Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives’ “public” transit policy is focused directly on the TTC Subway. Doug Ford is promising to upload the cornerstone of our public transit system to the Province – likely as a backdoor to privatization. That will mean higher fares and reduced service for riders. It will also raise serious issues of accountability and governance as our city will have a divided voice.
Like most of Mr. Ford’s ideas, they sound like simple bumper stickers – until you realize he has not thought through the details.
Oliver Moore – the Globe and Mail’s Urban Transportation reporter – gave Doug Ford’s destructive idea to upload the TTC subway a reality check. Read his findings below and remember vote transit, vote for the Ontario New Democrats on June 7th.
Doug Ford wants to take over Toronto’s subways. Would that work? A reality check (The Globe and Mail, June 1, Oliver Moore)
At the core of the Progressive Conservatives’ transit pitch is a simple-sounding idea that quickly becomes more complicated. While the party will continue most of the Liberals’ transit policies, the PCs differentiated themselves in one key way in the platform produced last year: A Conservative government would take over Toronto’s subway network.
Although the Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne later proposed the same idea in its spring budget, the Grits promised only to begin discussions about it. The Tories say the upload would be certain under a Conservative government.
“We made it clear this is our proposal,” said Ajax PC candidate Rod Phillips, the former chair of the group CivicAction, who is one of the party’s most knowledgeable voices about transit and who sat with The Globe and Mail to discuss the concept. “There are elements that still will obviously have to be discussed … but this is what our intention is to do as provincial government if we’re elected.”
Critics say that the idea raises numerous questions, including whether to put a value on an asset built over decades; if Queen’s Park can be relied upon to keep the subway in good condition; and how decisions would be made.
The Tories are framing the upload largely as an accounting exercise, making it easier to find funding and thus facilitating transit construction. The province would pay an estimated $160-million annually for major capital maintenance on the subway network, taking an obligation off city books.
Under the proposal, the Toronto Transit Commission would keep operating the subway, with its board setting fares and the city retaining revenues. Expansion planning would be controlled by the province, although Toronto and Ottawa would be asked to help fund construction.
Uploading received a tepid public response from Toronto’s right-leaning Mayor John Tory earlier this year when, reacting to the Liberal budget, he said that it would have to have “significant” benefits for the city for him to be “even slightly interested.”
Council went further last week, voting 30-6 in favour of a motion that included a clause making clear subways should continue to be owned by the city. Mr. Tory was absent for that vote, although many of his allies sided with the majority.
Beyond a fear of political blowback, though, it’s not clear what could stop the province from taking over the subway, regardless of what Torontonians think. Under law, the city is a ward of the province and subject to Queen’s Park.
The NDP is the only major party opposed to the upload, calling it a back door toward the privatization of transit.
“We know what happens when that occurs: Service is reduced, fares go up. And that’s not what the people of Toronto deserve,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party was leading or tied for the lead in several recent opinion polls.
Toronto’s subway has been built over decades, with the city financing the original and still most-heavily used section. As later parts were added, the province and Ottawa gradually took on major funding roles.
The understanding was always that Toronto would own the resulting infrastructure. This underpinned a deal struck when the subway expanded outside city boundaries last year: Toronto residents subsidize the cost for passengers boarding in York Region and, in return, Toronto owns the new subway tunnel.
In current dollars, the subway network cost about $8.5-billion to build. Because construction has become more expensive over the decades, the theoretical replacement cost – using the price per kilometre of the most recent expansion – would be about $26.5-billion.
“To think that, really, a higher order of government basically rips off an asset from us, that’s scandalous to me,” said left-leaning Toronto City Councillor and long-time TTC board member Joe Mihevc. “Our people paid for it. Our people should have the right through their institutions to control its destiny.”
The Tories view it differently, suggesting that much of the network’s value has amortized out to zero by now. And to discuss its current value is relevant only if someone is willing to pay that price, they argue.
Mr. Phillips said there is no plan to pay the city for its subway, but noted that taking over the capital maintenance is a sort of compensation. Ownership of air rights over current stations would be a matter for negotiation with the city, while the province would retain such rights over new stations.
Other issues would also have to be negotiated. Among them is the question of whether the TTC or private contractors do the capital maintenance work. And there are likely also to be continuing discussions about which work needs to be done and how urgent it is.
By its nature, capital maintenance can often be deferred in the short term, although transit agencies that do this too aggressively often pay huge costs down the road. In New York, a recently unveiled plan for long overdue maintenance and upgrades had a 10-year price tag estimated at US$37-billion.
Another thorny issue is control of expansion planning. The Tories say this would lie largely in the hands of the province, with Toronto getting some unspecified input on lines within its borders. That prospect has raised fears that a flawed city hall process for making transit expansion decisions could become worse.
Recent debates over transit expansion at city hall have been highly politicized, featuring bad-faith arguments and producing results at odds with expert analysis. But the process at least happened in public, was monitored by the media and played out over many hours of open debate.
Provincial decisions have been more opaque. Some key meetings of Metrolinx, the regional transit agency, were not public – government officials interfered in the process and the agency has been accused of modifying evidence to suit its political masters. Ultimate power rests in the Premier’s Office or at the cabinet table, where decisions are reached behind closed doors.
“If cabinet could, just with a stroke of a pen, decide to block this, expand that, there’s a lot of risk there,” said Cameron MacLeod, executive director of the transit advocacy group CodeRedTO.
He also noted another potential problem, saying that Toronto’s tendency to weigh transit projects based on location rather than need could be worse under a provincially run system. These politicians may not see the value of building transit in central Toronto, Mr. MacLeod warned, particularly as “Queen’s Park is skewed toward suburban and rural representation.”
Two of the main transit expansion priorities proposed by the campaigning Tories are in the suburbs: extending the lightly used Sheppard subway eastward; and pushing the Yonge line farther north, outside the boundaries of Toronto. Their other big expansion promise is the Downtown Relief Line (DRL), a new subway in the core intended to take pressure off main lines increasingly feeling the strain of commuters from the outer reaches of the Greater Toronto Area.
The long-planned DRL is described by city planning and transportation officials as the area’s most important transit project, although the Tories see it differently.
“What we did is lay out our three priorities,” Mr. Phillips said when asked if the DRL would be a lever to force agreement should the city drag its heels on an upload. “Downtown Relief Line is there among them. I wouldn’t point to any of them as a priority. I think the priority is getting subways built.”