TAO and the politics of transit ideas in Ontario

Backers of an electrified GO-based Scarborough Rapid Transit replacement plan  may be a test for Rob Prichard’s assertion that it’s never too late for good ideas

Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard answers a reporter's question after the Sept. 10 board meeting, while president Bruce McCuaig looks on.

Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard answers a reporter’s question after the Sept. 10 board meeting, while president Bruce McCuaig looks on. Prichard indicated that he and the folks at Metrolinx view the transportation minister’s stripped-down subway idea as “fresh thinking.”

“Usually, the thing that’s in shortest supply in life is good ideas,” Rob Prichard told reporters after the Metrolinx’s Sept. 10 board meeting.

“When a new idea comes into play, our job is to take it seriously, do due diligence and see if it works,” the the transit agency’s chair said, apparently under the impression that Glen Murray’s Scarborough subway idea qualifies as fresh thinking.

“It’s never too late for great ideas.”

Well, those words may soon be put the test.

Folks at Transport Action Ontario, a respected transit activist group, believe they have the great idea for the Scarborough rapid transit replacement project as part of their Regional Rapid Rail Report, released last month.

Even if it’s only a good idea, it appears to have major advantages over the two subway proposals transit bureaucrats have been forced to take seriously in recent weeks. It also appears to have a significant edge over the light-rail plan that would divert the Eglinton Transit City line up to the Scarborough Town Centre, as per the much-vaunted Master Agreement ™ between Metrolinx and the city.

The biggest question is, will those in power seriously consider the idea in time?

The good news for TAO is that their report is on Metrolinx’s radar, though Prichard seemed surprised when it was mentioned in relation to the Scarborough situation – an hour or so earlier, during the seemingly scripted part of the Metrolinx meeting, he sought assurance from one of his VPs that TAO’s report would be considered as part of a Downtown Relief Line study.

In a nutshell, TAO sees the GO rail network as badly under-utilized in a metropolitan area desperately short of time, funding and transit infrastructure. TAO figures if we seriously speed up Metrolinx’s long-range plan to electrify GO’s network, we can get subway-quality service akin the S-Bahns of Germany for $55-million a kilometre – that’s less than LRT.

Key to the plan would be electric multiple-unit trains, which would be bi-level like current GO rolling stock, but would have traction motors in every other car. Rather than use a third rail, these EMUs draw current from overhead wires. According to Karl Junkin, the main author of the TAO report, EMU trains would be cheaper to run than ones hauled by diesel locomotives, with estimated savings of nearly $500-million a year. EMUs can also accelerate and brake like subways, allowing for a near doubling of the number of GO stations without slowing overall travel times. In combination with frequent service, this is massive in that it doubles the number areas where people can walk to a station and multiplies the number periods in which the stations are useful. That in turn can seriously improve efficiencies for transit operators all across the region.

“We’re talking trains every four minutes during the rush hour and every 15 minutes off peak,” Junkin says.

TAO argues the EMUs would provide faster service from downtown to Kennedy, Scarborough and beyond than either of the subway options – a city/TTC proposal for Eglinton and McCowan up to Sheppard for $2.3-billion (plus or minus 30 per cent), and Transportation Minister Glen Murray’s two-stop idea that would largely follow the current SRT corridor. Also, instead of adding ridership to the Bloor-Danforth, which is already at capacity in the morning rush, TAO’s EMU line would actually divert customers – acting as a sort of Downtown and Bloor-Danforth Relief Line.

“I have to emphasize that our plan would not eliminate the need for a DRL, Junkin says. “Not even close, but it buys us time, especially on the Richmond Hill and Scarborough corridors.”

Another potential advantage TAO’s idea has over the Murray plan, and the LRT proposed for the SRT corridor, is that the shutdown period could be shorter than three years, and the shuttle bus service needed during construction would only have to be from STC to Ellesmere, rather than STC to Warden or Kennedy stations.

In creative societies – a concept championed by Richard Florida and former premier Dalton McGuinty – rare good ideas are deemed valuable and creative people are encouraged to get them into circulation. But getting good or even great transit ideas “into play” in this province is nearly impossible if you’re not a well-placed politician. Even our transit agencies are taking their cues from politicians and seem shy about using their many talented people to truly seek and suggest best alternatives.

