And, incredibly, it’s still not too late for Ford to look like a genius on the Scarborough transit file

By STEPHEN WICKENS

“To offer riders a more convenient route and alleviate potential budget pressures …”

Leading with those words, provincial transit agency Metrolinx issued a news release justifying the Ontario government’s decision to kill the Hurontario light-rail line’s two-kilometre loop through downtown Mississauga.

It’s hard to argue with a declaration that the most attractive routes at the best possible prices are a priority, though the degree to which this adjusted plan is likely to succeed in Mississauga prompted considerable debate – debate that continues even if it has since been drowned out by news (on March 26, 2019) that Premier Doug Ford has decreed big changes are in the works for four Toronto transit projects.

Some are still questioning how the changes to the Hurontario plan can be more convenient for people whose journey includes Mississauga Centre – surely a big proportion of potential ridership. At least the line is to be built in a way that allows the loop to be resurrected later.

As for cost savings: Although the line is now to be 10-per-cent shorter with three fewer stations, the estimate remains $1.4-billion, same as in 2014, meaning “budget pressures” is basically PR-speak for cost overruns, even if the “project scope” has changed. The overruns are mostly the result of “important design and engineering needs” not identified until 2017, Metrolinx spokeswoman Amanda Ferguson said in an e-mail.

Fair enough. Let’s hope everything pans out better than advertised.

But if Mr. Ford and his transit advisers really are serious about “more convenient” routes and alleviating “budget pressures,” the obvious starting point would have been big changes in Scarborough, and not by adding stations to the ill-conceived subway project.

At a time when the government is rightly making noise about the deficits and debt it inherited, plans for extending the Toronto Transit Commission’s Line 2 and the eastern stretches of Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack plan have us on track for a double-whammy of spectacular waste and suboptimal services.

There has long been a much better plan, and Mr. Tory knows about it.

It’s an option that should have appealed to the Premier in that it doesn’t involve LRTs or reverting to the nearly fabled seven-stop light-rail route that is an article of faith in some circles, including on the opposition benches at Queen’s Park.

Scarborough does deserve much better than its faltering SRT line (foisted on the TTC in the 1980s by a previous provincial government). And, fortunately, the groundwork for the better plan has been salvaged with the Ford government’s apparent willingness to largely continue with Metrolinx’s Regional Express Rail network (recently rebranded “GO Expansion”). In simple terms, GO-E adds track capacity on most Metrolinx corridors, with more stations and, probably, electrified operations that permit much more frequent service.

Conveniently, one of those corridors – the one serving Markham and Stouffville – passes just 1.5 kilometres from Scarborough Town Centre. As a bonus, much of the land needed to build a spur line between STC and GO’s corridor is already publicly owned. If we let GO serve Markham and divert SmartTrack service to STC, we don’t need to tunnel a six-kilometre subway for $4-billion, or $6-billion or more.

Better still, transit users would get a faster, more direct trip downtown from Scarborough than they would by subway – seven stops to Union in one seat, rather than 22 with a change of trains at perpetually overcrowded Bloor-Yonge station. In fact, SmartSpur would allow SmartTrack to relieve a bit of the crowding on Toronto’s subway, rather than aggravating it as the current Line 2-extension plan would.

The SmartSpur idea first showed up in a 518-page report about electrifying GO’s rail system, released in 2013 by Transport Action Ontario (a volunteer group that, among other things, lets transit professionals do work other than what’s assigned in their day jobs). It was a serious plan produced and reviewed by serious transit people. The biggest knock against it has been that it kills any case for a Scarborough subway extension, which was little more than a vote-buying promise that underpinned former premier Kathleen Wynne’s support for Mr. Tory in the 2014 mayoral race (against Mr. Ford).

SmartSpur is based largely on the fact that upgrades – already under way – to double-track the Stouffville corridor and add a fourth track to the Lakeshore East line offer far more capacity than GO and SmartTrack need. Running subway-like frequencies will require a state-of-the-art signalling system, not cheap, but overall potential savings were estimated to be in excess of $2-billion, and that was before the subway-option’s tunnelling and station cost estimates soared.

We know the Premier prefers underground trains (and is talking now about going underground on Eglinton West, too), but his advisers should have pointed out forcefully that the cities getting transit built – the great metropolises with those enviable subway maps – rarely bore costly tunnels beyond their dense downtowns (55 per cent of London Underground is above ground, as is 62 per cent of Hong Kong’s system).

Going the SmartSpur route offered Mr. Ford a dual opportunity: to tackle an embarrassingly wasteful commitment made by the former premier, while showing his former mayoral-race opponent, Mr. Tory, how to do SmartTrack right.

