KPMG report: David Gunn’s advice is more to the point (and, at free, it likely cost far less)

Don't know who put the Frank Zappa billboard up on the side of the building containing the Leslie Barns project office, but his words seem mighty appropriate.

Don’t know who put the Frank Zappa billboard up on the side of the building containing the Leslie Barns project office, but his words of wisdom seem mighty appropriate.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

The obvious irony is that a consultant’s report released in September 2016, advising the Toronto Transit Commission how to complete capital projects on budget and on time, missed its original deadline by 10 months.

We don’t know if there was a set budget, and weeks of trying to find out merely how much the public paid has turned up nothing: The city told me to ask the TTC, while the TTC replied, sorry, “the city commissioned it.”

The consultant, KPMG, didn’t respond to requests for comment on what it billed and why it took such a soft approach to investigating troubled projects – including the Toronto-York-Spadina subway extension (TYSSE), the Leslie Barns streetcar facility and new signaling systems for the Yonge-University-Spadina subway.

The city seems happy with KPMG’s work and the TTC has agreed to adopt all 41 recommendations, including calls for gate-keeping at key stages on future projects, clearer definitions of management responsibilities and better processes for documenting and monitoring progress. Local media gave it a quick and soft once-over, and likely won’t return to the matter.

But does this report get us much closer to delivering bang for the buck on transit projects?

A public angered by fiasco after fiasco on the transit capital file might ask why KPMG ignored the many people who warned early on that these projects were off the rails.

KPMG didn’t talk to David Gunn (by far the most-respected TTC chief in recent decades). Gunn, in 2011, told the TTC, politicians and Globe and Mail readers the signaling project was in deep trouble and that the grandiose, stand-alone stations on the TYSSE made no sense. He also advised TTC leaders to cancel the now-troubled Bombardier streetcar deal.

In a recent discussion, Gunn pointed out that if the TTC had listened and opted for proven 70% low-floor vehicles instead, it would have saved money and grief and wouldn’t have needed the Leslie Barns maintenance facility at all. And if KPMG had talked to those who can say “I told you so” on Leslie Barns, it wouldn’t have swallowed the “scope creep” excuse for cost overruns (a botched site-selection process made the utility relocations necessary).

City councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon labeled Leslie Barns “a boondoggle” on her first day in office in 2010, but was repeatedly ignored by the TTC and fellow politicians. KPMG didn’t contact her either.

Seeking alternatives, McMahon assembled a group that included globally respected transportation engineer Ed Levy. If KPMG had spoken with him (or others in the group, including me) they might have learned the city – blinded by the prospect of getting 18 acres from the Toronto Port Authority for $1 – encouraged the TTC to skip international best practice’s Step 1 in picking sites for such facilities (minimize the deadheading or the number of unproductive kilometres). Toronto’s now locked unnecessarily into an operating setup retaining wasteful commutes to get vehicles into and out of service, especially on the 509, 510, 511 and 512 routes.

Absurdly grandiose stations  on the Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension were part of the reason the project is late and far more expensive than it should be. David Gunn warned us about the problem six years ago, but KPMG didn't bother to interview him.

Absurdly grandiose stations on the Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension were part of the reason the project is late and far more expensive than it should be. David Gunn warned us about the problem six years ago, but KPMG didn’t bother to interview him.

As for that too-good-to-be-true $1 site, a commercial real estate executive with the company then known as Barnicke told McMahon’s people the most it was worth – “if level, clean, approved and desirable for commercial redevelopment” – was $15-million. Cushman & Wakefield, the real estate consultants the Port Authority hired to assess the worth of the site put the value at $1, if it was left fallow for future parkland (trying to develop it would bring hugely costly liabilities into the equation).

In the end, the TTC paid more than 10 times the best-case $15-million price just to make the site usable. Connecting tracks alone cost 7.5 times the estimate the TTC used to justify the site choice.

KPMG states that costs escalated because of delays in awarding contracts; the hard truth is that costs soared because of haste to award contracts for an ill-conceived plan. There was a concerted effort to ignore people raising red flags.

On the TYSSE, some warned at the conceptual stage that it was nuts to push subway into Vaughan and bore deep tunnels through low-density areas. GO trains on the surface would have better served York Region’s rush-hour commuter rail needs. (You can read about the backroom politics that put the TYSSE into play in former provincial cabinet member Greg Sorbara’s memoirs).

So, how did KPMG investigate? It interviewed “68 key personnel and stakeholders at the City of Toronto, the TTC and from external organizations, including key personnel for each of the projects” – most, we can assume, are people with vested interests in minimizing the embarrassment that should accompany projects gone awry.

The report even includes a disclaimer that KPMG “neither warrants nor represents that the information contained in this document is accurate [or] complete.” (Imagine a newspaper that relies solely on the veracity of news releases and PR people?)

There is some good advice in KPMG’s 200-plus-page report, but it ignores a crucial truth: The world’s best project management cannot save bad projects.

Or, as Gunn put it: “There’s no magic to this stuff. You need a small, strong, informed group of managers, and the person at the top has to have the balls to stand up to politicians when they insist you do stupid stuff.”

