Finance Light Rail Toronto

Toronto’s Major Transit Ambitions Set Back by Fiscal Reality

» Ontario Premier directs regional transit agency to cut capital spending significantly over the next five years.

It was supposed to be one of North America’s largest public transportation projects, with eight light rail lines criss-crossing this dense city. Yet Toronto’s Transit City plan, endorsed with billions of dollars in local and provincial aid as recently as last year, may have suffered an insurmountable loss last week.

Reacting to a gloomy economy and a depressing fiscal outlook, Ontario Province Premier Dalton McGuinty informed regional transportation officials at Metrolinx that they would have to find $4 billion in planned construction savings over the next five years to help ensure that the Ontario budget stays in line with anticipated revenues. This announcement puts most of Toronto Mayor David Miller’s hallmark Transit City program in jeopardy and opens the city’s transportation future to further reexamination.

The lines currently under construction, including the Sheppard Avenue light rail line and the Spadina Subway Extension, are expected to be spared but plans for the other lines may fade away.

The Premier’s decision puts an unexpected wrench in a vision that in recent years has come to define popular thinking about Toronto’s transit future, and it follows years of something close to unity on thinking about transportation between the Liberal Premier and the NDP Mayor. Indeed, after proposing the $6 billion, 120 km Transit City system to general skepticism in 2007, Mr. Miller eventually received clear financial support from Mr. McGuinty, who pledged billions in 2009 as part of his own broader $17.5 billion Move Ontario project.

Previous plans for transit in the greater Toronto region, some of which reached the construction stages in the early 1990s, had been shut down by conservative administrations at the Provincial level, leaving for completion only the 3.4-mile Sheppard “stubway” line, which opened in 2002. Most of the Transit City projects have long been on the planning books (though previously as subways). Improving transit in the metropolitan area is largely seen as a priority program for the center-left Liberals and the left-wing NDP.

The provincial administration’s direction to Metrolinx (which is managing implementation) to find projects to put on the cutting board likely means no construction in the next five years for the Finch, Eglinton, and Scarborough light rail schemes, all previously supported by Mr. McGuinty. The Scarborough RT, which would be replaced and lengthened by a new light rail line, is said to be at the end of its useful working life and at capacity.

Other proposed lines, including light rail along Jane Street, Don Mills Road, the Western Waterfront, and the Scarborough-Malvern corridor, are likely to be put off indefinitely. Funds originally intended for the expansion of VIVA bus rapid transit in the York region north of Toronto are on the cutting block.

The entire network of lines was originally designated for opening by 2020, with concurrent construction. Now each corridor will be built consecutively, if at all.

While Mayor Miller has decried the sudden cuts to his proposal, several of the candidates hoping to succeed him at city hall have argued that the delay in line construction will ensure a more successful completion of the projects. One notable exception is candidate Joe Pantalone, a counselor who has been an ally of Mr. Miller in the municipal administration and who has been a major supporter of Transit City throughout its development.

This is of particular concern because of the negative reputation the city’s TTC transit agency has recently developed for itself and because of the repeated failures of the organization in its work in upgrading the St. Clair streetcar line. That delayed, over-budget corridor has promoted the impression that street-running light rail is too intrusive and that the lines should be constructed as (very expensive) subways.

But the lack of unambiguous support for the transit program from most of the candidates suggests a more pernicious perspective. In January, candidate Rocco Rossi argued for a delay in the construction of most of the proposed light rail lines, claiming that they’re not fiscally responsible; he repeated that contention after learning of Mr. McGuinty’s budget. But Mr. Rossi has demonstrated himself to be against all forms of alternative transportation, an advocate of what could be described as the suburban interest.

Indeed, it’s common to hear claims of financial “imprudence” from opponents of transit investment — economic fears they never seem to express when it comes to expensive road projects. So it’s worth being skeptical whenever anyone applauds decreasing the availability of money for new lines.