Whether the Premier is big enough to backtrack now is an open question, as is whether Mr. Ford is receiving quality advice.

He could still look like a genius in Scarborough, reinvesting savings to push SmartSpur out to Malvern via Centennial College, or extending the Eglinton Crosstown east from Kennedy. Of course, Mr. Ford could also reallocate funds to a Relief subway, the most urgent transit need in Toronto and the GTA.

As for Mississauga, maybe Mayor Bonnie Crombie can persuade her city to fund its loop. Toronto had to pay for its subways when it was still building them downtown.

 

Architectural wankfests and standalone TTC stations

If you’re not bringing subways to your urban areas, you have to bring urbanity to your suburban station catchment areas. Anything else is obscenely wasteful

Hey, this field on Steeles Avenue looks like a great place for a subway station. And when we put one there, lets ensure it's really elaborate, with no irritating reasons for large numbers of people to visit the area on foot. In fact, lets make sure it has two elaborate entrances, with the second one just like the one below. Its hip, downtown facade might disguise its suburban irrelevance.

This column ran in the National Post on February 14, 2011. It’s business as usual with a wasteful approach to stations on the Spadina-York subway extension, but TTC vice-chairman Peter Milczyn made an  encouraging announcement at the January 5, 2012 planning and growth management committee meeting. He said he will push to ensure we never again build such standalone stations. 

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Apparently, Steeles West subway station will get a hip, downtown façade. Too bad it won’t get a real, downtown built form, hip or otherwise.

Politicians keep telling us capital and operating funds for transit are scarce, so why do we even consider standalone subway stations, let alone permit the plans and discussions about them to descend into architectural wankfests?

While we blow $857-million on stations for the $2.6-billion Spadina-York extension, many seemingly intelligent Torontonians debate the relative costs of LRTs and subways and puzzle about how some places on this planet make real rapid transit affordable and effective — even profitable on occasion.

Subways can pay for themselves in truly urban settings. We proved that a half-century ago along Yonge and Bloor streets and University and Danforth avenues. Present-day Hong Kong has turned subway building into a profitable business for all concerned.

The key is to understand and act upon the transit-land use relationship and capture the values created by rapid transit. In the 1950s and ’60s, for example, a much smaller and poorer Toronto could build subways without help from Queen’s Park and Ottawa because the existing urban form made passive value capture possible. Tax-base and ridership increases were enough.

But to make subways viable in greenfield environments and suburban areas originally designed for the car, aggressive and directed value capture strategies are needed. If you’re not bringing subways to your urban areas, you have to bring urbanity to your suburban station catchment areas. Japanese railways such as Hankyu and Tokyu pioneered these transit-oriented development models nearly 100 years ago.

In old inner-city Toronto, we had so much early urban success that we tolerated some wasteful standalone stations — though they were small and utilitarian. We should have adjusted the station and vicinity planning demands for our first forays into suburban Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke, but senior governments willingly subsidized the waste. Short-term it appeared to work, but it is one factor that contributed to the erosion of our political will to properly fund transit.

In Hong Kong, MTR Corp. builds and operates the subway system and has been profitable every year since 1979, largely because it’s also a major property developer with latitude. Malcolm Gibson, MTR’s chief of project engineering, told me seven years ago the key is that “tunnels and tracks will always be costly, but stations can be gold mines.”

To make that work, especially in a suburban environment such as the Spadina-York extension, the subway builder (that’s us, the taxpayers of Ontario) must ensure every station is located in the centre of an intense mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly node.

Because the space above the station carries the biggest premium, we must ensure the basic station — platforms, escalators et cetera — are part of the basement/foundation of a major development from the start. If you wait till the line is built and then try to sell air rights or build above a working station, huge amounts of the marginal subway-generated real estate premium is gone forever. Note that the most successful stations in Toronto have almost no footprint at the surface. They’re not monuments to “starchitect” ego.

In a North American context, the chances are beyond remote we’ll ever get subways for free, but it’s realistic to demand that developers pay for our stations. If we can’t do it, we’re putting the stations in the wrong place and/or the land-use nexus potential hasn’t been properly factored into the funding model.

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, as the march of folly continues, we get “hip facades” and irrelevant comments about the Steeles West plan from respected architects, university professors and their students.

Discuss landscaping, oxidized surfaces, the size of the lettering on the station, the latest celebrity gossip and the Maple Leafs if you must, but the one question that matters about Steeles West station is: How many thousands of people will perform daily functions such as living, working, shopping and playing within an easy and pleasant five-minute walk of the turnstiles?

Mentions of the station’s green roof and LED lighting, meanwhile, should make thoughtful environmentalists retch.

