At a packed Board of Trade speech last week, Rocco Rossi vowed that as mayor, he would “put everything on the table” in negotiations with the province over the future of the TTC (and, by implication, its murky relationship to Metrolinx).
Rossi seems to be implying that the TTC’s very status as a city agency may be in play if he wins. Rival George Smitherman doesn’t appear to disagree. In an interview with The Star, Smitherman (who’s found religion on the topic of contracting out) mused about outsourcing bus routes to private operators, as is done in London. He’s been vague about the rest of his TTC plans (the precondition to all changes, he said in an email, is the city getting its “house in order”), although he praised Metrolinx and called for more seamless transit within the region in a speech to the Board of Trade last December.
Time to call these guys out. If elected, are they planning to have council ask the province to upload all, or part, of the TTC to Metrolinx? And if so, what are the arguments? And what would drive the province to agree?
Spacing contributors John Lorinc and Steve Munro bring the debate out of the rhetorical shadows.
The Case For Uploading
In the past sixty years, the TTC has served Toronto well, concentrating growth within the former Metro boundaries and driving intensification closer to the core. In the 905, by contrast, municipalities and the province failed to invest comparably in transit, leading to today’s gridlock, productivity losses, and sprawl.
The region’s transportation crisis, however, cuts across municipal borders.
When 905ers end up on the TTC, Toronto taxpayers subsidize their fares. And when 416ers get stuck in traffic in York Region on their way to work, 905 taxpayers pick up the tab for road repairs. The reverse commute on the Don Valley Parkway and the peak period crush on the northern end of the Yonge subway line are symptoms of the dearth of a meaningful regional transportation strategy.
Following the lead of other large metropolitan areas like London, Madrid and Vancouver, Queen’s Park established Metrolinx in 2006 to address the problem, and it subsequently assigned the new agency to run GO Transit.
Then, in 2008, Metrolinx approved “The Big Move,” a long-term $50 billion vision to reduce congestion and increase transit use across the GTA/Hamilton with subways extensions, bus rapid transit/light rail corridors, etc. While Metrolinx is now building two of the new Transit City lines and other “quick start” projects with provincial cash, the Big Move strategy still lacks a sustainable long-term financing plan, i.e., road tolls, congestion charges, parking levies, and other user fees.
Metrolinx will only fulfill its mandate if the agency can exercise significant planning and operational control over the TTC, GO and other 905 transit agencies.
There’s no reason why individual agencies like the TTC shouldn’t retain their corporate identities, local marketing, and customer relations efforts, as is the case with Greater Vancouver’s Translink. But the improvements envisioned in The Big Move can’t happen with the current patchwork system that militates against inter-municipal coordination, especially when it comes to planning large capital projects.
Evidence? Just look to the long-running stalemate over the smart card. Unlike most major transit systems, the TTC has resisted the introduction of new fare media while Queen’s Park has pushed for it as one of the conditions for provincial funding (Presto will debut in the 905 later this year, but will be only available for limited use in Toronto for the time being.)
Perhaps more importantly, if the Liberals want to persuade GTA residents that The Big Move must be financed at least partly with new user fees such as road tolls, they have to assure voters they’ll get results. And that means creating a single authority with the clout to make the system work in a comprehensive way.
Looking ahead 25 years or more, Queen’s Park also wants to realize a return (not just financial, but also social and environmental) on those multi-billion-dollar transit investments by making the most of service integration – smart cards, system information, ease of movement between lines, coordinated schedules, and so on.
Ultimately, though, this is about imagining life in the GTA in 60 or 80 or even a hundred years, a time when the concentrating effect of the greenbelt (and global warming) should be very evident on development patterns across the region, not just in the core.
By then, I’d hope the GTA is a far less congested place than it is now, with yet another generation of integrated transit service. We could, in theory, follow Madrid’s lead, with a regional agency driving a new generation of subway expansion to other parts of the 905, besides Vaughan city centre.
Indeed, the decision to extend the Spadina line up to Vaughan arguably marked the moment when the TTC ceased to be a creature of the 416. The embattled agency did what it had to do inside the old Metro borders.
