Although it is a shame that no money can be transferred from the provincial gas tax early enough to avoid significant fare increases, it's important to note that Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara remained committed to the transfer... someday. Likewise, Prime Minister Paul Martin is still talking about a federal gas tax transfer... assuming he can fix his surplus projections. We can remain cautiously optimistic that money will come. What happens when it finally gets here?
What doesn't happen is that subways start springing up all over the place, unfortunately. Although Miller, Martin and McGuinty, through their words (Martin) and their deeds (McGuinty and Miller) are committed to helping the TTC through its fiscal crisis, it's a hefty fiscal crisis that it has to be helped through. Back in November, when the stars appeared to be aligning and the 3M Alliance materializing, somebody on the Urban Toronto board asked what it all meant for the TTC. This (edited) is the reply I came up with.
It's important to note that Martin and McGuinty have spoken only of transferring funds over to the municipalities; unlike their previous administrations, they have not committed funds to specific projects. We can assume that if the money is transferred, the TTC can use it as it sees fit. Mayor Miller has been very clear what he intends to do if the TTC gets the money it requires: throughout the municipal election campaign, Miller promised that he would pursue the TTC's ridership growth plan, which is available on the TTC website, and in the archives of Transit Toronto (transit.toronto.on.ca).
The TTC's Ridership Growth Plan is a study in doing a lot with a little. Unlike the transit proposals in the suburbs surrounding Toronto, the ridership growth plan does not call for the immediate construction of subways. It's all about small and politically feasible steps. Unfortunately, due to the sheer size of the problem, these baby-steps still have to be done in million-dollar shoes.
Basically, the TTC's proposal calls for the following:
1. Maintain the system in a state of good repair.
This means making sure that enough money is spent to maintain the TTC's current service levels, and ensure that the buses, streetcars and subways that maintain those services are in safe and operable condition, and that all TTC properties are in an adequate condition to serve passengers.
It's important to note that, at present, the TTC does not have the money to do even this. Last year, it cost over $300 million in order to maintain the system in a "state of good repair", considered to be the minimum standard required to prevent another fatal accident like the Russell Hill subway disaster. In their final years in office, the Harris Tories came forward with a funding proposal that had the municipalities pay for a third of public transit's capital expenses, the province pay for a third and the feds pay for a third. Before the Harris Tories took over, the province paid for 75% of the capital expenses of every transit agency in Ontario, with the municipalities paying the remaining 25%. From 1996-2001, the City of Toronto was wholly responsible for the TTC's capital expenses.
The federal government never agreed to pay 33% of the TTC's capital expenses, and only came forward with some of the money in a set of specific, one-off handouts. The provincial government under Eves was $64 million short in its 2003 commitment to the TTC. So, as the end of 2003 approached, it looked as though the City of Toronto would be on the hook for something like 75% of the TTC's capital costs. This problem eased somewhat when McGuinty's Liberals approved a one-time transfer of $62.3 million in funds.
The TTC's capital budget is due to increase significantly in the next few years, peaking at a high of $538 million in 2006, and staying well over $450 million each year until 2010. The TTC's dire straits are part bad luck, part bad planning and part the result of provincial interference thirty years ago. It's mostly a reflection of the cost of maintaining a huge transit system, with major infrastructure components getting as old as 50 years or more. Almost none of these costs can be avoided without compromising the TTC's ability to safely and effectively move over 400 million passengers per year. The government foot-dragging over the past decade has already had such an impact.
And this only covers the capital budget of the TTC, saying nothing of the operating budget, which covers the cost of fuel and employee salaries. Farebox revenues cover 80% of these costs (a North American record). The remaining 20% comes to over $150 million for this year alone, and the City of Toronto is wholly on the hook for that. Fuel and employee costs are increasing and, without increased subsidy, the already overcrowded services the TTC offers will have to be cut back still further, pushing more people into their automobiles, and increasing the congestion on Toronto's streets. No wonder this matter needs attention now.