Sheppard West station will be a palatial spot for a few people to switch modes of transit. The green roof is a misinterpretation of what green means. And those people the rendering artist had milling about in front of the station: are we supposed to believe that will happen?

Rapid transit? Not on Spadina

Soon-to-be passengers wait as a red light holds up a northbound 510 streetcar at Dundas. Service is slow on this “rapid transit” route because streetcars regularly have to stop twice at intersections, once for the light and once for the passenger platform.

This story first appeared May 7, 2005, in The Globe and Mail. I got threatening and unpleasant phone calls in the weeks that followed (a couple from city councillors) because the St. Clair ROW debate was then at fever pitch. The TTC, which stonewalled on documentation and interview requests, complained, but could find nothing inaccurate. Luckily I worked for a great editor. Left out of the story was reference to a 14-week survey of Bloor-to-Front travel times in which the 511 Bathurst proved to be, on average, 191 seconds faster. A few months later, a TTC source tipped me off that the TTC would reprint its maps to show this route as streetcar rapid transit, even though “they know it was the TTC’s slowest route between the Bloor-Danforth and Queen Street.” The only things I’d change in hindsight would be to make clear that for pedestrians Augusta is 90 seconds closer to Spadina than Bathurst (strengthening the point), and I’d provide details of how misleading the claims are that Spadina ridership soared. City staff have said signal priority, mentioned as a potential solution, won’t work on Spadina because the east-west light cycles are minimum length for pedestrians for a street that wide, and that it would conflict with signal priority on east-west streetcar routes. Work started on the story in January, 2005, with the release of a city/TTC report titled Building a Transit City. More than a decade later, I stand by every word.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Arja Chopra has given up on the Spadina streetcar, just as the Toronto Transit Commission appears set to fully embrace similar dedicated-lane routes across the city.

Bathurst is faster, and it’s much more pleasant than Spadina,” says Ms. Chopra, who operates Sugar & Spice, a health-food store in Kensington Market, part way between the two streetcar lines. “I tried [Bathurst] because I didn’t like the crowds at Spadina station. Then I found it saved me a few minutes each morning.

“He didn’t believe me,” she says, smiling and pointing to husband and business partner Dave Chopra.

“It’s true,” says Mr. Chopra, who adds that he always urged his wife to take Spadina, figuring that the street’s dedicated transit lanes had to make the trip faster. Now he’s convinced they don’t, but he’s puzzled by one thing: “How can there be such a secret? Everybody still thinks Spadina is better.”

Maybe not everybody, but rare are the people who question whether the 510 Spadina route has really been the better way since it replaced the No. 77 bus almost eight years ago, at a cost of $140-million. As Toronto considers constructing Spadina-like rights of way as part of a $600-million citywide “surface rapid transit” network that could see dedicated lanes along Eglinton and Lawrence Avenues and on Don Mills and Kingston Roads, the question is critical. And the answer might surprise.

In January, shortly after the Toronto Transit Commission released a report calling for transit rights of way on these arterial roads, The Globe and Mail tried to assess the effectiveness of the Spadina line. Shown the results, opponents of the proposed right of way on St. Clair Avenue West say they now wish they’d asked more questions about the Spadina route during debates about the St. Clair plan. And a transit expert thinks the findings could place the $65-million St. Clair project in jeopardy.

We found that:

– Instead of living up to pre-construction reports that streetcars on dedicated lanes would cut travel time from Bloor Street to Queen’s Quay by 5 minutes — the original environmental assessment boasted of up to 10 minutes in savings — the 510 appears to take longer than the buses that plied the route from 1948 to 1997. A TTC document obtained last month says the trip takes one minute longer in the afternoon rush hour than in 1990. Run time data on historical and current transfers indicate a 17-minute bus trip in 1993 now takes 19 minutes by streetcar.

– The 510 may be the slowest of all routes between the Bloor-Danforth and Queen Street. Travel times on TTC transfers put Bloor-to-Queen trips at 12 minutes on Spadina, 8 minutes on Bathurst and 10 minutes on other routes.

– The TTC says ridership on Spadina is up 30 per cent since 1997, the year the line opened. But when compared with 1992, the last year before construction tore up the street and cut into ridership, Spadina is actually down 1.5 per cent, while overall TTC ridership is up about 3.4 per cent.

– TTC cost-to-revenue ratio lists show the Spadina and Harbourfront lines (now considered one for accounting purposes) have plunged to 35th-best among the TTC’s 132 surface routes. In 1997, they were No. 1 and No. 9, respectively, with the Spadina bus one of only seven routes turning a profit.