Prichard tells us Metrolinx will be unbiased in carrying out “confirmatory studies” of Murray’s plan. The provincial agency that was to depoliticize the transit planning process is clearly fixated on a corridor that has failed to produce transit-oriented development or urbanism despite nearly three decades of extremely costly rapid transit service. Those who’ve followed the Scarborough saga for decades can tell you the corridor wasn’t anybody’s first choice 35 years ago, but because it has been a default part of so many plans over the years, it now seems to have been accorded some kind of precedent status.

The TTC, meanwhile, also seems as beholden to politicians who are supposed to oversee the commission, a perversion of the intent when the board was reconstituted about 20 years ago. When asked if the TTC is even considering other options, WorldWideWickens was told the mandate is to study the two options that politicians have suggested. That’s reminds us of quip from Richard Soberman, one of the deans of the local transportation advisory business: “Getting advice from politicians on transit makes as much sense as going to the dentist for a colonoscopy.”

Anyway, it will astonish many, including a few within TTC HQ, but according to Andy Byford’s column in Metro on Sept. 13, the Eglinton-McCowan routing is “supported by myself and TTC staff.”

Soberman, by the way isn’t totally enamored with TAO’s plan. He says Junkin should have taken a more demand-oriented approach and he thinks the technical feasibility and cost estimates are “very optimistic.” Ed Levy, another of the wise local transit elders and author of Transit in Toronto, A Century of Plans, Progress, Politics and Paralysis, has written an endorsement that appears on the home page for TAO’s 400-page opus.

For what it’s worth, I had been supporting a subway plan that appears to be much better than either of the two on the table, but TAO’s report won me over in early August.

Merit aside, Junkin and senior TAO people know there will be resistance to any new proposals that appear to clutter an either-or subway race. They know they need a political champion to put their idea “into play,” to use Prichard’s terminology. TAO people have been meeting with senior planners and politicians throughout the region in recent weeks, and I caught up with them at City Hall on Thursday, during a meeting with Ward 32 Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon.

TAO report author Karl Junkin discusses the GO electrification proposal with Ward 32 Councillor Mary Margaret McMahon during a presentation at City Hall.

TAO report author Karl Junkin discusses the GO Regional Rapid Rail proposal with Ward 32 Councillor Mary Margaret McMahon during a presentation at City Hall.

Not that seniority is likely to help, but it’s worth noting that TAO’s plan actually came out before the July City Council meeting at which the expensive Eglinton-McCowan subway option was approved (It seems to still be under the radar for most politicians despite a good story about by the Star’s transportation reporter Tess Kalinowski). Murray’s suggestion, meanwhile, which most figure has the inside track, apparently wasn’t even a germ until after council voted for a subway less than two months ago.

“This project is about a region-wide network, but the whole Scarborough debate has suddenly made things urgent,” TAO president Peter Miasek admits. “But I think a lot of people are going to be angry down the road if politicians overlook what is clearly the best overall option for all concerned.”

These guys pray Prichard is right about one thing, that it’s never too late for great ideas.

Why Ignore Our Best Scarborough Transit Options?

It should distress everyone in Ontario that the only two official options on Toronto city council’s menu – the Eglinton-based LRT/SRT replacement and a strange, three-station preliminary subway plan – are third rate, at best

For more than three decades, the swaths of land at Kennedy station have provided little return to its owners, the public. But with the Rail + Property model, we could maximize the worth of this real estate, make transit operations more efficient and take profits to reinvest in infrastructure.

(This post was written before the Sept. 4 news that the province has another idea for building this Scarborough subway. Queen’s Park’s latest idea would be fifth best among options considered below.)

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Among the emails awaiting me after a recent offline break in the north woods were requests from some of the usual suspects for my take on the Scarborough transit saga.

For a change, I’ll admit the plan I’d favoured just weeks ago is probably now second best – a realization I hit upon while studying a report by Transport Action Ontario analyzing the GO rail system’s potential – if electrification is tackled promptly and intelligently. Released in July, it’s must reading for all who care about the GTA’s economic health and quality of life.

