Transit Planning Is Hard

Transit wishing is easy.

If there’s one thing I begrudge most about Mayor Rob Ford’s part in the nasty, unproductive transit debate the city’s currently going through is how he made the building of subways seem oh so fucking easy. I want subways. The people want subways. Subways, Subways, Subways. A pure and utter infantilization of the proceedings.

I thought about this as I sat listening to the second of three seminars on building transit, Moving Our Region: Transportation for the Future, hosted by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance. Jane Bird, former CEO of Canada Line Inc., the group charged with overseeing the building of Vancouver’s rapid transit Canada Line, spoke on the topic of Private Sector and Public Transit: How Private Sector Participation Inspired Innovation and Helped Deliver the Canada Line Rapid Transit Project in Vancouver.

And guess what?

Building public transit is complicated. It isn’t simply a matter of We Want Subways and the Private Sector Is Just Itching To Build Us Subways. Clap your hands and it will be so.

Over three years had gone into due diligence for Transit City before Mayor Ford unilaterally pulled the plug in December 2010, cancelling one line and vowing to bury the rest. The Sheppard subway would be built by the private sector, we were told. Just like that.

Well, no. It wouldn’t be just like that. Even the vaunted public-private partnership that came together on the Canada Line was ultimately two-thirds public and one-third private. Four levels of government (including the Vancouver airport authority) put up about $1.3 billion of the final $2 billion cost. The public sector owns the asset while a private consortium designed, built and operates it on a 35 year concession. There were construction milestones put in place, ridership levels that need to be maintained. Essentially 8 years from initial decision to pursue the project to its completion.

No one expected the mayor to have a fully funded subway plan in place in just over a year. But was it too much to demand an inkling of an idea, something more than a Babes In Arms, hey everybody, we got a barn! Let’s put on a show!

The fact is, Mayor Ford swept aside a funded transit plan for 4 LRT lines with nothing to replace it other than a slogan. Take a look at his transportation campaign video where he promised to build a full Sheppard subway from Downsview station to the Scarborough Town Centre and… and replace the Scarborough RT by extending the Bloor-Danforth subway all the way to McCowan. In time for the PanAm games in 2015 using just the Transit City money, no new taxes needed, no tolls or congestion fees.

In the nearly 16 months from December 1st, 2010 until last week’s transit vote on the Sheppard subway question, the mayor did little to finesse that plan, to reach out to the private sector, to make a concrete proposal for any sort of partnership. Just trust me, folks. Let’s get the shovels in the ground and see what happens.

Ms. Bird said at yesterday’s seminar that at the point when shovels were about to go in the ground for the Canada Line, she was about 80% certain the project would come on time and budget. (It did on both accounts). There was no such assurance with the Sheppard subway. Not even close. Even in terms of the procurement process seeking a private sector partner for the project, Ms. Bird said that they didn’t approach anyone until they knew, they knew, that the public money was in place.

Ha! Ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho, ho! Double ha!

Our mayor wouldn’t even consider the notion of new taxes or parking levies — all taxes are evil, remember? – despite the begging of his closest allies on council along with his point man on subways, Gordon Chong. As yesterday’s moderator, Doug Turnbull, a Metrolinx board member, pointed out, the lifecycle costs of any transit system including the operational side of things absolutely dwarves the capital costs in building it. So no private sector company in their right business mind is going to enter into a partnership with a government unwilling to even talk about providing a steady, ongoing revenue stream, i.e. taxes, tolls, levies, fees. Ain’t gonna happen, bub.

“I’m not sure we’re always talking about the same thing,” Ms. Bird told the audience when talking about public-private partnerships. She also noted that P3s should not be part of the conversation about what the public sector wants to build. In other words, we shouldn’t build subways based on some vague notion of hopefully, fingers crossed, getting into a P3 arrangement.

This all needed to be directed at the mayor and his councillor brother. Councillor Ford often gets to his feet to lecture his colleagues about their lack of business sense, their fundamental misunderstanding of the private sector. But in listening to those who’ve actually studied or participated in P3s, it becomes crystal clear that the councillor with his family business knowledge is woefully out of his depth. In fact, his deep-seated anti-government sensibilities ultimately disqualify him from having any informed opinion on the subject as he seems incapable of understanding just how key a role the public sector plays.

“The private sector won’t build us a subway because we ask them,” TTC Chair Karen Stintz told the shrieking audience at the first Scarborough town hall a few weeks back. “The private sector will build us a subway because we pay them to.”