The only finding that Mitch Stambler, the TTC’s manager of service planning, strongly disputes is the question of whether the streetcars are slower than the old buses, although the numbers we’ve used came from the TTC.

But he says that speed isn’t the primary goal of the new dedicated lanes. “We have emphasized over and over again that on Spadina or St. Clair or any other route where we’re looking to establish a right of way, it’s not an issue of speed,” he says. “Service reliability and regularity matter first and foremost.”

Still, he says, the TTC is working to speed up service through gradual changes that include increasing capacity by coupling streetcars and acquiring new cars that accommodate more passengers, as well as providing more locations where operators can manipulate traffic lights.

Ridership on all routes is subject to “many, many macroeconomic factors,” he says, arguing that “apples-to-apples” comparisons aren’t always possible. And besides, he adds, the streetcar lines have benefits that extend beyond passenger numbers. “We’ve never argued that streetcars don’t cost more to operate than buses,” he says, pointing out that they’re still a bargain compared with subways, which cost about 10 times as much to build. “But all the benefits they bring — a smooth, quiet ride; zero emissions; economic development — are well known.”

While Mr. Stambler doesn’t sound worried about our findings, people from both sides of the St. Clair debate had a stronger reaction. “Good God! This is unbelievable,” said Ed Levy, an internationally respected transportation planner and engineer who made a deputation to City Council in favour of the St. Clair plan last year. “I supported light rail then, and I still do,” Mr. Levy of BA Group says. “But you have to do it properly.”

One concern he cites is the built-in delays caused by the positioning of passenger platforms, which should be placed before traffic lights, he says, but instead were put in after them to accommodate left-turn lanes for cars. “We’re forcing [streetcars] to wait at lights before they can pick up and drop off passengers on the far side of the intersections. It’s a mistake, and it looks like they plan to do the same thing on St. Clair.

“All this other stuff [Spadina travel times, ridership and economics] should have been part of the debate,” Mr. Levy says. Now, he says he fears the provincial Ministry of the Environment will call for a full environmental assessment rather than continue to fast-track the process. “They want to start construction this summer, and a full EA will probably kill [the plan] altogether.”

Of course, if the city and TTC’s ideas for St. Clair die, it would please Save Our St. Clair leader Margaret Smith, who says “the so-called Spadina experience and all its wonderful successes were used to sell the project every step of the way.”

She and her group believe advocates oversold potential time savings on St. Clair and ridership-growth figures on Spadina, and says she’s upset that the TTC and the city didn’t mention the streetcar line’s drawbacks in more than 50 public meetings about St. Clair.

“It doesn’t surprise me, but the fact this information is only coming out now is just further proof that the whole process stunk,” she says.

Mr. Stambler defends the TTC’s push for dedicated lanes, however, saying that the round-trip time from Spadina station has actually improved. “That’s a fact I’ll do a bit of digging on,” he says.”The fact that [Spadina] revenue over cost looks worse is: A, no secret; B, we’ve never hid it; C, we’re not embarrassed; and D, it represents an investment in the health of the city and the whole TTC, and that’s a decision council made.”

Mr. Stambler points out as well that the Spadina route became more costly because it went from bus to streetcar, but that this won’t be a factor on St. Clair.

Two others who had roles on opposite sides of the St. Clair debate didn’t sound at all surprised that Spadina doesn’t appear to have lived up to its hype. Richard Gilbert, research director for the Centre for Sustainable Transportation and a former city councillor, opposed St. Clair partly because he feels we haven’t learned from mistakes on Spadina.

“They may have built dedicated lanes for streetcars, but the intersections were designed for cars,” he says. “The St. Clair plan will do much the same thing, and it will only add to the litany of misapplied capital spending the TTC has given us in the past 30 years.”

Greg Gormick, who wrote a report called The Streetcar Renaissance for the TTC and the St. Clair EA process, says if we want any of these lines to really work, we have to make hard decisions.

“We have to decide whether we’re doing light rapid transit or streetcars. Both are good concepts, but Spadina is neither fish nor fowl — too many stops, too many concessions to cars. It’s the worst of both worlds and … unless we give transit real priority, we’ll repeat the mistakes, starting with St. Clair.”

And back at the health-food store in Kensington Market, Arja Chopra has a decision to make, too.

“They’re going to tear up the tracks on Bathurst this summer. I’ll probably use the replacement bus. We’ll see how it goes.”

Urbanism’s wheels gaining no traction in Six Points interchange

Plans for a downtown Etobicoke, on the books for 40 years, might finally be seeing a little bit of action http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonly?vgnextoid=b4e98d0195ce1410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD

Decades later, the lands around the old abandoned Westwood cinema in “downtown” Etobicoke present a bleak side of suburbia to passing motorists and the odd pedestrian. The condos under construction are close to the Kipling subway and GO Transit station.