Nevertheless, like most places, Ontario has experienced a decrease in tax revenue substantial enough to make reasonable the cutting of capital construction costs promised by the government in more prosperous times. Premier McGuity’s back-and-forth on the province’s commitment isn’t all that surprising.

But what’s difficult to understand is how a city like Toronto can go from hailing the construction of a 120 km network to building one new light rail line by 2020. Is Mayor Miller the only politician who’s truly committed to improving the region’s transit systems? Or are others simply too scared to make the necessary decisions — whether that means the prioritization of specific lines or targeted tax increases — to make expansion possible?

Mr. McGuinty’s instructions to Metrolinx to choose how to spend more limited funds is a punting away of those difficult decisions, an unwillingness to accept the political consequences of doing what is necessary to build a better transit system. The willingness of many mayoral candidates to play along is less than helpful. Toronto’s citizens don’t want to forever be stuck with the same limited transit system they have today, do they?

Elections Toronto

As Battle for Toronto Mayor Seat Gets Under Way, Transit City Plan Thrown Into Contention

» Candidate Rocco Rossi suggests banning bikes from major roadways and halting implementation of ambitious light rail program.

With 75 miles of light rail service in planning and two major subway extensions soon to begin construction, Toronto has one of North America’s largest transit construction schemes in the works, much thanks to the work of outgoing Mayor David Miller, who has been in office since 2003.

Depending on its outcome, the mayoral election this fall might put those projects in question. With no clearly expected winner and no incumbent, candidates from across the political spectrum are pouring into the race with the goal of radically altering the city’s strategy for urbanism. If several of the candidates on the right prevail, Canada’s largest city could be in for a major backwards turn.

Mayor Miller’s two terms in office have been remarkable in the degree to which they have reoriented the city towards sustainable transportation. In 2007, he announced Transit City, the initiative that would run seven new light rail corridors across the large city with the goal of reinforcing existing subway service with new right-of-way-separated transit. In 2009, he was successful in convincing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to fund four of the projects, and the Sheppard East Light Rail line entered into its construction phase last month, under the auspices of the province’s transit system, Metrolinx (though the city-run Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) will run the lines).

Now that he’s declined the chance to run for a third term, those who would seek to erase Transit City from consideration are lining up.

Last week, Rocco Rossi, the manager of John Tory’s failed conservative campaign for mayor in 2003 (lost to Mr. Miller) and the former national director of the Liberal Party, made a big deal of what can only be summarized as anti-transit positions. In a speech to the Empire Club of Canada, a wealthy social group, Mr. Rossi suggested putting all of the proposed Transit City projects on hold to reconsider their value — with the exception of the Sheppard East line already under construction. This is in spite of the fact that three other corridors are fully funded and in planning. He would replace the current public board at the helm of the TTC with a private-sector board, which he assumes will be able to find cost-cutting possibilities, namely through the outsourcing of services to private firms.

But the proposition that reportedly got the most applause at the Empire Club was Mr. Rossi’s argument in favor of banning bike lanes on arterial roads. This includes corridors like Jarvis Street, which under current plans would have one of its five lanes converted to a two-way separated bike path. Jarvis Street cuts east of downtown and midtown and in any other city would be considered a prime candidate for becoming an urban boulevard, not an automobile highway, which is evidently what the candidate would prefer.

Mr. Rossi’s rhetoric is a straight-out appeal at right-leaning voters living in the suburban fringes of the city — a group that may or may not be large enough to propel him into the mayor’s office. He is just one among many candidates; in a recent poll, former Deputy Premier of Ontario George Smitherman has a large lead in the race, though the election is taking place October 25th, so plenty could change between then and now.

