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The TTC's technology problem

Posted: April 22, 2008, 4:14 PM by Rob Roberts
TTC, Kuitenbrouwer

Vince Rodo, general secretary of the Toronto Transit Commission, is a dour man with a passing resemblance to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. He was not having a good time in Committee Room One today. He sat, twisting a pen in his hands, listening as the TTC took it on the chin from city auditors.

“Policies are not being followed,” says a city audit report on the TTC’s information technology spending. “The current process is informal, inconsistent and subjective. It [is] difficult to determine … whether or not the TTC is receiving value for money.”

The TTC, and the mayor, like to brag that they run the most efficient transit system in North America. But Jeff Griffiths, the city’s auditor-general, notes that from 2001-2006 the TTC spent $38.5-million on more than 150 IT consultants, at “significantly higher” costs than doing the work in-house. Three people the TTC retained as consultants in 2001 and 2002 were still there in 2006, the report notes.

If the TTC had hired the three as staff, “cost savings of over $500,000 would have been realized,” the report says.

Audit committee members had done their homework, and added to the scrutiny of the TTC’s books today.

“It’s very disconcerting,” said Councillor Michael Del Grande, the committee’s vice-chair. “I have great concerns that with projects of an IT nature the TTC has no grasp of how long projects are going to take or how much they will cost.”

Councillor John Parker called the TTC’s IT practices, “Back of the envelope, seat of the pants, we can make do with what we’ve got. Discipline is one feature lacking in this department of this organization.”

Mr. Rodo replied, “We have set up a TTC e-committee. We’ve taken steps to make changes in project management staff. We’re not making any bones about it. We’ve had issues, we’ve had problems.” As for hiring staff rather than paying consultants, he said, “It’s important to make sure you’re not just adding people.”

The best speech, though, came from Councillor Anthony Perruzza, the rumpled, motorcycle-riding everyman who represents York West, and also sits on the TTC.

“We all just simply become addicted to technology,” Mr. Perruzza said, “an addiction we’re getting into to the tune of hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. And before you can say lickety-split, it’s out of date. I noticed there’s a new screen at the back of the room,” he added, pointing to a flat screen by the entrance. I’m sure it tells us important information we need to know.” (The screen tells viewers where a committee is on its agenda. City Hall has somehow lived without it until now.)

Mr. Perruzza continued, “There was a time when you went to a wheel maker and he did the whole thing: the hub, the spokes, the rim,” he said. “Now, the guy designing the spokes tells you the guy doing the hub and the rim are all wrong. One day we will be standing at a bus stop and there will be a screen telling you when the next bus is coming. And then before you know it, that screen will be out of date, because you’ll get that information on your cell phone. We need to resist technology as much as possible.”

Will the TTC change its ways? Mr. Del Grande said the TTC has ignored council before, and will do it again.

“We’re wasting our time,” the councillor said. “They [the TTC] are independent. But when they need money, they’ve got their hands in our pocket.”

Once the parental lecture from City Hall ended, Mr. Rodo took off faster than the Red Rocket, and reporters had to take the stairs two at a time to catch up to him.

“We’re not pleased with the audit report,” Mr. Rodo spluttered, and fled the building.