Bad choices beget more bad choices.
If I lie on a government form, I will almost inevitably have to dissemble more in order to ensure the continued viability of the original lie. If I buy a luxury car on impulse without bothering to calculate how to cover the monthly payments, I will soon have to stop doing something that I need to do.
And that’s where we find ourselves with the $3.5 billion (but probably more) Scarborough subway. The bad decisions continue to pile up.
Consider the weekend’s news, unconvincingly denied by the mayor’s office, that there’s a plan afoot to sell Toronto Hydro and some parts of the Toronto Parking Authority portfolio, presumably to raise much needed capital to cover the costs of the things we can’t afford, like three-stop subways running through low-rise residential neighbourhoods.
Such sell-offs, though not yet approved, are the result of the specific sort of fiscal desperation that John Tory has brought down upon the city by pledging too many super expensive projects and then adamantly refusing to make tough choices.
At such moments, it’s always useful to bring the conversation back to opportunity cost: What is it that we won’t be able to do as a result of these choices? You don’t often see an “opportunity cost’ section on a staff report, but given the madness of council’s current transit plans, perhaps that kind of analysis — like the dissenting opinion of a Supreme Court justice — might prove useful.
Which brings me to the subject of buses, and specifically why we don’t talk more about the goal of making Toronto’s bus network into a service that is just so outstanding, and so easy to use, that local politicians compete with one another to promote major investments in this critical part of the TTC’s operations.
Or put another way, what would we get if we chose to put $3.5 billion into the TTC’s bus network instead of promoting white elephant schemes that will barely dent the transit access crisis that afflicts not just Scarborough but most of Toronto’s inner suburbs?
First, it’s important to note the political narrative of the bus file. Rob Ford persuaded council to make crippling cuts to suburban bus service. Olivia Chow opened her campaign for mayor by promising to reverse those cuts. Tory countered with Smart Track. But soon after winning, he scooped Chow’s pledge and restore service on 33 routes, at a cost of $95 million.
During this year’s budget process, the TTC has laid out a ten-year capital plan to allocate $2.4 billion to new or upgraded buses, as well as new garages and other related infrastructure (the TTC’s overall capital budget, of $9.3 billion, includes a $2.8 billion gap). The proposed 2016 operating budget, in turn, proposes about $11 million for a handful of bus service enhancements (e.g., late night service, Sunday morning service, etc.) and “reliability initiatives” designed to improve service on a handful of high traffic suburban corridors. (The TTC has successfully boosted reliability on Dufferin, one of the most heavily-used trunk lines.)
Overall, TTC officials says, the service improvements financed with the restored $95 million have benefited 300 million individual rides. But those changes are still delivered within the constraints of the TTC’s utilitarian service standards and its target financial returns for routes. Case in point: during peak periods, the agency’s crowding standard allows for buses to operate with up to 40% of passengers standing. And while the TTC claims that its network operates within five minutes walk of most neighbourhoods, the service standard still allows for wait times of up to 30 minutes between buses (compared to a five-minute head time for subways).
Regardless of where one stands on the subway-LRT divide, there’s a broad and largely unchallenged consensus that rail is where we should be going. But we’ve never really had a broad conversation about what would happen if the city opted instead to invest comparably giant sums in the bus system.
Which, let’s face it, is an serious oversight, given the sheer reach of the network. According to the TTC, the agency operates 143 routes covering 7,000 km, with its 1,900-odd vehicles logging some 131 million km last year. Buses deliver more passenger trips each year than subways (245 million compared to 220 million), and they stop in 9,500 locations, compared to the 74 stations on the subway/RT network.
So what if we do some fantasy bus math as a counter-point to the magical thinking that passes for the planning for the $3.5 billion Scarborough project. If council doubled the current ten-year capital budget ask ($2.4 billion) for expansion and re-investment in the bus network, there would be enough left over (i.e., from the $3.5 billion committed by the three orders of government to the Scarborough subway) to build and equip LRT routes on Queen’s Quay East, Bremner Boulevard and the Portlands, according to TTC documents.
What’s the impact? The $2.4 billion in the 2016-2025 capital budget proposes 1,400 new buses, each with a lifespan of about 18 to 20 years. The TTC currently operates almost 1,900 buses, and about 1,500 are running at peak periods.
What happens — again, incomplete analysis here, shorn of the important accompanying discussion about operating costs — if the TTC expands its bus fleet by 75%? Do we create a service no longer characterized by strap-hanging and mosh-pit conditions? Does missing the bus become little more than a brief delay because the next one’s already in sight (think of the Spadina streetcar service)? Does the combination of sharply reduced head times and travel comfort attract more passengers? And how much will increased ridership offset higher operating costs associated with service expansion (i.e., more drivers and fuel)? On this last point, the TTC is already accumulating evidence that its bus service reliability investment generates new fare revenue.
Here’s another angle: there’s mounting evidence that new subway and LRT investment is linked to rising residential real estate prices. Because so many of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods are situated in the inner suburbs, will the new lines inadvertently drive up the cost of living in areas whose residents can scarcely afford to pay more for housing and mobility?
Or let’s think about waiting for that bus. Imagine if the TTC took the $1 billion left over after spending that $2.4 billion to expand the fleet and embarked on a plan to transform all those forlorn suburban bus shelters. Do the math: with 9,500 stops, the TTC could invest $100,000 per shelter and still have a few bucks left over. A TTC bus shelter currently costs about $25,000. In other words, it’s possible to envision turning the TTC’s entire portfolio of bus stops into comfortable places rather than tarted-up billboards.
Again, the point is that as council moves to layer one calamitous decision on top of another, we should work harder to game out what else the Scarborough subway spend would buy, and whether a dramatic investment in the bus fleet in particular would alter public attitudes about the most extensive part of the TTC’s operations.
The billions that will go towards those three stops could boost a form of transit service that already touches every neighbourhood in every corner of the city.
Buses, buses, buses. It’s high time we have that debate.