Olivia Chow's Lost Momentum on Transit
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Olivia Chow’s Lost Momentum on Transit

A plan that considers our overall network, but lacking the scope and ambition to tackle our deepest transit problems.

olivia chow transit plan

In March 2014, Olivia Chow was first out of the gate with a three-pronged transit platform: run better bus service, build the LRT network approved before Ford took office, and start design work on the Downtown Relief subway line. What could be simpler?

Transit, of course, is never simple in Toronto. Chow’s plan lacks the splashy ambition of John Tory’s SmartTrack and Doug Ford’s subways-for-all approach—which makes her a sensible pragmatist or lacking in vision, depending on who you ask. A look at the strengths and weaknesses of Chow’s transit plan:

The Key Elements

Bus service would be a quick fix, something Chow initially said the TTC could do with its existing fleet and some elbow grease to keep the oldest vehicles on the road for a few extra years. In March, when she launched this part of her transit plan, Chow promised that “in 2015 the TTC will increase rush hour capacity by 10 per cent. This will increase service on the busiest routes, using buses the TTC owns.” She pegged the cost of this at $15 million annually, and said that could be done within existing budget capacity, while “holding property taxes around the rate of inflation.” Soon after it became clear that the TTC did not have the capacity to meet the 10 per cent improvement target within its current funding, or with its existing bus fleet.

Later in the campaign—around Labour Day—she released new details which both fleshed out and scaled back the plan. Chow’s revised proposal is to raise the land transfer tax on homes that cost over $2 million. That would generate $100 million to fund the remaining gap in the budget for the McNicoll bus garage in northern Scarborough; $84 million to purchase 40 additional buses (these would not enter service until 2018-19); and money for ten additional streetcars, to be added to the current order (slated for delivery beginning in 2019). According to the TTC, doing all the above would yield a five per cent improvement in bus crowding standards—half of her original 10 per cent promise, and taking four years longer than she originally stated. Chow has not provided any new proposals for meeting her original targets in light of this feedback from the TTC.

LRT on Sheppard, Finch, and most importantly in Scarborough, to upgrade the worn-out Scarborough RT, would come in the medium term. These plans were already in place—studies done, funding allocated, and council approved—before Rob Ford summarily trashed Transit City on his first day in office.

The Relief Line—the TTC’s top transit priority—is a long-term project, but one with studies underway, which is more than we’ve had in a while.

The Good, the Bad, and the Politics

Bus service is central to the Chow campaign. The benefits would flow to working people—the mother or student whose bus was too crowded or didn’t show up at all. This message should have resonated with all transit riders, though it doesn’t seem to have gained much traction. A majority of us take buses at some point in our transit journeys, but aren’t keen to talk about how to make those bus trips better.

With the exception of the Relief Line, most of Chow’s network would be built by 2021, and yield some real improvements to the existing system, but there is no sense of where Toronto might go from there. Would Chow champion extensions of the LRT network—far more likely and affordable than more subways—to Malvern, University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus, Pearson Airport and other destinations? Where is the eastern Waterfront, a natural territory for a downtown politician to champion as transit-first development? Where might the Relief Line go after its first leg is built from the Danforth curving towards downtown?

Both Ford and Tory focus on large capital projects but are silent about or hostile to increased TTC operating funds—the money that goes to pay for day-to-day service. That debate will have to be the heart of any plan to improve bus and streetcar service, not to mention actually running trains on any of the new rapid transit lines Ford or Tory want to build. Chow would spend more on improving existing service, but not on a scale that’s large enough to make transit a consistently attractive way to travel.

Much more is needed than $15 million towards the new service Chow promises. Even twice the amount added year after year to the TTC’s subsidy would be far cheaper than the Ford or Tory rapid transit plans.

In August the TTC proposesea number of service improvements [PDF]; some of these are also in Chow’s plan, and some she opposes. The most expensive of the proposals is the introduction of a two-hour transfer, which would benefit many riders who depend on the TTC for a series of short trips. A spokesperson for Chow said that she rejects this because it “would mean an estimated $20 million per year in lost fares.”

By contrast, Chow does support GO/TTC fare integration without mentioning the potential revenue loss there. She recognizes the role GO could play within Toronto, although her focus on Liberty Village on this issue missed the opportunity to pitch the larger scope of suburban service—the territory John Tory goes after.