We’ll examine the 400-page report, titled GTHA Regional Rapid Rail: A Vision For The Future, in a separate post, but we should note here that it makes a strong case for electric-mulitple-unit technology, which among many possibilities, could quickly deliver near-subway-level service from downtown, through Kennedy station to Scarborough Town Centre, Malvern and beyond for less than Metrolinx’s allegedly funded LRT option. Too bad TAO’s report didn’t appear sooner because, as important as many of the recommendations are, they likely can’t become part of mainstream discussion in time. Through the grapevine, we hear some GTA planners and decision-makers are suddenly intrigued by this report but, so far, the Star has been the only major media outlet to clue in.

Anyway, we’re talking Scarborough transit here, and as humbling as it is that my idea – an alternate subway alignment with emphasis on the Rail + Property funding model – might now be second best, it should distress everyone that the only two official options on city council’s menu – the Eglinton-based LRT/SRT replacement and a strange, three-station preliminary subway plan – are no better than third rate.

In this part of the world, we have a history of making bad transit decisions, sometimes because we cling to any ideas that have traction, fearing that if we step back and think for a moment we mightn’t get anything done at all. But dumb decisions are among the things that have killed the public’s will to properly fund transit in recent decades. The RT may be Exhibit A. It’s bad enough that we have to junk a transit line that’s not even 30 years old. Really galling, however, is the significant likelihood we spent more on this politically driven, allegedly low-cost alternative to subway than we would have spent on an actual subway in the first place – and all the while we did not realizing the RT would be temporary.

More obvious to some of us in the early 1980s, was that any serious transit line linking STC with central Toronto via Kennedy station was a natural extension of the Bloor-Danforth and that forcing an en route transfer – especially with Kennedy station lacking any destination qualities – was foolish. In 2013, it’s still a bad idea to build in a transfer for riders going into town via Danforth and Bloor, no matter how much more convenient it may be than the current station setup and no matter how much we’re concerned that the westbound Bloor-Danforth is now at capacity in the morning rush. Encouraging more city-bound Scarborough, Durham and eastern York Region riders to use Eglinton and the already overcrowded Yonge line makes no sense at all. If you consider that an Environmental Assessement is already approved for extending the Eglinton LRT east to Kingston Road and out to Morningside Mall, it’s a bad idea to divert this line to serve northeast Scarborough. Eglinton was one part of Transit City that made sense, on nearly all counts.

As for city council’s now-favoured $2.3-billion subway option, which would provide that all-desirable one-seat service from downtown to the STC (when seats are available), the preliminary alignment, apparent funding assumptions, station spacing and the lack of regard for capitalizing on surrounding real estate are all horrible. The silos that promote or tolerate this kind of “thinking” must be smashed. The only planners who could seriously consider deep-bore tunneling east under Eglinton and north under a dead stretch of McCowan – with three more wasteful standalone stations – are yes-men or yes-women working under duress.

The only comparative benefit of the Scarborough subway plan that was before city council last month is that it would allow the SRT to continue operating while the new rapid transit is built. That’s a tiny gain for the huge amounts of waste that model would entail – at a time when transit funding is scarce. Transportation minister Glen Murray said Aug. 28 that a more firm route preference will be revealed in a few weeks. Let’s hope the powers that be come to their senses in the interim.

If we are going to build a Bloor-Danforth extension to the STC, let’s seize upon it as the long-awaited golden opportunity to demonstrate the worth of the Rail + Property (R+P) business model on this continent. It can deliver far more than big savings on a one-off transit project. R+P is the international gold standard, the model best practice for subway development that proactively links transit and land-use for economic and urban planning objectives.

For some reason, decision-makers in these parts seem hostile to R+P, which has been essential to making transit funding sustainable in Far East metropolises and has kept MTR Corp. in Hong Kong profitable for decades. Adaptation and experimentation will be required for a GTA context, but the Scarborough case presents a special opportunity because the public owns so much underutilized land in the best subway corridor.

R+P considers stations as mixed-use profit centres integrated into their surroundings, while the Toronto model treats stations as cost centres, delivering wasteful standalone buildings that repel development. Don’t confuse R+P with the Ford brothers’ dreams of free private sector subways, or with the narrow and superficial consideration of value capture contained in reports from our transit funding discussions earlier this year.

There’s no way of honestly estimating how much profit potential is available – short or long term – by employing the R+P model to real estate on this route. But then the official $2.3-billion subway extension estimate being bandied about is also vague, and necessarily so. It’s a plus-or-minus 30% number, meaning anything from $1.6-billion to $3-billion (which makes this side spat with the province over $400-million seem absurd).