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on April 16, 2005. Since then, a few condos have been built, but the 416’s commercial taxation disadvantages remain, as do the barriers to urban vitality created by highway-style ramps, railway tracks and a hydro corridor. It looks as if those trying to land a supermarket for Concert’s development had to settle for a Hasty Market. The litter remains, and it’s no fun being a pedestrian on this turf. Councillor Peter Milczyn won re-election in 2006 and 2010 and has since moved on to provincial politics. Getting a west exit from Islington station that goes under the CP corridor to serve the apartment neighbourhoods at Mabelle would be a huge improvement.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

David Holman can’t count the number of times he has driven through the Six Points interchange during 36 years living in central Etobicoke, but he’s certain he has never even considered walking through it.

“I have noticed a few people scurrying to get across the roads, and it doesn’t look like fun,” he says.

The retired accountant’s description may be a marvel of understatement: A steady stream of traffic whizzes through the interchange at most times of day, heading north and south on Kipling Avenue, east and west on Bloor and Dundas Streets and around in sweeping arcs on adjoining ramps surrounded by litter-strewn patches of lawn.

Fearful pedestrians may shun the 1950s tangle of asphalt, and drivers may take it for granted, but pay attention to the Six Points for the next few years and you may see the fiercest battle yet in Toronto’s attempt to turn the tide of runaway sprawl and deepening car dependence.

The city wants to remove the interchange as part of its Etobicoke Centre plan, a blueprint for the next attempt at creating a downtown in Greater Toronto’s suburbs. And while some question whether planners have had much success at developing downtowns in Scarborough, North York and Mississauga, the city’s assertive-sounding official plan states that “the area will develop the feel and function of an urban core,” and that “walking will be an interesting and pleasurable experience in Etobicoke Centre.”

But area residents aren’t so receptive to that idea. Opening shots were fired at a public meeting in 2004, when some concerned residents had to be turned away from an overcrowded Legion hall.

“The people weren’t rowdy,” says Islington Residents and Ratepayers Association director Bob Berry. “But they had a message: Six Points works as it is. I’d say 95 per cent agreed. We’ve had our discussions, and the response always seems to be that people don’t walk any more, they drive. If the city wants to push, there will be a fight.”

Ward 5 City Councillor Peter Milczyn knows there is substantial opposition and says the city is taking seriously “legitimate concerns about traffic spilling over onto residential streets.” But he supports the city’s intent and doesn’t sound willing to back down, even with elections set for next year.

“What was built there was a horrendous mistake and to not try to correct it when there’s an opportunity is irresponsible,” Mr. Milczyn says.

The opportunity he speaks of comes as part of a push to finally act on plans — nearly three decades old — to create a 2.8-kilometre-long, 420-acre downtown between Montgomery Road, east of Islington Avenue, and Shorncliffe and Shaver Roads, west of Kipling.

Already, as many as 5,000 residential units are planned, under construction or recently completed. Land surrounding Islington subway station is to be freed up for a mixed-use high-rise project by moving commuter lots and the Mississauga Transit bus terminal to Kipling.

The city plans to reconfigure the 10-acre Six Points site into a web of walkable city streets with buildings that extend to the sidewalks.

“The city has a key role here. We are the biggest landholders,” Mr. Milczyn says. “If we do this properly, if we create a real live-work-play mix and make it a pleasant walk to and from stores and restaurants, the subway and GO trains, people will get out of their cars. Visitors and office workers will arrive by transit — it will help the city, the TTC and the environment.”

But while Mr. Berry likes much of that vision, he thinks Mr. Milczyn is dreaming if he thinks people will ever give up driving. “And if you take out the Six Points, where’s all that traffic going to go?” he asks. “Who wants to live through the construction and disruption?”

John Alkins, a real-estate broker and the chairman of the Village of Islington Business Improvement Area, thinks cost might kill the Six Points plan. “But either way, development is coming, and for all the right reasons,” he says. “The key is not to have this so much as a place for people to drive through, but to make it a destination.”

Before the car was king — when the Six Points site was a rural crossroads called Wood’s Corners — suburbs gradually urbanized as a matter of course. Since the Second World War, steady road building has made it possible to perpetually develop at low densities with land uses so segregated that car dependence is unavoidable.

Even with infill and public transit expansion into Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and Mississauga, the old City of Toronto remains at least twice as dense as the older suburbs. And the downtowns of Scarborough, Mississauga and North York remain largely car-dependent, even with two subway lines meeting in North York’s case.

