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.