The limited scope Chow’s of transit plan became evident once John Tory launched his SmartTrack scheme. Never mind that SmartTrack faces major technical and financial challenges: it is a big plan intended to show voters that someone is thinking on a city-wide scale, and it is resonating.

Chow could have presented an aggressive plan for system expansion to counter SmartTrack, but instead the debate became all about Tory’s scheme and its flaws, while Chow’s own proposals faded into the background. That promise of $15 million for better bus service was lost in qualifications about when service might be improved, and the all-in cost of actually delivering change riders can see.

Ford’s transit plan lacks credibility on both financing and delivery dates, but it too was a big map with big money attached, and thus garners a certain level of political support.

The History

On April 7, speaking of the benefits of the Scarborough LRT over the subway alternative, Chow wrote in the Star:

A sensible medium-term priority involves having the courage to challenge Ford’s fables about “subways, subways, subways” and to return to a responsible plan in Scarborough. Building above-ground would cost $1 billion less. It would provide Scarborough commuters with four more stops and be finished four years faster.

It would also, crucially, make building a relief line easier. Our fiscal room to borrow wouldn’t be maxed-out.

Chow wasn’t proposing that we do away with the property tax increase Ford backed, and council passed, in order to pay for the subway. That $1 billion would not vanish from tax bills, but rather be used for other projects. But she wasn’t proposing any increases, either: in contrast to the tax-and-spend politics she’s generally tagged with, Chow has said that she’s only comfortable with an inflationary property tax increase. That choice early on showed that Chow’s campaign would not aggressively target the tax-cutting mentality championed by the Ford team at City Hall. Olivia Chow would improve transit, but she would spend modestly to avoid the inevitable attacks about her NDP history and runaway budgets. She was, effectively, accepting the premise that you can’t talk about raising taxes in Toronto—which is what we need to to if we’re honest about our funding deficits when it comes to transit, and a myriad of other issues—and also get elected.

If Toronto knows anything from the last four years, it is that transit will cost money. Even John Tory, while heading up the Civic Action Alliance, made no secret that the Toronto region could not build its much-needed transportation network without new revenues, including new taxes.

As the campaign wore on, $15 million in bus service looked like small change, an insult to transit riders beside the billions Tory and Ford put on the table. Even if their financing schemes amounted to selling swampland in Florida—their billions would always somehow come from elsewhere, never from residents’ own pockets—their numbers dwarfed Chow’s proposals.

Is It the Right Plan for Toronto?

Rob Ford’s spending cuts and continued strong growth in demand for TTC service have created a crisis in system capacity that will be a challenge any new mayor will need to tackle. Chow’s $15 million bus improvements would only bring a modest, short-lived improvement in service, though she is at least talking about that.

Olivia Chow’s transit plan has the makings of an integrated view of Toronto’s transit—rail service in various forms where it is needed, better service on surface routes that are essential to travel across the city, recognition of the regional rail network’s role within Toronto. But such a plan needs the leadership to tell voters what they don’t want to hear: better transit will cost more money. Toronto, both its suburbs and downtown, can have much more if only there is a responsible program for transit growth and the will to pay for it.

By aiming low, by embracing the Ford fable that we can have transit without new spending, Olivia Chow bought into the very foundation of the cost-cutting Ford years that hobbled transit growth. If Chow wins the mayoralty, she can regroup and use her position to build support for a better plan. If she loses, a chance to advocate for a much better network, to be honest about what Toronto could have and what it would really cost, will be lost too.

[Disclosure: Steve Munro has been consulted by several municipal candidates regarding transit issues, but is not serving as an official policy adviser to any of them, and has not received compensation from any of them. He has and will continue to offer his input to any candidate who asks for it equally (much as City staff briefings are available to all candidates who are interested), and he will continue to comment freely on the platforms of all candidates.]

CORRECTION: OCTOBER 12, 1:20 PM We originally wrote that “missing from her proposal is the substantial capital funding needed for stopgap repairs to old buses, and to permanently increase capacity by purchasing additional vehicles and adding more garage space. Moreover, Chow’s plan is silent on the streetcar network, where service has not improved much in 20 years.” This was originally the case; however a few weeks ago Chow released a revised version of this plan that includes some of the missing details, while also scaling back the scope of her proposed improvements. We have updated the article to reflect this.