So can we go into areas built for the car and create, as the city hopes, “the feel and function of an urban core?” Can we ever “make walking interesting and pleasurable” if residents insist on priority for cars?

“You can’t foist things on people,” says Anne Milchberg, a City of Toronto real-estate manager and former planner who is deeply involved in the Etobicoke project. “But I think many are starting to see the value in having proper urban fabric. Whether that will ever weigh more than things such as road capacity, I don’t know. But I see encouraging signs.”

In the case of Etobicoke Centre, she says the fact the city’s works and emergency services departments would even consider trading Six Points for urban form is “a huge and positive cultural shift.”

Her hopes for Etobicoke Centre are also buoyed by two “organic shopping strips” — Bloor east of Islington and Islington Village, east of the Six Points on Dundas. “They’re already walkable, older-style places. It seems easier to graft onto something organic than to create planned places from scratch.”

But Etobicoke Centre faces hurdles besides Six Points. Most developers appear willing to build only high-rise condos in the area, rather than mixed-use projects that also cater to businesses, largely because tax rates on office and commercial properties are cheaper in nearby Mississauga..

As for retailers, most seem reluctant to deviate from the big-box model, especially in an area that can’t claim to be urban yet. Concert Developments, which is going through a site-approval process to build up to 950 units of seniors’, condo and market-rental housing east of Six Points, tried to comply with city requests to include an urban-style, pedestrian-friendly supermarket. But Concert’s Brian McCauley says the grocery chains are interested only in a suburban format surrounded by lots of parking.

“We approached them all without any luck,” Mr. McCauley says. “There will be a food store, but it won’t be what we’d all like to see.”

Another concern is the unpleasant walk between Islington station and neighbourhoods northwest of the CP and subway tracks. “That’s a deterrent to pedestrians, not unlike Six Points,” Ms. Milchberg says. “We’re working on ideas.”

But she is confident about urbanizing Etobicoke.

“This isn’t just a Toronto-area puzzle,” she says. “I don’t know of any city that has created truly lively, pedestrian-friendly places in its suburbs — at least since cars became so dominant. But we are learning. We’re chipping away and some of us are approaching Etobicoke with the hope this can really be the one, and that [other cities] might look to this as a model.”

Gunn’s broadside is ignored by people guiding the TTC

Veteran transit manager invited back to advise Toronto heading into its budget crunch, but gets the silent treatment from politicians and transit staff

One of the Toronto Transit Commission's new Rocket subway trains and an older T1 model pass each other like ghosts in the night at Davisville station. David Gunn says the fully linked six-car trains will have to be more reliable than ones made up of three two-car units.

This story first appeared July 5, 2011 in The Globe and Mail. Some readers misunderstood  David Gunn’s comments on streetcars (and I’ll take the blame for that). Gunn is in favour of retaining streetcars in Toronto and knows the fleet must be replaced. But he says the buying 70% low-floor vehicles instead of 100% ones would have provided far better value for the money, with better accessibility and lower maintenance costs. 

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Veteran transit manager David Gunn had a blunt message for the Toronto Transit Commission when he came at its invitation to provide 2012 budget advice.

“You’re headed for a cliff” and “this plan for a low-floor streetcar subway on Eglinton is insane,” were among the warnings given by Mr. Gunn to TTC staff, chair Karen Stintz and vice-chair Peter Milczyn in closed-door sessions.

Mr. Gunn, who has held top transit jobs in New York, Boston and Washington, as well as at Amtrak, the U.S. passenger rail service, said he is stunned by lack of response to his stern advice, given in May. “There was no reaction, no questions,” he said.

“They’re taking on huge financial and technological risks. There are serious safety implications. I think they’re headed for a cliff while people talk about new uniforms.”

Torontonians may remember Mr. Gunn as the man who got the TTC’s house in order with his emphasis on “state of good repair” after the fatal 1995 subway crash, which happened a few months after he arrived in town. Signal-systems neglect was deemed to be partly to blame and further examination revealed the entire TTC, once praised continent-wide, was imperilled by corner-cutting on maintenance and repair work.

Speaking from the notes he used on his visit, Mr. Gunn has provided Globe and Mail readers with a synopsis of his remarks, largely an analysis of the financial, technological, managerial and safety issues facing the TTC.

MAINTENANCE AND EFFICIENCY: These issues will never be as sexy as expansion announcements and ribbon cutting, but Mr. Gunn emphasized we “should stick with two priorities – state of good repair and improved cost recovery.”

On the former, he says the $4.2-billion in the long-term state-of-good repair budget, a small part of overall capital proposals, likely isn’t enough. “But as I told the commissioners, you better protect that 4.2 like your life depends on it.”