SmartTrack can only buy us time; we still need a DRL or whatever you want to call it

After letting four thoroughly jammed trains pass on Nov. 24, 2014, late in the afternoon, I ditched the politeness and squeezed aboard one. The day began with having to let two jammed trains go at Coxwell, and we left large crowds on nearly every platform west to Yonge.

After letting four thoroughly jammed trains pass on Nov. 24, 2014, late in the afternoon, I ditched the politeness and squeezed aboard one. The day began with having to let two jammed trains go at Coxwell, and we left large crowds on nearly every platform west to Yonge.

After Tweeting and FB-posting about horror-show subway crowding yesterday, I was asked why I hadn’t written a recent blog posting on the need for a new subway line through Toronto’s core, and whether John Tory‘s SmartTrack plan will be enough.

The fact is, this op-ed piece for the Toronto Star done back in July pretty much covers it.

 

 

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.

 

Ready or not, it’s Cho time in the Sheppard LRT-subway debate

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Toronto’s desperate for brilliance on the transit file.

And if we get more than a flash of it for Sheppard Avenue in coming years, we may be indebted to an immigration officer who visited Seoul in 1965. Such are the wonderful chains of events available when looking back over longer lives – not that we’re calling Raymond Cho old.

Without that bureaucrat, Cho wouldn’t have been talked into coming to Canada. And, without Cho, the next phase of this interminable and painful Sheppard debate would almost certainly be more of the same. But after more than 20 years on council, Cho’s suddenly a rookie TTC commissioner. His background is in social work. He has a master’s, a PhD and a sense of humour.

He also has a big problem.

Cho represents Ward 42, Toronto’s northeast corner, and it’s the likely plight of his constituents that best highlights a gaping hole in the discussion.

Even with a new light-rail line — the recommendation of an “expert” panel that reviewed a narrow menu of options for council — transit will be messy for voters in Cho’s ward.

Consider a Ward 42 resident attending York University or Humber College, or working on Finch West or at Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. The trek might start with a walk to a stop and a wait for the Neilson, Morningside or Progress bus to get to the new line.

LRT would provide service to Don Mills station and another transfer point, this time for a five-stop subway ride to Yonge. From there, it could be two more stations on a northbound train to pick up the Finch West bus for a ride over to another LRT starting at Keele. Or it might make sense at Sheppard-Yonge station to grab a bus to Downsview, before transferring to a northbound Spadina train to York or Vaughan or the Finch LRT.

Round-trip, that’s up to 12 transfers, and studies have found transit riders’ wait-time perceptions are often out by a factor of three.

Apparently, since the March 5 council meeting, we’re back heeding transit experts, and experts say minimizing transfers is a key to public transit’s competitiveness with private cars.

Respected transit people — including David Gunn, Richard Soberman and Ed Levy — made this point at a 2008 symposium put on by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario. None of those who spoke is anti-LRT or pro-subway, but all felt Transit City, which council seems eager to re-embrace, had big flaws, starting with Sheppard-Finch corridor disconnects. They indicated that if we put LRT lines on Sheppard east and Finch west, we better find a way to make them one, even if it means converting the Sheppard subway to light-rail.

TTC planners may have listened because, for a brief period, Transit City was augmented to link the lines via Don Mills Road and Finch East, though that solution isolates the Sheppard stub, wasting a billion sunk-cost dollars.

Cho didn’t ask for this mess, but then it wasn’t his idea to move to Canada. His brother was the would-be immigrant, but brought Raymond along as an interpreter. That’s when the Canadian official persuaded Cho to apply, setting in motion the events that have landed him on the Sheppard hot seat.

Cho offers a thoughtful “hmmm,” when it’s pointed out that, simultaneously, we talk of seamless Metrolinx-led transit across the GTA while preparing to lock into a series of time-wasting hurdles for east-west travel within the city. “The question is a very valid one,” Cho says when asked what he’ll tell constituents. “This is one area I’ll take a very close look at.”

Of course, at council, Cho must endure lobbying from pro-subway and pro-LRT zealots. It will test his claim to have risen above the left-right rift that has deprived Toronto of sanity since amalgamation. But Cho must know something about resolve, growing up in Japanese-occupied Korea, losing his dad in a cholera epidemic and, as a teen, keeping out of the line of fire in the Korean War. And though Canada wasn’t welcoming when he arrived, he became a great immigration success story.

“I remember asking, why did I come to this stupid country?” he says, recalling racial intolerance and long shifts as a dishwasher, waiter, miner and janitor. “At one point, I even picked worms. It was hard, but it was a great education, much more valuable than my doctoral degree. I learned to listen. I learned how to talk to anyone.”

He says by the early 1970s, once he’d brought his fiancé from South Korea and settled in Toronto, he fell in love with Canada.

“I knew this was my country.”

Now, at 75, does he have the energy for such a baptismal firefight in the unfamiliar transit portfolio?

“C’mon, compared to Hazel McCallion, I’m a teenager,” he says.

Councillor Cho has since announced he will support the panel’s LRT recommendation. No word yet on what he’s telling his constituents.