Now it’s time to move on.
The Case Against Uploading
What should transit do for our city? What expectations does the TTC fail to meet? What goals do we have that Metrolinx might ignore?
Those who would lead Toronto prefer to hand our single largest municipal agency to provincial control and abdicate any responsibility for the future of our transit system. This will save Toronto the cost of subsidizing the TTC, but what does the city lose in the process?
Toronto has much better transit service than the 905 municipalities because of population density and a history of good transit policy decisions.
Toronto’s Official Plan presumes aggressive improvements to transit service in support of added density on major streets. Will Metrolinx share this view or starve Toronto of better transit?
Toronto’s fare policy combines a uniform fare for short and long distance riders to encourage transit commutes, and extensive pass use to make transit an “all you can eat” option for the best customers. Metrolinx/GO is a fare-by-distance system. Do people from Scarborough or Rexdale want to pay more than twice their current fare to commute to the core area? Who will subsidize their rides if Metrolinx controls the TTC?
Toronto Councillors quickly complain when TTC service in their wards falls short of constituents’ desires. Who will they turn to with Metrolinx running the system? How much effect can they have on a secretive board that meets publicly every few months, and then only to rubber stamp a handful of staff reports?
Metrolinx’ neither knows nor cares about local transit services. The Big Move is all about regional trips. It ignores the huge gap between transit service in the 905 and the local demand GO’s expanding network will create on 905 bus networks. The Big Move assumes that local systems will pay for whatever is needed. What happens if GO is the local system?
The GO model – parking lots in the suburbs and a big TTC subway conveniently sitting at the heart of the network downtown – does not work for reverse commuting or for trips that neither begin nor end on the GO network.
GO takes the easy projects – converting existing rail corridors for commuter use and running a network of express buses mostly on existing roads. Where is the commitment to creating new corridors? Where is the commitment to developing transit markets rather than letting pent-up demand fall into GO’s lap?
Funding for The Big Move is uncertain. Metrolinx remains on a tight year-to-year budget and there is no sign of a dedicated revenue stream from any source. Policy is announced by the Premier, not from a detailed public discussion of revenue sources or how best to spend them.
Would Toronto and the 905 municipalities be required to contribute to Metrolinx budgets as they now do to GO? How would Toronto be compensated for the billions in municipal investment and associated debt it has paid in the “Toronto share” for TTC assets?
Would municipalities have the option to contract with Metrolinx for better than “standard” service on routes within their borders, or would Toronto be forced to accept whatever works for Newmarket, Burlington and Durham?
Unified service requires only the will to operate and fund the network. Each transit system budgets independently today and is never sure of future subsidies. Anything that reduces farebox income or drives up service requirements without compensating revenue is a major issue for every GTA transit systems. While the TTC continues to expand, 905 systems retrench.
How can Metrolinx “take over” the TTC, an organization with three times the employees and over eight times the ridership of GO Transit? What is the real aim here? Does Metrolinx plan to outsource the entire TTC, or have new companies assume existing operations with major changes to the labour contracts?
If TTC management is inept, as candidates allege, where is the cadre of transit experts poised to take over their jobs? Metrolinx, GO and the TTC use the same consultants to plan and design their networks. Will they magically become models of quality and efficiency just because they report to a provincial agency?
If the issue is union wage rates, benefits and working conditions, why have arbitrations consistently gone in the union’s favour? Why didn’t Queen’s Park impose settlements when they had the chance?
Why do we assume that a new set of political cronies, friends of Queen’s Park, will do any better than the crew at City Hall?
Metrolinx and the Liberals must be honest with Toronto’s voters. Nobody knows what “uploading” means beyond making the TTC someone else’s problem. Would-be Mayors can slip through the campaign without any detailed transit policy.
We must decide what we want from our transit system. Only then we can decide how to achieve those goals, including how to pay for them. “Uploading” isn’t a solution. It is a smokescreen to avoid the real debate.
photo by Wylie Poon