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Getting back to a better way

It’s been a rocky decade for the TTC, with budget cuts leading to a steep decline in service and riders But the cash is starting to flow, and officials see light at the end of the tunnel, writes Kevin McGran

Budget cuts. Slashed service. Fare hikes. Buses that come in bunches. Streetcars that get turned around before they finish their route.

All became the norm for the TTC through the 1990s — the lost decade for public transit in Toronto.

Once touted as the best transit system in North America, there came a point in our collective consciousness that Torontonians stopped feeling proud of the TTC.

Service delays, like the one Thursday evening on the Yonge subway line, continued to frustrate passengers. When people called it “The Better Way,” they meant it ironically.

Well, Howard Moscoe is tired of that. The TTC chairman believes in the transit service. And he wants it to be Number 1 again, in our hearts and on our roads.

“I want our riders to love us,” says Moscoe. “It doesn’t necessarily mean improving service. It means making people feel good about the system, making people feel that their opinions are good and respected and listened to and they have some input into some of the decisions that are made.

“That’s what it will take to make us the best system. … Without the loyalty and love of our customers, we’ll never be a great system.”

This week’s political victories renew the feeling that the TTC and city are changing:

  • The extra $200 million in gas tax earmarked for the TTC announced this week by Ottawa.

  • Provincial environment ministry approval to go ahead with the controversial St. Clair Ave. W. reconstruction to put streetcars in their own right of way.

Change began slowly. To their credit, the folks who run the TTC have learned how to improve themselves without spending a lot of money. Some low-cost innovations, outlined in the Ridership Growth Strategy, are coming to fruition, including:

  • A $30 weekly Metropass that will be introduced in September. Weekly and monthly passes will be transferable among friends, family and businesses.

  • The TTC will experiment with talking buses, using global positioning satellite technology, that announce each stop.

  • Cameras will appear on buses for security reasons.

  • New information screens on subway platforms.

  • Additional buses will be sent to the suburbs, where service is weakest.

  • Experimenting with limited-time transfers — allowing people to get on and off the St. Clair streetcar as many times as they want over two hours.

But getting the respect of passengers does mean better service. More service. Frequent service. Reliable service.

“We have to put back a lot of the service that was cut in the 1990s,” says Gord Perks of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. “Overall, we lost something like 10 per cent of bus service and 15 per cent of streetcar service in the previous decade.

“The most cost effective way to get a new rider is to improve the frequency of service. So, service service servce. That’s Number 1. Number 2 is, as we start to imagine expanding the system, we again have to look at the best bang for the buck.”

“The TTC wants to put new and improved screens in subway stations? Instead of subway screens that display relatively useless information how about screens at streetcar stops? They could tell me why I’ve been standing at the busy stop for 30 minutes in the cold. Perhaps the screens could also tell me why the streetcar driver decided to skip a scheduled stop and leave me waiting. How about why five streetcars go past you in the opposite direction without one going in your desired direction? These would all be useful applications.”

—Greg Van Bastelaar, frustrated rider

TTC stability all comes down to money. Predictable funding lays out a plan for rehabilitation and expansion. The heyday of such times for the TTC was the 1970s and ’80s. Bill Davis, who was premier at the time, killed the Spadina Expressway in 1971, famously proclaiming that cities were for people, not for cars.

The trade-off was a landmark promise for the province to fund the TTC. Queen’s Park paid 75 per cent of the TTC’s capital and expansion plans, and 50 per cent of its operating costs.

What followed was slow, but steady, progress on subway expansion, the purchase of the current fleet of streetcars and the expansion of the bus fleet to more than 1,800.

Ridership peaked when people took 463.5 million rides in 1988.

Then it started to go downhill. An economic downturn led to budget cuts, service cuts and fare hikes.

The bottom hit in 1995, when Mike Harris became premier and slashed the Davis subsidies that had kept the TTC operating safely and expanding moderately. Then that August, three women were killed in the subway system’s first fatal crash.

“What happened after the peak was sort of the perfect storm,” says Mayor David Miller. “We had fare hikes greater than the rate of inflation, quickly followed one by the other. We had service cuts and we had an economic downturn.

“All those hurt ridership.”

Slowly, the TTC is pulling itself out of its quagmire. If the events of the early ’90s constitute a “perfect storm,” then the political events of the past two years represent the “perfect calm.” Transit is on the national and provincial agendas, right behind health care and education.

The New Deal for Cities agenda has taken root in Ottawa and Queen’s Park. Pro-transit Liberal governments sit in office federally and provincially. Established funding arrangements remain in place while new transit funding arrangements through gas tax money are coming down the pipe.

The question now: How will the TTC fix itself?

“It was really sad as an outsider to see how far the disinvestment had fallen. At one time, 20 or more years ago, there was no question the TTC was one of the top operations in the world. It was sad to see the disinvestment occur, to see the buses get older, to see the facilities not as well maintained. I’m really glad to see the investment is starting to come back and I have every expectation to see the TTC climb on top again.”

