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'The Better Way' is in New Delhi

By Ron Banerjee

Toronto’s transit system is an antiquated mess, with a puny 70-kilometre subway system, paper tickets and transfers, filthy stations and ancient trundling streetcars. Fixing it is a priority for any mayoral prospect. But how to rescue the system remains a vexing problem, in part because nobody in Toronto is willing to acknowledge where the fault lies.

The image of the TTC, once stellar, is tarnished. Sleeping workers, rude conductors, financial problems, policy paralysis, strikes and other political issues have led to a loss of confidence in the organization. The uncomfortable truth is that all federal and provincial administrations, Liberal or Conservative, have excellent reasons for refusing to fund city initiatives. Responsible parents don’t hand over the car keys to drunken children.

It is indisputable that Toronto residents pay exorbitant fares to use a decrepit system. Our $3 fare comes with numerous restrictions on the usage of transfers while New York, Montreal and other municipalities with lower fares allow unrestricted transfer usage for two hours. Our subway network covers 70 km; Madrid, with a similar population base, boasts 282 km.

Taxpayers feel the pain as well: Half of Toronto’s budget is consumed by the TTC. A whopping 75% of the TTC’s $1.1-billion budget is consumed by payroll costs. Despite huge fares and a big chunk of city taxes, the city insists the only way to improve transit is to increase taxes or beg upper levels of government for more subsidies.

Both past actions and future plans demonstrate how such funding would be spent. More than $100-million was used to construct seven kilometres of dedicated lanes for one streetcar line. Along the way, traffic was disrupted, businesses were adversely affected and a lawsuit was launched.

Mayor David Miller and his leftist supporters are enthused over the grandiosely named Transit City. This multi-billion-dollar plan involves buying modern LRTs and constructing dedicated tracks along the centre of seven major streets, basically replicating the earlier streetcar boondoggle on a larger scale. There are several reasons why Transit City would be a disaster. Toronto’s temperature extremes require the replacement of exposed surface tracks every few years, so the whole system will have to be rebuilt many times.

Smaller U.S. cities with moderate climates (such as Portland and Salt Lake City), as well as mid-sized European towns have embraced LRTs. These cities have far lower populations and densities than Toronto. Larger metropolitan areas make sure they have a huge subway system first and then selectively deploy a limited number of LRT lines as feeders. Transit City backers claim that a larger subway network is impossible due to funding constraints. Is there a better way to make the TTC “The Better Way”?

In 12 years, New Delhi has built a subway network that by October will hit 190 km. The state-of-the-art system uses smart cards and includes an airport express line which allows baggage check-in at three stations. The New York Times reported on May 14 that the Delhi subway “is a feat bordering on miraculous, and it offers new hope that India’s perpetually decrepit urban infrastructure can be dragged into the 21st century.”

Despite this expansion, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) has produced operational profits from the beginning. The efficiency has convinced institutional investors, such as the Japan Development Bank, to pitch in, further reducing the burden on taxpayers.

The differences between DMRC and TTC start at the top. The DMRC managing director, 77-year-old Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, has a peerless record of completing seemingly impossible infrastructure projects on time and below budget. Prior to joining DMRC, he led a corporation that performed the engineering marvel of the Konkan Railway: a modern rail corridor with 2,000 bridges and 100 tunnels, spanning 800 km of mountainous terrain.

This is a stark contrast to the 32-year-old Adam Giambrone, who has no management or infrastructure experience, and under his reign the TTC has deteriorated further.

DMRC has built and managed its network using a combination of unionized in-house staff and outsourced private contractors. Approximately 1,000 unionized staff perform core functions, such as ticket-collection, while thousands more are employed by private-sector firms on outsourced projects. Unionized employees per route-kilometre have been reduced to 39, against the global standard of 45.

Private-sector employment tied to DMRC projects is at least 25,000. Private firms play a huge and expanding role in all aspects of operations. For instance, for the airport express line, DMRC will build the stations and tunnels; it will then be handed over to private giant Reliance Infrastructure, which will finish the tracks and operational equipment in return for a 30-year lease.

The TTC, by contrast, employs a whopping 12,000 unionized staff and refuses to consider any private-sector participation similar to DMRC projects.

One-quarter of DMRC revenues originate from property development above and around subway stations. Advertising accounts for another quarter of revenues, with innovative in-tunnel video ads provided by private companies. The superb efficiency and low costs have resulted in other revenue opportunities. DMRC is now raking in consulting fees for subway projects in several Indian cities. Former London mayor Ken Livingstone travelled on the DMRC and declared it to be the model for all future London transit projects. Dublin, which is considering building mass transit, has contacted DMRC for project management expertise.

The TTC, as far as we know, has not made the call.

Ron Banerjee is a Toronto consultant and director of the Canadian Hindu Advocacy.