If R+P is considered from the start, we’d unshackle the thought process. We consider the seemingly radical demolition of the current Kennedy station, which real estate experts agree is a major impediment to transit-oriented development in such a key, potentially urban location – where the Bloor-Danforth subway, GO rail and the Eglinton LRT will meet. The focus needs to be broadened from building a transit facility at Kennedy to fully leveraging our massive publicly owned land holdings surrounding and above the station, through Build Toronto or a new but similar entity.

R+P would require a cultural adjustment for Torontonians. Rather than decrying the unearned value granted lucky or well-connected landholders in station catchment areas, we, the people, would be in position to profit and reinvest. We own that land and should be demanding that our politicians do all they can to maximize returns from our assets and infrastructure investments. Long term, the example of efficiency would also likely nurture the political will to fund transit properly, and that’s important because R+P cannot come close to doing it alone in the North American context.

R+P for the Scarborough extension might also be a great opportunity for a provincial government trying to revive its image after the gas-plants scandal. And if the province were really smart, it would create a Build Toronto-like Crown corporation to bring in private-sector expertise for maximizing the worth of lands surrounding our GO stations. Metrolinx has quite the portfolio of underutilized land.

Making the Scarborough subway extension work economically would require adjusting the alignment through a new Kennedy station and briefly into the old SRT space before turning into the main Gatineau hydro corridor, at least to Brimley and Lawrence. That would allow us to use much-less-expensive cut-and-cover tunneling (and don’t forget that cut and cover was and is plenty good for most of the original Yonge, University and Bloor-Danforth subways). It would mean a bit more traffic disruption during construction, but if it significantly increases the chances that Scarborough residents get their subway – and get a more useful subway with more stations at a better price – it will be tolerated. Brimley is also quite dead, but it is better suited to subway than McCowan, and would allow us to reach the STC via the west side with less underground work.

Burying high-voltage wires and removing the towers while digging cut-and-cover subway tunnels can open up huge amounts of valuable real estate at station sites, such as this spot here where the Gatineau hydro corridor crosses Midland.

Better still, with hydro infrastructure buried in the Gatineau corridor during tunnel construction – a surprisingly inexpensive process – stations at Midland and at Brimley-Lawrence could be designed as the hearts transit villages on newly freed-up lands. The hydro corridor acreage is huge and we would have to get the province to transfer the lands from Hydro One to Build Toronto. But if we blend in office, residential, retail, educational and service uses, and if we focus on the pedestrian, we’d ensure subway-worthy ridership before the long-term and obviate the need for high-rises.

Even where we don’t own the land, at Scarborough Town Centre, R+P can come into play as Oxford Properties should find it worthwhile to provide a station  as part of the basement/foundation of new developments. Where R+P is used, it’s understood the marginal cost of station infrastructure tends to be much less than the upstairs premium available to the developer if the excavation, foundation and platform work is done at once.

Alas, while I love this second-best plan because it can get us past the absurd idea that Toronto cannot afford subways, it would increase Bloor-Danforth line ridership, which is a problem with all the Scarborough rapid-transit options other than the one presented in the TAO report. It’s sad, but as Toronto Transit Commission CEO Andy Byford and transit planning veteran Ed Levy point out, we’re short of good network options because the Downtown Relief Line is so overdue for the entire region.

I hold out little hope that the transit bureaucracies and politicians will wake up to the possibilities in time, and that’s a shame. This is a rare and special opportunity.

 

Transit leadership crisis merely a symptom of much deeper woes

Gary Webster, left, talks with interim successor Andy Byford before the special TTC meeting that led to the switch. Even if bad things happened under Webster, his dismissal without just cause was a mistake, damaging Toronto's reputation as a place for good transit people to work.

Nearly everything about the way the TTC is structured and governed must change if good advice, wise planning and quality transit at a reasonable price are to be priorities. Otherwise, Andy Byford will go the way of his predecessors.

Good luck Andy Byford!

Next to crime and trauma scene cleanup specialist, leading the Toronto Transit Commission is the worst job in your new home city.

