Those Friday Afternoon Transit Blues

September 21, 2012

On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate This Week In Transit News at about a 4. The grade’s only that high because I’m trying to put my best foot forward. Smile on the outside when I’m really crying on the inside as I sift through and evaluate all the pertinent information.

It started with our federal government voting down a national transit strategy put forward in the House of Commons by the NDP. National Transit Strategy? Strategy? National? Sounds a little interventionist. The outcome was hardly a surprise.

That element was saved for a day or so later when Queen’s Park announced through their agency, Metrolinx, that the design, construction, building and operation of the Eglinton LRT was going to be outsourced as part of a public-private partnership. Take that, TTC! Who’s yer momma? Huh? Who’s yer momma, TTC? Say it. Say it! Metrolinx, baby! Metrolinx.

Now, I’ve been battling hard for the past couple days to suppress my gut reaction to the news. I don’t want to disappoint my friend Matt Elliott and be one of those on the left giving over to immediate, unthinking nayism. Maybe a viable case can be made for the move. Perhaps it is the first step toward a fully integrated regional transit system and, hopefully, that would be a good thing. Metrolinx’s track record to date in dealing with local concerns gives me pause however.

But for now, I’ll attempt to see the upside. The general consensus seems to be success or failure of the Eglinton LRT P3 will come down to the details of the agreement, how the ‘i’s are dotted and ‘t’s crossed. If the private sector can actually deliver the necessary transit at a lower cost, and if that’s the only element we’re looking for, I’ll hop aboard and go along for the ride.

I’d probably have more confidence in the whole thing if the McGuinty Liberals had any robust credibility on transit. I have long since concluded that Mayor Rob Ford has been nothing but manna from heaven for them, providing cover for a rather lacklustre, wishy-washy approach since they came to power in 2003. Announce big, deliver significantly less. What is now $8.4 billion for 4 LRT lines was once supposed to be 7 lines with an additional $4 billion in funding. Delay has followed delay and we’re now talking decades hence not years.

And remember that initial election promise of restoring provincial funding for half the TTC’s annual operating budget? Nine years on. Tick tock, tick tock.

As if to add insult to injury, Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli seems to be suggesting that once the Eglinton LRT is up and going and the TTC no longer runs buses along the street, the money it saves should be handed over to the private company running the LRT. Yeah, really. Of course, our mayor is otherwise occupied and hasn’t weighed in on the matter to defend the city’s interests, leaving that – along with almost all matters dealing with transit — up to the TTC Chair, Karen Stintz.

Defenders of the province will, with much justification certainly, point to our electing of Rob Ford as mayor and the subsequent subway-versus-LRT battle as a prime example of the city not being a serious player in this transit debate. They wouldn’t be wrong. Toronto took a big step backward on many fronts when Rob Ford became mayor.

But I’d argue, at least on the transit file, the city righted itself. The TTC chair took control, sidelined the mayor and his most ardent supporters and got everything back on track. (Yeah. I just wrote that). All of it done without any assistance from the province who, when it mattered most, indulged Mayor Ford’s subways, subways, subways fantasy and further exploited the situation by delaying the start of the Sheppard LRT construction yet again, making it vulnerable to any changes in power at either City Hall or Queen’s Park.

It’s all part of a familiar pattern for the McGuinty Liberals of appearing to be just slightly less worse than the other guy. Think they’re bad on public transit? Look at Toronto and Mayor Ford. We may be outsourcing control of the Eglinton LRT but remember Mike Harris buried the subway there.

I am trying to keep an open mind but the province inspires little confidence. Rather than see the move to a P3 as a cost containment measure, it just smacks of outsourcing responsibility and governance. I’m willing, though, to be convinced otherwise.

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Transit Planning Is Hard

March 27, 2012

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.

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