Between the TTC's capital crunch and its operating costs, the costs of keeping the TTC operating in 2007 will likely reach $700 million. A 2-cent-per-litre transfer of the gas tax to the municipalities from both the provincial and federal levels could cover this, but it's possible that this is all that it would cover. If the TTC wants to increase ridership, decreasing gridlock, even more money will have to be spent.
2. Increasing the operating subsidy in order to increase levels of service throughout the city.
Let us assume that the provincial and federal governments come through with the needed funds, and the TTC is able to maintain services at current levels and in safe and good operating conditions. Let us say that there is a small amount of money left over. What can the TTC do with that?
Back at the end of the 1980s, one didn't have to wait long for a TTC bus or streetcar, even late into the evening. The vehicles weren't running empty, either. Everybody knew that the TTC was an excellent public transit service and one could easily live in the city and get by without driving a car. But back at the end of the 1980s, the TTC's farebox recovery was 68%. The fact that they now operate at 80% means that a lot of subsidy has been cut and people have been forced to wait longer, travel in more cramped conditions, and pay much more for the privilege.
The TTC knows that it's overcrowded and that the waiting times for buses and streetcars are too long at many stops. They are prevented from supplying more buses because, over and above the capital budget, they have a limited amount of money to pay for fuel and driver time. Ideally, they would like to see headways cut. People shouldn't have to wait more than ten minutes on a Sunday on major routes for a transit vehicle. Already, people don't have to wait more than five minutes for a subway train, and passengers have responded by using the service. Something approaching 30 minutes on all surface routes, 5 minutes and under during rush hours, would significantly increase ridership and decrease gridlock. It would, however, come at a cost.
To go back from 80% to 68% farebox recovery means raising the operating subsidy of the TTC by at least 60%. More buses and more streetcars would operate throughout the day; vehicles would be less crowded and waiting times would be reduced. TTC ridership would jump, possibly past the 500 million mark, and congestion would decrease. It would, however, mean raising the TTC's annual subsidy from $170 million to $272 million per year, a $102 million increase. This would be offset by the reduced congestion on the roads and the improved throughput of the city, but it's difficult to transfer the significant economic benefits into the tax revenues required to make it happen. The system would be healthy enough to handle the additional 2 million people expected to migrate to the Greater Toronto Area within the next seventeen years, but governments seem as hard-pressed as the TTC to make the investments required in order to ensure the future.
3. Establish Transit Priority
The TTC is excited by the St. Clair LRT project. Come what may, in 2005, much of the trackwork on the St. Clair streetcar line will have to be replaced. For a few million dollars more over the expected budget, the TTC can change the streetcar line into an LRT operating on private right-of-way, just as is the case on Spadina Avenue. Although some business groups are having NIMBY reactions, the proposal has support from members of the community, and three out of the four councillors enroute are favouring the project (Michael Walker, the lone opponent, is muted in his opposition).
Doing this will substantially increase the reliability of the St. Clair streetcar, shave 5-10 minutes off of travel time, and significantly increase ridership. The TTC will be able to serve the line at current headways with fewer vehicles, increasing revenues and decreasing costs. There is also the possibility that, by combining tracklaying with anticipated roadwork on St. Clair east of Keele, the line could be extended westward to Runnymede, Jane or possibly even Scarlett Road, substantially improving transit in a very transit friendly area. All told, it would establish the usefulness of streetcars on private rights-of-way in the future of Toronto's transportation network. Other proposals, like LRTs for Kingston Road or Lakeshore Boulevard (promised in the Toronto Official Plan) would be given a significant boost.
Other ideas include bus-only lanes, increasing use of transit-favouring signals, and other measures designed to keep the buses and streetcars moving. Why should one person turning left in a SUV inconvenience eighty people waiting behind in a bus or a streetcar?