The fact that your three most recent predecessors were forced out by politicians barely scratches the surface of what’s wrong with this gig. If you are the man for the job and if you dig deep, you’re sure to conclude that starting points must be a new relationship with elected officials, a new corporate culture and a total restructuring, including a spun-off entity that fosters commercial integration of transit and land-use.

Customer service panels, town halls and the addition of citizen commissioners can only diddle with the symptoms of a decades-long decline.

Yes, it was petty and counterproductive for those five commissioners to axe Gary Webster, but you’re surely smart enough to see through the political posturing, even if many seemingly intelligent Torontonians swallowed whole. You must have seen similar backstabbing and disingenuousness while working in Australia and the U.K.

TTC managers have been pressured to tailor advice for political purposes going back at least to the 1970s, when we somehow chose to maroon stations of the Spadina subway in the median of an expressway.

Good but powerless experts foresaw woes of the Scarborough RT well before it was built. And those who felt in 1989 that we should cut our losses and scrap that line were effectively silenced.

Pressure to manufacture a case for the Sheppard subway and play down the urgency of a long-proposed line through the downtown core, beginning 30 years ago, will cast a shadow over many debates you’ll have to lead.

In fact, there’s a good case to be made that all pending plans for Eglinton, Sheppard, Finch or a northerly extension of the Yonge subway are trouble if the so-called Downtown Relief Line can’t jump the queue. (Little-known fact: tiny, cramped Yonge-Bloor station sees more daily passenger movements than Pearson airport and Union Station combined).

Of course, politics also played a big role in the rush to create the Transit City plan in March 2007, and to sell it to the public ever since. There are people still shaking their heads over a decision by one TTC manager to attend and appear prominently at the launch of Adam Giambrone’s brief run for the mayoralty.

The latest census shows Toronto has 2.615 million transportation experts. But, while many realize transit is a problem of organized complexity, most seem to prefer simplistic debate — black or white, left or right, subway or light rail. This suits our ideologically riven council members who want us to shut off our brains and pick sides. It’s also essential to mainstream media, which increasingly cater only to those with short attention spans.

But it doesn’t help anybody make wise decisions.

Compounding the mess, Andy, is that Toronto wasn’t big when the car became king. The pre-amalgamated cities of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough have about half the density of old inner Toronto, and the gap isn’t closing. Those outer areas were designed for cars and drivers, but are now populated by people who need transit. Alas, the built form makes quality cost-efficient service delivery tough.

Our long-standing assumption that pushing subways into suburbs would automatically drive urbanization turned out to be bunk. However, attempts to get the TTC to seriously consider how to adapt and adopt creative funding models and aggressive value-capture tools, like those used in the Far East, have been met with disinterest at best (while still a city councillor in 2003, David Miller got the TTC to agree to report on transit development corporation models like the one in Hong Kong, but despite repeated requests over years, the TTC has been unable to produce evidence that it did any work on the project).

Even the mayor’s office, which purports to favour private-sector involvement, had the most interesting parts of Gordon Chong’s report on subway financing chopped before publication (make sure your copy is an early uncorrected proof containing Chapter 7, “Other Value Capture: Revenue Generation Options”).

If we truly believe transit spending is an investment, returns on the investment have to start becoming a priority. If we do that, it forces intelligent debate on the real relative costs of subways and light rail. We’re likely to still conclude LRT is the way to go in many cases, but the debate will have been honest.

Sorry if you probably know all this, but talk with your vice-chair, Peter Milczyn; he seems increasingly attuned to the possibilities and the shortcomings of our previous model.

Make sure you thank your predecessor for eventually standing up and opposing the loony idea of burying light rail under Eglinton East, but you might ask him where was he on the possibly-as-wasteful design and funding models for the ongoing Spadina-York subway extension. Deep-bore tunnels through low- and no-density areas and grandiose standalone stations make this project far more costly than it needed to be up front, while hindering the long-term development processes that can help it pay back.

Yes, some bad things happened under Webster, but overall he was just the latest fall guy for a dysfunctional organization.

For years, one of Toronto’s most revered and entertaining transit experts has been saying, off the record and only partly in gest: “The fastest way to find yourself unemployed in this town is to speak the truth.”

Some part of that wisdom will always be true.

You’ll have to choose your battles, even in your interim role. But unless you get extremely wise help to start radically altering the rules of the game, you’re guaranteed to lose – as is Toronto, again.