changes to the fare structure occurred. They also should have occurred after more operating subsidy from all three levels of government. Once again, the buck gets passed on, and its too much, too soon.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Toronto the Double Standard

As you may know, Brampton is now where Toronto has sat many a times over the past few years.

The province is offering money to build the Hurontario-Main LRT, between Port Credit in Mississauga and the Brampton GO Station in downtown Brampton. $1.6 billion. Mississauga is in. Some councillors in Brampton are not so sure.

There are concerns about it damaging downtown Brampton's heritage district. Council voted 10-1 last fall against running the LRT down Main Street, and asked city staff to explore a variety of other alignments. Napkin drawing at its best.

Tomorrow, Brampton council will go through another vote on this. I'll leave the merit of the heritage-detruction argument to you, but a recent Q&A article with the Transportation Minister really grinded my gears:

Q: Would a no vote derail the project entirely?
A: If ultimately council decides they don’t want an LRT to run up to the Brampton GO station I will respect the wishes of council. From what I can tell at this point in time, that would mean the LRT would run from Port Credit GO up to Steeles Avenue at Shoppers World. And that would be the extent of the project and then we would get on with continuing to build the rest of the regional transit network. I personally believe that would be an enormous missed opportunity for Brampton.
Q: Is the province open to changing or redefining the proposed route?
A: I’ll respect the decision that council makes on July 8 but I am really not opening the door to extensive, ongoing negotiations about routes.

Good on the province to put its foot down. Take it or leave it. But you sure as hell didn't see the same treatment here in Toronto. The province even played along and endorsed what Scarborough councillors wanted: a pretty pork barrel transit project that made no damn sense. We're talking about building subways vs. re-routing an LRT, but the principle is the same: local politicians thinking they're transit experts, and mucking everything up.

The price? Well, still no shovels in the ground in Scarborough....and the problems shall continue into the future.

From where I sit, it's a confirmation that Toronto really is the centre of the universe. Only in Toronto can you stir the transit politics pot, pander to voters, and end up (with a plan for) building inefficient transportation. We definitely get treated differently here, and not for the better.

Monday, 4 May 2015

How Removing Gardiner East Could Be Better for Resident Health and Congestion

I wrote Mayor John Tory and Chair of Public Works & Infrastructure Jaye Robinson about this earlier this evening.

The Gardiner East environmental assessment (EA) has been examining the fate of the Gardiner east of Jarvis Street. A final decision will be by Toronto City Council next month.

The EA is exploring whether to remove the Gardiner east of Jarvis and replace it with an improved Lake Shore Boulevard (Remove alternative), or to maintain a portion of it and realign the portion in the vicinity of the Don River (Hybrid alternative).

CC-BY: George Socka
While the EA has explored various criteria, something important to me is the fact that this is a 100-year decision. The fate of Gardiner East will be something that future generations will have to live with.  In that context, I believed it is important to emphasize two points about how much weight we give to the criteria that have been evaluated.

Firstly, there are vocal advocates for the Hybrid option and maintaining expressway connectivity to prevent delays of 2-5 minutes for drivers. However, these benefits will solely be for those drivers, most of which will not live in the East Bayfront and Lower Don Lands neighbourhoods. The resulting additional noise and air pollution will be borne solely by the residents what will live in those neighbourhoods.

Frustratingly, I cannot find calculations on air emissions between the Hybrid and Remove alternatives. But when the EA was examining four different options, the Remove alternative provided less noise (~8 db), nitrous oxide (35 tonnes/year) and particulate matter 2.5 microns or less (2.5-5 tonnes/year).  This is important to consider; this directly affects the living quality of East Bayfront and Lower Don Lands.

City of Toronto / Waterfront Toronto 

It is one fundamental element of this decision: whether we want to give greater weight and benefits to a small percentage of drivers that will save a couple minutes during a few hours of the day, or the health of the people that have to live with this decision for the next 100 years. Personally, I think greater weight has to go to the future generations of people that will live there, and the Remove option is superior in this regard.

Secondly, both options have been evaluated with the assumption that new transit would be built in parallel, including the Waterfront LRT Extension and the Subway Relief Line. If these projects are not built, regardless of which alternative is chosen, congestion will be worse.  The Remove aternative is $451 million cheaper, and that is money that can go towards these required transit improvements and preventing congestion. 

Some will argue $451 million is an acceptable price tag to maintain the expressway connection, but it ignores the opportunity cost that goes along with it. That is another reason why I believe the Remove alternative is superior.