That’s the bottom line. No one has ever suggested the private sector does not have a role to play in building transit here in Toronto. That role just has to be fully understood, defined and laid in terms of achievable, affordable goals. Mayor Ford and his ever dwindling contingent failed to do any of those things, failed to even engage in a constructive dialogue about it. The city and those elected to represent the public could no longer afford to wait for him to stop acting petulant and start having an adult conversation.

trumply submitted by Cityslikr

Give `em Enough Rope

Here’s what I think.

I think council should give Mayor Rob Ford a reprieve. Let’s say 6 months, a year, to get a viable subway plan in place and then decide on the fate of transit along Sheppard Avenue.

You know why?

Because he’ll never come up with a viable plan. At least not without having to raise the spectre of tax increases, road tolls, parking levies, congestion fees. Even his pliant subway point man, Dr. Gordon Chong, has told him as much. Let the mayor face the cold, hard truth that subways don’t come for free as he assured voters they do when he was campaigning for the job in 2010 and when he cancelled Transit City in December of that year.

Since he declared his candidacy for mayor, Rob Ford has had 2 years to come up with a funding plan. What’ll change between now and the end of this year, say? What enticement can he possibly concoct to draw the private sector out of its current reticence that he hasn’t already tried? Who would be still waiting in the wings to swoop in and save the subway day for the mayor?

I’m thinking his bag of tricks is empty and any extra time he’s granted will see him dangle in the wind a little longer, his concern being which campaign promise he’s going to break. Subways or respecting the taxpayers? He can’t have both. Let him determine what’ll hurt him more come 2014.

Forcing a decision on the mayor will give him what he’s looking for most: a re-election wedge issue. That’s what this is about when all is said and done. Mayor Ford doesn’t give a shit about public transit planning beyond keeping the streets clear for cars. This is simply about political optics not good governance.

So, give him a deadline, a ticking clock, and send him on his way. Go, Mayor Ford, come up with a plan, a detailed funding scheme, and lay it all out for us at, why don’t we make it the December 2012 council meeting. Tell us how you propose to build your subways.

We all know how it’ll turn out. Without significant contribution from the public purse, there’ll be no subways. He’s already asking for $1 billion of public funds to get things started, a far cry from the completely private funded subway he promised previously.

And now his dwindling number of loyalists are slapping together a new tax and levy plan for today’s council meeting. “Be ready to be surprised,“ Councillor Michael Thompson said. “I think anything is possible.”

Anything’s possible. Mayor Ford may accept the reality that he has to raise taxes and introduce levies in order to get his subway built. But how does he square this with his base who have expressed no interest in paying anything more out of their pocket in order to have their beloved subways? It is the monster he created with his magical tales of a city with a spending not a revenue problem. He guaranteed we could have it all, low taxes and shiny new infrastructure. No money down. No interest payments. Ever.

Council should let the mayor disillusion his supporters instead of making him a martyr to the vagaries of democracy. He’ll take a defeat today and run with it for the next two-and-a-half years, setting up another go at the urban-suburban divide he so successfully exploited in 2010. He wants more time? Give him more time. He’s already blasted through his promise of extending both the Sheppard Avenue and Bloor-Danforth subways by 2015. Yeah, he really did say that. A few more months just gives him additional time to keep crossing those promises off his list, the ones broken not delivered.

Empty rhetoric and sloganeering begin to sound hollow over time. While the mayor and his supporters have gained some traction chanting dullard sound bites like 1st class transit, glorified streetcars and screwing Scarborough, it’s already grown as tired as it is shrill. Imagine another 9 months of it? Even the subwayest of subway supporters will demand a little more meat on the bone. Alright already! Put up or shut up, Mayor Ford.

So desperate has Team Ford become that it started handing out pictures of light-rail accidents and fatalities at Monday’s transit town hall in Scarborough. Yeah, I’m going with the obvious pun here. The wheels have already officially come off the bus.

For the sake of the city and its future well being, a fork should be stuck in, his transit plans are done. But the mayor hasn’t accepted that fact yet. It wasn’t a workable plan when he campaigned on it. It wasn’t any more workable when he tried to kill Transit City. It remains unworkable today and won’t get any more workable in a few months time.

Tomorrow start the countdown both time-wise and money-wise. Begin tabulating the costs for the mayor’s intransigence, add them to his bill, put the price on his head, hang the waste and delay around his neck, kick the last leg out from the already creaky chair of self-proclaimed sound fiscal management.

When Mayor Ford comes crawling back to council with either bupkus — a still unfunded subway plan — or one so laden with taxes and levies that his Respect For The Taxpayers cloak will be tattered beyond recognition but will serve as the necessary opening for the adult conversation to city finances that his campaign and mayoralty short-circuited, the landscape will have changed. It won’t be just about Scarborough versus downtown anymore. If we’re going to be paying higher property taxes or parking levies will it only be for a subway in Scarborough? What about Etobicoke? How about that downtown relief line we’ve always wanted?