Best of all, it wouldn't cost all that much, and it would get transit moving in the most congested parts of our cities. It's not as flashy as a new subway line, but it would be cheaper. It is, unfortunately, not free. The fact that the TTC has to beg for money in order to make these small but significant improvements is one of the more frustrating things about being a transit supporter in this day and age.
4. Fix the *#$#^#*! Scarborough RT
Pardon my vernacular.
The Scarborough RT may be a technological white elephant, but it's moving people. You can't just take it away. Unfortunately, under the current funding climate, the TTC can't do much to expand service, either. It is operating at design capacity during rush-hours, and there are few, if any, places where additional used equipment can be bought to increase service. The TTC did look to Vancouver to buy additional vehicles, but Vancouver anticipates keeping all of its Skytrain cars for the next ten years, at least.
The TTC believes that it is losing as many as 6 million riders per year because of capacity problems on the Scarborough RT. Over and above this, there is a looming problem: the design life of the Scarborough RT vehicles is expected to end in 2015. The solution beyond that date is to either rebuild, or buy new. The Mark I design is obsolete and cannot be resurrected by Bombardier without substantial overhead costs. The Mark II design cannot operate on the Scarborough RT without at least $120 million in modifications (taking the SRT offline for two years), and that doesn't include the price of buying these new cars.
The TTC hasn't come up with a solution, yet, because the politicians haven't addressed the issue in the capital budgets -- most haven't even recognized that this is a problem. The TTC has some ideas on how it can fix this (replacing SRT cars with new, modified CLRVs, biting the $120 million bullet and retrofitting the system, or possibly even replacing the SRT with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway), but at present, this is not yet a priority while the State of Good Repair and the bare-bone service remains an issue.
5. Subway Expansions
IF the TTC can be guaranteed enough money to maintain the current system in a state of good repair, IF the TTC can be given extra money in order to expand surface transit so that people don't have to wait so long for their vehicles, or be as crowded in, IF something can be done to get our transit vehicles moving on our congested streets, and IF the problem of the SRT can be addressed, THEN the TTC can start to consider subway expansion.
The TTC has commissioned a Rapid Transit Expansion plan study, and has identified two priority projects that can be followed once the other commitments have been met:
- Completion of the Sheppard subway to the Scarborough Town Centre
- Extension of the Spadina subway to York University.
Both provide the greatest bang for the buck without overstraining the system. The Sheppard subway is really half-finished, anyway, and only comes into its own once it stretches halfway across our city, driving a spike of urbanity in our suburban reaches, and also offering up a viable alternative to the 401 in suburb-to-suburb commutes. The other extension reaches out to a major trip generator, and offers the TTC a gateway for commuters coming in from the northwest.
The TTC considered other extension proposals, including:
- Yonge to Clark Blvd, with an intermediate stop at Steeles
- Bloor-Danforth to Dixie, via Sherway Gardens
- Eglinton West subway.
The Yonge extension to Clark Blvd would actually generate the greatest ridership increase, but as the Yonge subway is operating near capacity south of Lawrence, there would be no place for these people to go. Extending the Spadina subway north of Steeles first gives northern commuters access to a line which has capacity to spare. The additional riders on the Dixie extension was actually quite low, and the Eglinton West subway, while an obvious long-term priority, doesn't provide enough of a benefit compared to the other two priorities identified.
The TTC expresses cautious optimism about Miller's proposal to fund incremental subway development ($100-200 million per year in perpetuity). Applying this, we could have the Sheppard subway finished in 7 years, and the Spadina extension finished in 10. After that, who knows? Right now, the Sheppard extension to Downsview is not on the table (I don't agree with this), but if the funds keep coming, then other priorities, such as an Eglinton line, may make an appearance.
So, there you have it: the TTC has a plan, and Miller has committed to it. It is, however, very conditional on funds being offered. If there are no funds, then there is no plan.
If there is no plan, then expect complete gridlock by the end of this decade.