Mayor Tory spoke about the Gardiner East decision on Newstalk 1010 a few weeks ago, and at the end of the segment, he asked listeners, "Why are we not a bold city?" These words were in context of why we were't building a tunnel. But ignoring the context, I found it to be a funny question.
If we are seriously going to blow hundreds of millions of dollars to save some cars a few minutes, and ignore the benefits that removing a small section of the Gardiner would bring to future city building on our waterfront, I believe that would answer Tory's question. It takes bold leadership to refuse the status quo, and recognize that current and future generations increasingly desire cities with adequate transit and walkable neighbourhoods.

The Gardiner was a huge boon to downtown Toronto in the latter half of the 20th century. But it's time to turn the page, and move forward into the 21st century.

I would choose better living spaces over convenient driving places. I seriously hope our politicians will make that choice too.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Spadina Subway Extension Shows the Value of Ontario's P3 Process

By Jösé (CC)
This week, news broke that the Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension was $400 million overbudget. The original estimate was $1.5 billion, and that had already ballooned to $2.6 billion. Also, it was to be completed for the fall of this year. That has been pushed back to fall 2016, and now it appears it could push into 2017 now.

Upon release of the news, Mayor John Tory stated he was "furious" about it. He was also quick to distance himself from any responsibility for it. Kathleene Wynne was also quick to denounce it too, although I don't believe she can speak much on her record of transit management.

It was disappointing to hear Tory to point the finger at “an entrenched culture of nonaccountability at city hall.”  Wynne and the Minister of Transportation hit the nail on the head in highlighting the Ontario government's version of a public-private partnership (P3), known as the Alternative Financing and Procurement (AFP) model. With the oversight of Infrastructure Ontario, the AFP model is currently used in a variety of projects, including hospitals and health care facilities, Pan Am Games venues, jails, and highways.

In fact, it is even used on the Union Pearson Express Airport Spur right now. Have you heard of cost or time overruns for that? It's progressing on time and on budget.

The key advantage of the AFP process is that the risk of cost increases and schedule delays is transferred to the contractor. It helps keep projects on time and on budget. And it has successfully delivered $42 billion in projects to date.

But that decreased risk comes at a premium. This is what generated controversy when the Auditor General of Ontario released her report finding that this premium was $8 billion. Many accounts of that report from the media and interested groups (notably public sector unions), and even the presser comments of the Auditor General herself, seemed to imply that this meant that the government was handing out $8 billion more that it had to.

“If the public sector could manage projects successfully, on time and on budget, there is taxpayer money to be saved,” Bonnie Lysyk said on December 9, 2014.

IF projects could be manage projects successfully. That was the caveat that was missed in all the outrage over the report. Clearly, in the case of the Spadina Subway Extension, it is not being managed successfully. 15.4% overbudget so far (from $2.6 billion) and 1 year late (maybe more).

AshtonPal (CC)
Ms. Lysyk's alternative for the AFP model? The government should "get better at building infrastructure." Yeah, we can wish it to happen, that's a plan.

The only fair criticism of the AFP model was that Infrastructure Ontario had not provided adequate empirical data to back up its assumption that the AFP model delivered better on-time, on-budget performance. On the same token, is it very feasible to estimate schedule and cost overruns? It's not like they're foreseen very well. Again, Exhibit A: Spadina Subway Extension.

So enough rhetoric about private-sector partnerships being a waste of money, and how we need more accountability. The TTC and the City got what it asked for, by giving a large complex project the likes of which hasn't been done in over 10 years (Sheppard line) to the lowest bidder.

If you want all of the accountability and none of the risk, buy yourself some insurance. The AFP model will give you that.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Scarborough High Line Heading for Industrial Clashes

When it is to be replaced by the Line 2 subway extension (or not, who knows what could happen in this transit politic environment), the elevated Scarborough RT guideway is planned to become our version of the New York City High Line. When Toronto city council voted to confirm its support for the Line 2 extension instead of the LRT in October 2013, exploring the feasibility of creating such a park was included in the motion.

On the surface, it seemed to make sense:

But recently, I've had some memories come back to me. The smells and the sights reminded me that between Brimley Road and the GO Transit Stouffville Line, the surrounding lands are zoned for industrial uses.

That's kind of a problem. I didn't go to the NYC High Line to see industrial warehouses and breathe their emissions. It seems to me that there are two outcomes:
  1. You have a nice park in a gross industrial area until more compatible uses trickle in over the years; or
  2. The city starts examining making zoning changes.
Shelley Carrol has raised concern that creating a Scarborough High Line would lead to gentrification, and sacrifice of industrial employment, which is a legitimate concern. But would it be worth it? Would it not be worth reviewing the land use in this area?

