A Monday morning confession: Try as I might, I simply have not been able to grasp the TTC’s intransigence towards Metrolinx’s allegedly treacherous proposal to outsource the construction, maintenance and operations of the three LRT lines.
The friction has been building ever since the spring, when council formally voted to give Metrolinx the go-ahead to build the LRT lines as originally conceived. But while the Metrolinx board last week tendered a $320 million tunneling contract for the 6.2 km western stretch of the Eglinton Crosstown, the two sides remain mired in an increasingly strident pissing match over the use of so-called “alternative financing and procurement” (AFP). And so the projects remain in a mystifying limbo
Metrolinx, according to The Star, informed the TTC last week it would be pursuing an AFP that would include not just the maintenance of the three LRT lines but also the operations. The reason: lower costs – hardly an unreasonable goal with such an monumental undertaking and an inflexible budget. The TTC, through chair Karen Stintz, professed shock and replied that if Metrolinx decides to outsource, it will blow off the city subsidy that offsets about a quarter of the operating costs.
I have lots of time for Stintz, but she’s bluffing on this one, and the province knows it. When it comes to provincial-municipal relations, Canada’s unwavering constitutional reality is that the City of Toronto should not try to role Queen’s Park except in the most exceptional circumstances, which this is not.
Stintz should have absorbed that lesson with the OneCity fight. But if she didn’t, she’s going to learn it with this one. Queen’s Park has time on its side, and can always put the whole show on pause if it is unable to negotiate a master agreement with the City of Toronto over an issue as politically anodyne as AFP financing, a.k.a. privatization-lite. Council in the end will cave, especially if it looks like Dalton McGuinty’s minority government will fall.
The Liberals, through Infrastructure Ontario, have done dozens of AFP deals, and the sky has never fallen. The arrangements are tamer than traditional Triple-Ps because the private partners face far less demanding financial performance expectations. In the case of the LRTs, for example, they’ll likely be paid a fee regardless of ridership, which means the winning consortium takes on less risk and therefore doesn’t need to cut corners or do back flips to meet its margins.
In a prickly and politically pointed report tabled at the Commission [PDF] back in late May, the TTC offered up a shopping list of criticisms about Metrolinx’s use of AFPs and its approach to building these projects. The document reads like the work of an institution chagrined at the realization that is no longer the only game in town.
Some of the objections – e.g., that Metrolinx may be inattentive to consultation or construction disruption – are laughable, considering the TTC’s own track record. Other concerns smell to me like pretext arguments. The LRT lines will be interoperable from a fare perspective: after all, by 2022, we’ll have a functioning open fare system and tokens will be just a bad memory. What’s more, the agencies’ officials will sync up other operational elements, like scheduling. Transit companies in European cities like Copenhagen — oft sited as the leader in progressive urbanism — use private contractors to operate lines, and it all works seamlessly as far as riders are concerned; they don’t care who runs the lines, as long as they run quickly, efficiently and safely. There’s no reason to think Toronto will be an exception; indeed, the public would rebel if Metrolinx and the TTC couldn’t resolve workaday logistical details or tried to double-toll users.
Then there’s the transit union, which opposes privatization and has threatened a work slow down in response to the city’s bid to contract out cleaning. I understand why the ATU takes its position, but that’s hardly a compelling reason for the TTC and the Commission to seek to block the deal with hollow threats.
In many ways, the Commission’s reaction – with Stintz channeling the views of the brass – reveals that the TTC, despite Andy Byford’s attempts to shake things up, remains a deeply conservative organization that is resistant to change or incursions on its turf.
I also feel we’ve watched an earlier version of this very show. The TTC had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the electronic fare card era, resisting even the most basic changes in the way passengers pay. Earlier this month, the agency trumpeted the fact that it was going to allow customers to use debit cards to buy their Metropasses in more stations, as if that move was evidence of progress.
Indeed, as far back as 2004, the province was trying to push the TTC to modernize its fare systems. And Toronto transit users are still waiting.
If we lived in a more rational period, the mayor of Toronto and the premier of Ontario would be wading into the fray at this point, doing the statesman thing and ordering their officials to negotiate a compromise for the mutual benefit of the city and the province. We don’t live in that moment, however, so Stintz is out there on her own, trying to fight a battle with Metrolinx that the city cannot win.
I’d say she should retract her threat and move on. The City and Metrolinx need to sign that master agreement before the sun sets on this Liberal government, a political shift that could well imperil these long-overdue transit improvements.
As the old saying goes, history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce.
photo by Raja Sambasivan