On cost recovery, he points out that in the past decade, the proportion of operating costs covered by fares has slipped to 70 per cent from 84. “It was a conscious decision by the previous commission. You had a 350 per cent rise in the deficit while ridership rose 15 per cent. You’ve got to get the economics back. A lot of the expansion was marginal service (increased frequency on existing routes). You can undo some of that, but it’s politically tough. Give a lower priority to expansion and the bells and whistles. The capital budget is chaotic. There are enough plans on the books to bankrupt the province,” he said.

SHEPPARD: Before he arrived in town this spring, Mr. Gunn made clear he believes the proposed subway extension to Scarborough will be a drain on operating funds, and the idea that the private sector would build it for the city is laughable. But he has another beef: “North-south capacity on Yonge is the TTC’s big problem. So, what are they doing? They’re planning extensions to feed the Yonge line.”

SPADINA: “The subway extension is basically on schedule and on budget, though they may be doing stuff you wouldn’t do if you had a rational commission. The stations and the line are not built to minimize costs because that previous commission (under chair Adam Giambrone) had the visions of grandeur. The stations are grandiose. They’re going to be way more expensive than necessary.”

EGLINTON: “Low-floor streetcars in a tunnel will cost you more than a subway while delivering less. I can’t for the life of me figure out how this decision was made.”
Cost is a big selling point for light rail, but Mr. Gunn said to put it underground requires tunnels bigger than for subways, while low-floor light-rail vehicles cost twice as much as subway cars and have less capacity. “It’s just crazy, it’s insane.” Metrolinx says that the smaller underground stations and reusing the Scarborough RT’s right of way make light rail the more cost-effective option. Mr. Gunn says “that’s such nonsense, but I guess if you can defend mixing the track gauges, you can defend anything.”

MIXING TRACK GAUGES: Claiming it will save money, Metrolinx has decided its rail projects will use North American standard gauge track, which is 60 millimetres narrower than the gauge used for the rest of the system. Mr. Gunn says Metrolinx doesn’t know what it’s talking about. “It won’t save you a nickel. Adding standard-gauge cars means a separate shop for heavy maintenance, and you don’t have the people to do the work. It reduces flexibility. It may seem obscure, but it really matters. It’ll go down in railway lore as one of the dumbest decisions ever.”

STREETCARS: “It makes no sense to replace the current fleet for $1.2-billion (plus $430-million minimum for a new storage and maintenance facility). It might cost $2-billion by the time you’re done. You could buy 200 articulated buses for less than $200-million.

“Maintenance costs will be horrific. There’ll be lots of bugs and they won’t be built like the CLRVs (current streetcars), which easily win all collisions with automobiles.   “Oh, and they’re not accessible. The floor height is about a foot. You won’t be able to load a wheelchair on the street. There will be ramps, but the floor height is going to be about a foot. The ramps will be too steep. I’d cancel the order. They’ll eat you out of house and home.”

ROCKETS: The new subways rolling out this month “will probably be fine trains,” he said, with reservations. “When you go from married pairs [detachable two-car units] to a six-car permanently linked train, reliability needs skyrocket. [A minor problem on one car takes an entire train out of service.] You’ve also got to change your shops and you don’t have interchangeability.” He’s also not sold on the larger capacity argument, fearing that being able to move freely through the train may lead too many people to try exiting at the same doors. “A 10 or 15 second delay from this can have big effects. Let’s see how people really use the trains.”

SIGNALS: Long-term, the TTC is looking to automate subway train control and operations. In anticipation, it’s rebuilding an old signal system while installing a new one. “That’s really pushing it,” Mr. Gunn says. “They don’t have the people and they don’t have a general superintendent knowledgeable in this area who can arbitrate between competing projects. And the signal work will conflict with necessary station and track work. “The best risk on this signal stuff is you lose capacity from a screw-up and work trains get in the way. The worst is an accident. That’s what happened last time (with the fatal crash in 1995).

FRAGMENTATION: “You must fight this fragmentation of authority, I said. There’s Metrolinx and Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd., the mayor’s office. If you don’t go through the commission chain of command, you’ll end up with crazy decisions. ”Mr. Gunn, who had to endure the Sheppard subway project while heading the TTC, says he told current chief general manager Gary Webster: “Trust me, the last thing you want is to get tasked with a stupid project. Another thing I said was that if the province wants to take over parts of the TTC, give them the whole thing. The rail and the bus system are one. It’s the most integrated system, probably in the world, certainly the Western world. It’s brilliant.”

