Toronto Election 2014: Issue Navigator—Transit
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Toronto Election 2014:
Issue Navigator—Transit

Olivia Chow

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.

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 that 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 10 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.

Chow’s $15-million bus improvements, though, would bring only a modest, short-lived improvement in service. And while her 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—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.

Doug Ford

While Rob Ford was still a mayoral candidate, his subway plan appeared on September 3, 2014. Less than two weeks later, brother Doug took his spot on the ticket and, with it, that subway plan: they have the same name, the same map, and the same content. (Compare: Rob [PDF] and Doug [PDF].)

The Ford plan contains only subway lines, with the full build-out over two phases and an unspecified time frame. There are no LRT lines or references to better bus service, and GO Transit is not included in the network. It does involve the Downtown Relief Line (DRL): Ford includes the entire Dundas West to Don Mills route in his Phase 2 network.

Ford proposes subways on Eglinton East, Sheppard East, and Finch West. Building these would require Toronto to accept that transit and road networks should be completely separated—transit can’t even be next to traffic lanes, but only under them—regardless of the financial impact this would have on the City’s capital and operating budgets. Operating a subway where ridership does not generate substantial revenue—and these subways would not—can only lead to higher costs for the municipal government, or operating cutbacks elsewhere. Part of Ford’s funding scheme includes taxes from new development spurred by his subways, but it’s not clear how much we would need to increase development in order to produce that new tax income.

Ford cites many potential funding sources (without dollar values for most of them), including baseline revenue growth, revenue due to construction of new lines, and provincial and federal subsidies. Many of these revenue streams would not produce income until well after the subways are built. Toronto would have to finance the capital projects until the new revenues actually materialized, if they ever did.

Phase 1 could not be completed until well into the 2020s, and Phase 2 would follow much later. Riders in many parts of Toronto will continue to rely on existing rapid transit and surface routes. Ford talks of improving transit and his website lists specific examples of what has been done already: “Invested $500 million in key TTC infrastructure, like upgrading signal systems and track maintenance, to improve TTC reliability and service.”

However, these are subway projects, and the signal work—a project begun well before Rob Ford was mayor—won’t actually be finished until 2019, and then only on the Yonge-University-Spadina line. The TTC’s 2014-2023 capital budget includes cutbacks in track maintenance for both the subway and surface networks as a way to offset funding shortfalls. As for surface routes, the Ford administration was responsible for reduction in service quality on bus routes, and the deferral of capital projects to expand the bus fleet.

John Tory

In late May, John Tory launched his plan for a new transit line called SmartTrack—the centrepiece of his “One Toronto” transit plan [PDF]. In brief, SmartTrack adapts part of Metrolinx’s Regional Express Rail (RER) plan, a broader strategy for enhancing service in the GTA [PDF], and tries to use a portion of that plan to help meet Toronto’s transit deficit.

SmartTrack would see express trains operating primarily on GO Transit corridors. It would begin at the Airport Corporate Centre (but not run to the airport itself), then veer east to Mount Dennis, travel south in a rough U-shape across downtown, and then proceed north to Unionville. The route would charge regular TTC fares with free transfers to the existing TTC system, and trains would run every 15 minutes. Over its 53-kilometre route, SmartTrack would have 22 stations, and might, according to the campaign, carry over 200,000 passengers per day.

The plan involves a number of complications and concerns: for example, it would require space in the existing GO corridors to operate; relies on outdated information about Eglinton Avenue, which assumes there was still room there for a new rail corridor; would need frequent connecting bus services to ensure passengers living in some employment clusters could reach the stations; raises questions about service frequency and station access time; overlooks three important new LRT/streetcar services—Sheppard East, Finch West, and a waterfront line; and makes the possibility of a new subway line providing local service in the areas close to downtown less likely.

And just as there are a great many questions about the viability of the transit plan itself, there are also questions about the viability of Tory’s suggestion for how to finance it. Tory’s proposal is to pay for SmartTrack using a mechanism called tax increment financing (TIF)—which is essentially a way of borrowing money based on the projected future increase in property tax revenue a new development will create. The basic idea is that if we borrow money and build SmartTrack, that transit line will spur new construction, allow new businesses to set up shop along the way, and generate economic growth. That growth will increase the property tax base, which in turn means the City will collect more money.

Excluding cost overruns and the City’s share of tunnelling along Eglinton West, the $2.67 billion needed for SmartTrack would be the single largest TIF used anywhere, ever, for a single project. That means a lot of risk for the City to assume: in fact, the province would have to double the City’s currently allowable TIF limit in order for the project to get off the ground. The $2.67 billion would also affect Toronto’s self-imposed debt ceiling.

New development would also require the provision of City services, creating an ongoing impact on the City’s operating budget—and the plan relies on developments already underway as sources of revenue for SmartTrack.

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