But the less-than-ideal reputation of the TTC could be a decisive factor in determining voter response, especially since Mr. Rossi is clearly planning to make transportation an electoral issue. Apart from the Transit City projects, which are far from completion, the City of Toronto’s primary public transportation initiative came in the form of the separation of the right-of-way of the St. Clair Streetcar line. The 6.8 km project was supposed to be done in 2007 at a cost of C$48 million; instead, it won’t open entirely for service until this summer, at a cost of C$105 million. There are some reasonable explanations for the delays and cost increases, but public perceptions of a “fiasco” that has stretched on too long and severely damaged local businesses cannot be denied. Meanwhile, a token shortage at the end of last year — customers were forbidden from buying extra tickets because of an upcoming fare hike — was inexplicably frustrating.

These feelings were compounded by a recent overplayed incident in which a photograph of a ticket collector sleeping in his booth made it big-time across the internet.

A candidate running against the TTC, in other words, may find significant populist support, especially since Mayor Miller has low approval ratings, probably one of the reasons he didn’t choose to run for a third term.

This situation could be reinforced by the fact that the two major candidates on the left, Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone and counselor Adam Giambrone (who hasn’t yet announced his candidacy), are closely associated with Mr. Miller. Toronto has never had back-to-back progressive mayors.

How disappointing it would be if that trend sees no reversal this year. On the brink of a transit renaissance, Toronto needs a leader who would push strongly to rebuild its public transportation infrastructure with major investments and a rethinking of mobility in the city. As TTC chair since 2006, Mr. Giambrone was one of the primary creators of the Transit City plan. Unlike most politicians, this potential candidate has in-depth knowledge about the way the trains actually run and he offers genuinely good ideas about how to resolve the city’s transportation issues into the future.

Mr. Rossi, with his pro-car bias and suburban mentality, would come nowhere close to providing the same perspective.

In some ways, Toronto’s mayoral race could come to resemble the 2009 Seattle election. In the first round, pro-transit Mayor Greg Nickels was eliminated from consideration, pushed back by two candidates, one on the left and one on the right. In the second round, Mike McGinn, a staunch environmentalist and a solid supporter of public transportation, came from behind to take the lead. The end result was a new administration that may be more progressive than the one that preceded it.

Commuter Rail Toronto

Toronto’s Georgetown Corridor Moves Forward, but Opposition Mounts to Diesel Operation

Georgetown GO Corridor Project Map» Electrification of the line could provide a significant reprieve for surrounding communities concerned about pollution.

Yesterday, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment ruled in favor of Toronto’s plans for expanded commuter rail operations on the Georgetown Corridor, which runs northwest from downtown’s Union Station. The project would significantly expand passenger rail capacity on the line and allow for direct connections to the airport, improving transit for the western side of the region. Project opponents, however, are concerned about the effects of diesel exhaust on their neighborhoods and continue to push for the use of electric trains on the line. The government ruling makes the hope for that more environmentally sensitive approach less likely.

Plans for the expansion of Toronto’s transit system are developing quickly, with a major subway and light rail program funded and underway. The region’s Metrolinx agency, which now runs the GO commuter rail system, has an ambitious project called The Big Move that would transform GO’s peak-only commuter lines into regional express corridors, with trains operating every few minutes in an out of Toronto city center.

The Georgetown South Service Expansion, which the Environment Minister approved for construction yesterday, is the first element of the region’s major commuter plans. Today, fifty trains a day operate along the line between Union Station and Georgetown, including 25 freight trains; any expansion is limited by the number of tracks along the line and the fact that passenger and freight services use the same right-of-way. The Metrolinx project would change the equation by adding 20 km of new track at a cost of C$1 billion; these improvements will eventually allow 400 trains a day to use the service. One major component of the project is a connection it will include with Toronto Pearson International Airport, which will get 140 reserved trains a day, to be operated by a private carrier. In addition, VIA Rail Canada may eventually use the corridor for up to 60 trains a day if intercity high-speed rail to Windsor ever becomes a reality.

Construction will begin next year, with service available by 2014.