I don't understand how the Scarborough RT was allowed to operate for 30 years without better land use in its vicinity. Ellesmere is the least used station in the entire subway/RT system; during the week, more people pass through Bloor-Yonge station in 4 minutes than use Ellesmere all day. It's no mystery given that it is surrounded by industrial uses. Midland was not far behind, being the 3rd-least used station behind Bessarion.

Metrolinx recommended that the existing RT alignment should be used in establishing the new LRT, as it offered the best ridership. But was it fair to subject the LRT to ridership numbers that may be hurt by not changing land use in the immediate vicinity? Forbid that I am becoming a subway apologist, but I can't help but think the SRT and LRT were never being given a worthy environment of a rapid transit line.

Anyway, I digress.

The point here is that we now have a proposal on the table for a park, something that should be an attractive amenity for nearby residents, as well as visitors from across Toronto, the GTA, and the world. Why should we subject it to a similar miserable existence as the RT did through this area? As much as we need to protect increasingly scarce industrial employment lands, we may need to think about making sacrifices where it would have the greatest benefit.

Monday, 16 February 2015

CP Rail Strike: Economic, Labour and Public Safety Interests Collide

Today ended with some good news: a labour strike involving Canadian Pacific Railway and about 3,300 engineers and conductors part of the Teamsters Canada union was averted.  Both sides agreed to arbitration to resolve outstanding issues, which is always preferable for everyone: the employer, the employees, and the public at large.

But this came after the government was prepared to enact back-to-work legislation, only two days after the strike began.  Three years previous, CP and the Teamsters couldn't reach a deal over similar issues in 2012, and the government enacted back-to-work legislation to force CP employees back to work tow days later.  It also follows back to work legislation tabled by the federal government in 2009 to force Canadian National Railway employees back on the job after only three days on strike.

The government's argument is that railway labour strikes damage the economy, and it is the government's duty to intervene.  Critics have characterized it as a worrisome trend of the majority Conservative government eroding the bargaining power of unions in Canada.  But at least in the particular instance of Canadian Pacific, it is extra concerning: one of the sticking issues in the labour talks was operator fatigue and rest.

I find it extremely discomforting that the federal government is willing to brush an issue like this aside. Operator fatigue can be a contributing issue to a derailment, which is a major cause for concern when railways carry dangerous goods.  Economic well-being is a valid concern, but should it be at the cost of public and environmental safety?

Accidents happen because of a combination of issues.  Operator fatigue can be one pivotal issue between contributing to or averting a crisis.  In spring 2014, Transport Canada had a Fatigue Management Working Group initiating a survey to examine the extent of the issue. The research was halted by Transport Canada that May.  The Teamsters took the survey over and polled its members in the summer. The results found:
  • 75% of surveyed freight train operators reported falling asleep on the job at least once in the month. 
  • 96% reported going to work tired;
  • 62% reported being at work in a fatigued state “frequently” or “always.”
  • 43% stated they were investigated and/or disciplined for booking off work due to fatigue.
A draft report by Transport Canada's Fatigue Management Working Group was obtained by the CBC, and the analysis of Canadian National and Canadian Pacific employees found “extreme fatigue” was rampant:
  • 4% of employees were already “extremely fatigued” at the start of their shifts;
  • 45% became extremely exhausted during work; and
  • 99% were fatigued at least once during the month.
Alarming, but not a new issue. It was suspected to be a factor in the 1986 Hinton, Alberta collision between a Canadian National and a VIA train killing 23 people.  Transportation Safety Board investigators have repeatedly examined fatigue in accident investigations over the past decade, but it is difficult to determine it as a factor. 

(Note: Attention to the issue in 2014 was spurred by the Lac Megantic disaster, but the Transportation Safety Board did not point to operator fatigue in its findings in that instance.)

Any reviews of the issue over the last three decades have deferred to railways and unions to resolve the issue.  As recent as this past September, a meeting between the Teamsters, the railways and the government became “tense and heated”, with the railways bristling any of Transport Canada's research or recommendations by the Transportation Safety Board.

So again, I find it discomforting that the federal government is willing to ignore this when it is raised as an issue in a labour dispute.  Back-to-work legislation does not solve the issue.  There is no indication that the government will help push any of the Transportation Safety Board's recommendations forward, nor that the railways are ready to work with the government on them.  There is no indication we are progressing on a solution for the issue industry-wide.