There won’t be a wedge issue for the mayor to try and exploit. His revenue-versus-spending equation will have been blown to pieces. He will have either a subway to boast about but at the expense of the taxpayers’ pocket book or simply a wasted year, unnecessarily screwing with transit construction when shovels were already in the ground. As mayor I got you what you already had but a year and a half late. Re-elect Rob Ford!

Left to his own devices just a little longer, Mayor Ford will succeed in making himself irrelevant and then we can finally get back to start running this city with some semblance of normalcy.

spitballingly submitted by Cityslikr

Seething In Scarborough

About an hour and a half, an hour and three-quarters into last night’s rage fest at the Scarborough Civic Centre – TTC Chair Karen Stintz had been there for roughly half of that and was neck deep in bile and vitriol – a woman across the aisle from me out in the overflow seating in the foyer shouted at the screen that projected the meeting going on inside the chambers. Where’s your plan, Karen!? What’s the plan?!

Rattled like I usually get in the face of such unbridle, inchoate anger, I reflexively turned to the woman and blurted out: Shouldn’t you be asking the mayor that? Where was Mayor Ford? This was his gathering, his town hall. He is the one demanding that Scarborough get a subway. Why was he not here, answering the crowd’s questions?

Yes, Councillor Stintz had recently taken control of the TTC from him. City council had reversed his unilateral declaration to kill Transit City and voted to unbury parts of the Eglinton LRT and put 2 other LRTs on Finch and the Scarborough SRT. But a subway on Sheppard Avenue remained very much in play, perhaps a final decision to be made by council on March 21st. Shouldn’t he be here, pitching his plan to the people? This was his town hall meeting after all.

That’s how these things usually work. Councillor Stintz had held a similar transit meeting a couple weeks back with Councillor Matlow. They brought in a planning expert to explain why we should be going with LRT technology rather than subways. Somebody from the city was present to lay out the proposed implementation. They fielded questions from the audience in a similarly packed room. They made their case.

Mayor Ford conducted his town hall in absentia, leaving others to try and respond to questions there weren’t yet any answers for. It wasn’t so much an information session as it was swatting at the hornet’s nest, stoking the flames of resentment. What do you want? We want subways! When do you want them? When we figure out a tax increment financing scheme and start up a transit lottery… something, something.

Over and over and over again Councillor Stintz tried to explain that she’d very happily vote for a subway on Sheppard if there was a viable plan in place to build it. It’s been more than 15 months since Mayor Ford swept aside Transit City in favour of all underground transit, 16 months since he’d been elected with that as part of his platform. In fact, it’s almost two years since Rob Ford announced his intention to run for mayor of Toronto, and yet he still has no plan how to build a subway on Sheppard Avenue.

So of course the mayor wasn’t going to stand in front of even such a rabidly sympathetic crowd as there was last night and admit that. He wanted them angry. He just didn’t want them angry at him.

Instead there were his proxies in place. The Toronto Sun’s Sue Ann Levy played to the crowd, bashing the TTC, the disaster on St. Clair, former mayor David Miller. Of course we could build subways. How? Because Madrid did.

Former city manager John Morand was a proponent of casinos as a source of revenue for subways. He also uttered what might have been the least recognized bit of irony of the evening when he told the crowd that he had been fired from his position at the city for saying what he believed. Can I get a Gary Webster from the hee-ouse?

Dr. Gordon Chong started out as the voice of reason but when the audience didn’t take to his suggestion of new taxes, tolls, congestion fees, he changed course and turned his guns on the TTC Chair. When she expressed some disagreement with an aspect of his report, he called her ‘thick’ and proceeded to explain that public private partnerships were the way to go. Aren’t they always? A sole reliance on P3s is the last refuge of those without a plan.

Nearly two and a half hours later, we were pretty much right back where we started. People wanted subways. People were owed subways. World class cities have subways. Scarborough demanded their piece of that transit dream.

But there was no one there to tell them how that could happen. It was all vague notions, untested theories and a whole lot pie in the sky projections. I’d be plenty pissed too. I just think the crowd turned their ire on the wrong target.

Which wasn’t their fault in the least. The real target wasn’t in the room. He’d skipped the meeting, encouraging the anger while sidestepping any responsibility for it. Maybe he was busy preparing for his meeting today with the Prime Minister where, it seems, they’ll be announcing plans for a subway. Just not one in Scarborough.

He’ll get around to figuring out that one eventually. Until he does, just stay angry Scarborough. Angry at everyone else but the real culprit, Mayor Rob Ford.

carefully submitted by Cityslikr