—Bill Millar, president, American Public Transit Association

The TTC’s stated policy — that it needs to maintain what it has before it starts expanding — is essential, says Richard Soberman, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s department of civil engineering.

That means playing catch-up on the purchase of 1,300 new buses, replacing an aging fleet that is well beyond its best-before date.

Funding commitments to date should meet the $4 billion to $5 billion over 10 years the TTC says it needs to replace its fleet, including the purchase of new LRT cars.

“There’s a delicate balance between using whatever money you have to maintain what you already operate,” says Soberman. “But that’s not going to get you new passengers. New passengers require expansion.”

One innovation close to the TTC’s heart — and one that will tangibly improve transit reliability while changing the nature of the city — is the concept for St. Clair Ave. W.

Meanwhile, two busways are in the works — one from Downsview station to York University through a hydro corridor, the other on Yonge St. north of Finch station to Steeles Ave.

Another is on the books, using the Bayview extension to link Don Mills station on the Sheppard subway line with Castle Frank on the Bloor-Danforth line.

“The single most important thing we need is more and more transit priority, where high volume bus and streetcar routes operate in dedicated traffic lanes,” says Soberman.

“The customers you have are the people you want to keep and anything you can do to improve the reliability of the existing service will keep them there longer, and that’s why the transit priority is so important.”

“We keep hearing about how Toronto is supposed to be a pro-transit city. Being pro transit seems to mean `as long as it doesn’t interfere with cars.’ … We have to start being a little more aggressive about saying the street system is organized first for transit and what’s left over, everybody else gets.”

—Steve Munro, Rocket Rider

There are those who believe either the TTC will screw things up on their own, or have it screwed up for them.

Transit activist Steve Munro of the Rocket Riders says the commission shoots itself in the foot by arguing that transit priority — buses and streetcars controlling traffic lights or running in their own lanes — will reduce operating costs.

That argument got the TTC in trouble with the St. Clair crowd, who heard their street was going to be torn up to give streetcars the right of way so that the TTC could run fewer streetcars there.

“They say because we will be able to make the trip faster, we won’t need as many cars or buses on this route,” says Munro. “So from the riders’ point of view, there’s no change in the frequency of service, there’s just fewer cars on the line.

“The time you spend waiting for the car is more important than the time you spend on the car because you’re much more conscious that you’re waiting.”

The TTC gets things screwed up for them when they’re forced to build subways, perhaps the most expensive form of transportation on the planet. Sheppard was a pet project of then-mayor Mel Lastman, who had long promised the line to his North York constituents.

“The most telling thing about the TTC in the last decade is that in the same time we built the Sheppard subway, we lost 10 per cent of our ridership,” says Perks, of the environmental alliance. “Glitzy, high-cost ribbon cutting projects like subway construction that consume all the resources without producing any new riders.”

The Sheppard “stubway” cost almost $1 billion, and ridership went down. Over the same time frame, American cities have built entirely new light rail networks, which costs about a tenth the price of subway building.

Light rail is booming across America. Cities of all sizes — Dallas, Houston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Charlotte, Pittsburgh — have climbed aboard in a big way.

“Right now we have two possibilities in front of us,” says Perks. “We could build the York University subway and complete the Sheppard subway out to Scarborough Town Centre, for a cost of about $3 billion.

“Or we could build a 200-kilometre network of light rail throughout the city for about $3 billion. So you could have three or four more subway stops, or a network of surface transit.”

It’s a no-brainer to many. Moscoe “found religion” about the benefits of light rail transit last year at a conference in Atlanta.

“We’re going to aim to take all our vehicles out of mixed traffic,” says Moscoe. “I think you’re going to see an explosion of busways and light rail when the money starts to flow.”

“You can’t run a multi-billion dollar business without knowing where your next nickel is coming from. It’s clear the TTC needs more money, it’s clear it needs a predictable source of revenue, so it can plan accordingly, both for repair and rehabilitation, but also for gradual system expansion.”

—Richard Soberman, U of T professor

The TTC is counting on $7.5 billion from the federal, provincial and city governments over the next 10 years. Here’s how it plans to spend it, according to chief general manager Rick Ducharme:

  • State of Good Repair — $4.7 billion. This includes buying 1,300 new buses, 232 subway cars, the refurbishment of about 100 aging streetcars and the purchase of new light rail vehicles. It also includes money for new signals, new subway ventilation systems, new bus garages to handle expanded fleet.

  • Ridership Growth Strategy — $1.3 billion. Includes budget for additional bus operators to handle expanded service in the suburbs, additional subsidies to reduce fares and converting major roads into transit-priority roads. Buses and streetcars would operate in their own lanes, without interference from cars.

  • Spadina subway to York University — $1.5 billion. The often-announced, always delayed project, which would add six kilometres of subway, is believed to be a pet project of Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara. “The mayor has been very good in talking to senior government. If they want a Spadina subway, give us a deal on all three and we’re there,” says Ducharme.