LABOUR COSTS: “Despite the rhetoric about trimming fat, (Mayor Rob Ford) struck a rich deal with the police, which will roll into the TTC. He also got the TTC put under essential services, which means you’re going to have a terrible labour settlement. I don’t like strikes, but at least the threat of one forces both sides to get real. “Then there’s absenteeism: It’s about four or five per cent, the equivalent of an extra 400 to 500 employees covering for people calling in sick. That’s at least $30 million, maybe a lot more.”

IMPRESSIONS: “Not that things were pristine in my day, but the system looks dirty. The platforms used to get cleaned, but I was getting on at St. Clair every day for a week and there was this same mud swirl the whole time I was in Toronto. The trains aren’t getting washed either. They look shabby. It’s kinda depressing.”

TTC forced to mop up when planners and architects fail

Even if Variety Village’s isolated design was painfully ironic, it can make an otherwise complex transit service and funding conundrum accessible to all

Variety Village was originally dumped between two four-lane highways, then rebuilt in the early 1980s with its impregnable backside largely hidden but facing the TTC's longstanding stop on Kingston Road. Now that most buses are diverting to serve the other side of the building, residents of the Glen Everest neighbourhood have absorbed the headache.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

On the surface, Variety Village’s nearly 30-year push for a somewhat convenient bus stop was a no-brainer, but this is one case where blaming the Toronto Transit Commission is flat out unfair.

Sure, I had fun with tabloid journalism during a stint at the Toronto Sun in the 1990s, so I can understand the World War III-sized headlines and the crusading rhetoric the paper used last year to label TTC “drones” as “heartless” and the commission’s initial decision to merely study a route modification as “a kick in the teeth” for the disabled.

But there’s much more to the story and understanding the genesis of this battle matters to everyone in Greater Toronto. This is one of those rare examples that make a complex public policy problem reasonably comprehensible.

The Variety Village mess is rooted in the 1940s, when the province donated to the cause some land left over from construction of an interchange for Highways 2 and 5, better known these days as Kingston Rd. and Danforth Ave. Premier George Drew undoubtedly had good intentions, but when his people determined the original facility would be built on a steep slope between two four-lane highways, he may as well have been telling disabled kids to go play in traffic.

Although we didn’t start buying low-floor buses until the 1990s, there was a chance to address the accessibility disconnect in the late ’70s, when Variety Village shifted away from its role as a vocational training centre. The new focus on the physical, recreational and mobility needs of the disabled required a rebuilding program, which, with a little thought, could have created a connection with the surroundings.

Instead, when Premier Bill Davis opened the new facilities, media were told about wonders such as “adjustable disembarking ramps” for wheelchair vans. Nothing was said about those who would get there by TTC. “The building was designed so a person with any kind of disability can move and function without help or embarrassment,” officials boasted.

That’s likely still the case — once you’re safely on the island.

The new structures may be Toronto’s finest example of architectural irony. The “model of accessibility,” a place dedicated to helping the disabled fit seamlessly into our community, looks and functions more like a fortress on a hill. A walk from the long-standing Kingston Road bus stop to the entrance is a good four-minute climb over tough terrain — for a fully mobile adult, in good weather.

Variety Village may not have been able to hire the best architects, but shouldn’t those who okayed the plans have given primary consideration to an entrance close to and level with the Kingston Road bus, the only TTC route serving the property?

With hindsight, it’s obvious the new building should have gone atop or next to a subway stop, even if it cost more initially. It’s painful to think that Kennedy station, still surrounded by underused lands 30 years on, was built the same time as Variety Village.

It’s more painful to consider this is far from an isolated case and there’s no end of stupidity in sight. Post-secondary students often can’t afford cars, but since World War II we’ve marooned most new campuses where quality cost-effective transit is impossible. We put York University on farmland north of the city, then spent 50-plus years discussing an incredibly expensive subway extension to fix the mistake. We did it again recently with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, which could have helped revitalize Oshawa’s downtown or gone atop the GO station and its acres of parking. Instead, UOIT is in the city’s car-dependent north.

A wave of boomers is about to retire and many will end up unable to drive, but living in places designed for cars. Our kids are victims of unnecessary inaccessibility, forcing us to spend fortunes in time and money ferrying them to school and other activities.

Variety Village is a world-renowned contributor to our community – an institution whose fund-raising has been killed in recent years by lotteries and casinos. Even if it has contributed to some of its own problems, it deserves good transit access and our support. It’s nice to see that the TTC has applied a Band-Aid — though transit-dependent residents of the Glen Everest neighbourhood probably disagree.

But the larger lesson for all of us is, greenbelt or not, if governments allow or inadvertently promote office parks, big-box malls, colleges, subdivisions and condo towers where cars are essential, we guarantee taxpayers will get far less bang for the billions of bucks that may or may not eventually flow through the TTC and Metrolinx.