This massive expansion will turn the Georgetown Corridor into something close to an all-out rapid transit line, with the notable difference being that its trains will operate entirely on diesel fuel rather than electricity. Unsurprisingly, this fact has raised the ire of the inhabitants of neighboring neighborhoods, who have incorporated into the Clean Train Coalition, which is fighting for full electric operation. The group argues that diesel exhaust is a harmful pollutant and that the adjacent citizenry would be put in an unhealthful situation with the sudden ramp-up of new service. Electric trains, they suggest, would produce no exhaust and provide lower operations and maintenance costs.

The approval of the Environment Minister is contingent on the implementation of Tier 4 diesel engine standards on Georgetown Corridor trains. Tier 4 was designed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to significantly lower particulate emissions from vehicles, and indeed, compared to today’s locomotives, a new generation motor would produce far less exhaust. Though these engines do not yet exist, the technology will probably be readily available by opening day.

Yet Clean Train opponents argue that even Tier 4 emissions still aren’t low enough — a contention that is up for debate. After all, we allow heavily polluting cars and trucks to crowd our streets. New rail service would produce new pollutions, but on the other hand, it would get thousands of people out of their private vehicles, meaning that the overall pollution might be lower in the end game.

Even so, electrification remains ideal, both because of its lower long-term costs and because of its zero point-source emissions. Metrolinx is planning to design the Georgetown line so that electrification can be implemented at some later point, and the agency currently has a major electrification study underway for all of its lines. Toronto joins a number of other cities around the world considering how to convert diesel operations to electric, all interested in the economic, social, and environmental benefits of traction power.

The broader question for Toronto, though, is what the region wants to get out of its limited funds for its transportation system. Should it spend more on the Georgetown line to electrify it, or, as Metrolinx suggests, save the cash for other vitally needed improvements throughout the network? Is it fair to subject some neighborhoods to dramatically more diesel exhaust because of a vague promise that electricity will eventually be considered? Is the advantage of switching more people to transit so large that the case for spending more money on electric operations is overwhelmed?

Image above: Georgetown Corridor Commuter Rail Map, from Metrolinx

Streetcar Toronto Vehicles

Toronto Secures Streetcar Contract — After Exaggerated Fight With Ottawa

New Bombardier trains will be delivered beginning in 2012.

At an emergency meeting last week, Toronto’s city council approved a major new financial commitment to an April contract designed to replace the city’s fleet of aging streetcars. The deal, which comes after the federal government announced that it wouldn’t help pay for the vehicles, requires Toronto to delay several planned capital improvements.

Unlike the United States, which has standard formulas established by the FTA to ensure transit systems nationwide adequate funds for capital maintenance and replacement, Canada’s municipalities must negotiate with Ottawa whenever they need major aid to improve public transportation. Toronto has recently benefited from a major infusion of national and province-level funds for new light rail and subway lines. These projects will make the city one of the most transit-oriented in North America.

But when Toronto Mayor David Miller agreed in April to a C$1.2 billion deal with Bombardier to buy 200 new streetcars, he had no such assurance from the federal government, even though he assured the city that Ottawa would be willing to commit to a third of the cost. Ontario Province is providing one third of the cost.

When applying for Canada’s national stimulus funds, Mr. Miller asked for C$416 million for the vehicles — and nothing else. The problem is that the stimulus was designed for projects that will be largely completed by 2011; the streetcars are scheduled for staged delivery between 2012 and 2018. Mr. Miller hoped that intense dislike of the ruling conservatives in Toronto, the nation’s largest city, would force Premier Stephen Harper to make a concession. Mr. Harper didn’t bite, to the dismay of New Democrat (left) MPs in the Canadian parliament. On the other hand, the national government did say C$300 million of aid to projects such as sidewalk construction would likely be forthcoming.

Mr. Miller’s attempt to use the stimulus for streetcar funds clearly wasn’t reasonable, and he probably should have waited for Mr. Harper to simply agree to fund the vehicles from a general source, something that would have likely occurred considering the government’s recent attempts to placate Toronto by throwing transit money at the city at high speeds. Now the city council has reluctantly approved doubling the city’s previous commitment to the vehicle replacement by a vote of 36 to 6. Some other major transit projects in the city will now be delayed, including the replacement of several hundred buses.