Both sides agreeing to arbitration definitely helped the government save face, and avoid further criticism in enabling the chronic issue to continue.  But we have a tendency to be reactive on major public issues.  I have a gut feeling it will take a significant accident to rectify the issue, in the absence of strong and proactive leadership taking the steps to prevent it from happening.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The Disintegration of a World-Class Vision

Seven years ago, things looked promising. We were becoming aware of the billions of dollars in congestion costs that the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) was suffering, due to four decades of underinvestment and political stalemates. But we now had a plan, a regional transportation plan to combat these problems and start building a transportation system that would make us a world-class metropolitan area.

The Big Move was a comprehensive
document meant to give us a stable
path forward for the next 25 years.
It was called The Big Move. We would adequately handle the burden of an additional 2.6 million people, put 4/5 people within 2 km of rapid transit, save an average of 32 minutes off the daily commute, significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and energy use of our commutes, as well as create walkable, mixed-use communities.

It was going to mean building over 50 different projects over 25 years, but we had the implementation requirements laid out. We knew that it would cost $50 billion, but Metrolinx would draft an Investment Strategy to achieve this, giving us immediate, stable and predictable funding for all our rapid transit needs.

There was reason for hope. There was reason to be excited. We now had our shot to settle the endless wars what, where and how to build things, and get on with building them. We even had the successive Liberal governments that created Metrolinx and The Big Move continuing to be re-elected and supported by the government.

On May 27, 2013, Metrolinx met the deadline it was given by the Ontario government, and published its Investment Strategy, which would generate the $2 billion annually necessary to complete all of the Big Move projects. It also included 24 recommendations to establish a transparent, accountable and dedicated transportation fund that would allow all of the projects to be built in a stable and predictable manner.

That's when it started to fall apart.

Momentum for the
Metrolinx Investment
Strategy ground to a halt
under Kathleen Wynne.
That September, Kathleen Wynne started publicly expressing her doubts about going through the Investment Strategy, by announcing a panel to advise the Liberal government on how to fund transit expansion in the GTHA.  Wynne insisted that the panel would review and build off of Metrolinx's work, and not replicate it.

The panel, led by Anne Golden and Paul Bedford, gave the province two options that would rely less on raising the HST, but between this and increases in the gas tax, would still raise about $1.7 billion annually. And at least as late as that December, Kathleen Wynne was prepared to run on a platform to implement the Investment Strategy, which included raising the Harmonized Sales Tax by 1%. "[Raising taxes for transit] has to be done. We have to do it, or else we’re not going to have the transit that we need,” said Wynne. 

Fast forward three months, and with an upcoming election and other political messes, the Wynne backed out of the 'adult conversation' she had originally promised. The Ontario Liberals rejected the notion of raising income or gas taxes entirely, and the billions of dollars it would have raised for transit. But not to worry! “Make no mistake: We will establish in the upcoming budget the dedicated, ongoing, guaranteed funding that those projects need,” Wynne said.

The Ontario Liberals won a large majority government in June 2014. To date, the most significant source of transit funding has come from the government's Green Bond program, which raised $500 million for the Eglinton LRT. Only a quarter of what we need, and hardly stable and predictable. Now, more than ever, just like our roads and bridges, the cracks in the Ontario transit dream are starting to show.

Without the stable and predictable funding, and control of those funds, Metrolinx is still at the mercy of politics. And the politics are crazy.

The replacement of the Scarborough RT
has set off an unprecedented debate. 
In some cases, ideological wars are being waged. In Toronto, the subways vs. LRT debate killed 8 of the Big Move projects for Toronto, then restored 4 of them, then changed one of them, and now threatens to change the other two that haven't started construction. City politics is creating chaos, and anything other than the Eglinton LRT doing nothing but delay the building of The Big Move.

In other cases, cities are just not committing to the projects, due to the funding uncertainty. In Mississauga, a $259 million east-west BRT line is half done,being split by all three levels of government. But the city is threatening to cancel a $1.6 billion north-south LRT line unless the province pays 100% of the cost (instead of making the city pay for a third). A lack of clarity between the province and Hamilton is raising questions on the building of its LRT line.

In all cases, it is the lack of dedicated and predictable revenue, and a lack of authority for Metrolinx, that is threatening to unravel all of the good work done to solve gridlock in Ontario's biggest metropolitan area. And it ultimately is the responsibility of Kathleen Wynne, who has refused to act upon her predecessors vision.

The price of this inaction? The Big Move estimated congestion was costing the GTHA economy $6 billion annually in 2008. No doubt it has started growing towards the $15 billion in annual congestion costs estimated by 2031.

That means each passing day of inaction is probably costing us around $20 million.

Clearly, we can't afford to wait any longer. Transit planning should be done by professionals, not politicians. Let's stop drawing transit projects on napkins, and stick with the plan. The original plan. The regional transportation plan. The Big Move.