The failure to get federal government stimulus funds for the streetcars could be framed as a loss for Mr. Miller, but it further isolates Ottawa’s ruling conservatives from Toronto, whose greater metro area represents 25% of the nation’s population. Mr. Harper’s recent efforts in support of new transit lines in the city now seem less prominent, as the conservatives have once again been framed as the enemy in the fight for a better commute.

The New Democrats, who Mr. Miller supports, can claim that they did what they had to do to get the new trains, even though the municipal opposition claims that Mr. Miller’s April decision to order the streetcars was an attempt to buy something without the money to back it up. To many, the mayor will look like a savior, and when the trains start arriving in 2012, the left will be thanked, not the conservatives. In the long-run, the transit-supportive left will do better among the Toronto electorate and conservatives will have to attempt to buy their votes once again with more funds for public transportation.

From the U.S. perspective, the conflict between Toronto and Ottawa seems hard to believe because American mayors rarely demand funds directly from the federal government as a sort of political punishment; conflicts generally arise in the Congress, where senators and representatives fight over earmarks and formula provisions. In Canada, though, full-bore conflict between competing political ideologies at several levels of the federal system has become an acceptable way to promote and fund better mass transit. Perhaps American mayors should attempt to emulate this game — carefully.

Paris Toronto

Paris' Experimental High-Speed Moving Walkway is Abandoned

Paris Montparnasse Moving WalkwaySpeedy pedestrian connection between metro lines was plagued by problems

At Montparnasse-Bienvenüe Station in south Paris, travelers can transfer between four metro lines. The problem is that customers attempting to make the connection between lines 6 and 13 — located under the Montparnasse high-speed rail station — and lines 4 and 12 — located several blocks north — must travel through a 600 foot-long tunnel built in the late 1930s. Outfitted with moving walkways moving at less than 2 mph, that’s almost four minutes of travel time for those not walking.

In 2002, hoping to improve the situation, Paris’ metro agency (RATP) decided to install a high-speed walkway (video) in the center of the tunnel capable of moving people four times as fast. At 7.5 mph, it provided a tunnel traverse in less than a minute. But for all its promise, the experiment failed too often because of technical problems. On Wednesday, RATP announced that it would shut down the project and replace it with a conventional walkway by 2011.

As far as I can tell, Paris’ moving walkway was the fasted operated commercially anywhere in the world, and its success could have meant faster commutes in airports, transit stations, and large buildings everywhere. It represented a new advance in a field that has been moving at a crawl for decades, but which could have transformed the sometimes punishing act of changing lines at hundreds of major transit hubs.

Yet, it was not to be. The original speed of the walkway had to be reduced to 6 mph after customers repeatedly fell when attempting to adjust to the speed in an acceleration zone. The technology, invented by French group CNIM, was simply not up to the task of working day-in, day-out, and it was more often out of service than in operation; RATP will sue CNIM to get back some of the project’s initial 4.5 million Euro cost. The new conventional walkway won’t be exciting, but at least it will work.

The Toronto Airport, feeling a similar urge to speed up the movement of pedestrians, introduced its own super-fast walkway last year, capable of about 5 mph. Though not as quick, Toronto’s walkway uses a different technology: a “moving pallet system” in which the panel on which a person stands accelerates independently to full speed. Paris’ connection, with the exception of the 10 meter acceleration zone, operated at one, full speed and was therefore more subject to pedestrian falls and system breakdowns. Toronto’s newer system may be more capable of withstanding the crush of thousands of daily passengers, but only time will tell. If it works, subway systems with cash on hand will emulate it, because a four minute transfer between lines like that at Montparnasse is simply too long not to address.

Image above: High-speed moving walkway in Montparnasse Station, from Flickr user Daniel Sparing