As a new Toronto Transit Commission board chair and a new union president each get settled into their positions, both say overcrowding and a potential upload of the city’s subway system are top of mind.
Coun. Jaye Robinson (Ward 15 Don Valley West) was appointed by city council in December to chair the board, while members of ATU Local 113, the union that represents TTC employees, elected Carlos Santos as the organization’s president, with Santos beginning his position on Tuesday. The change in political and union leadership comes months after TTC CEO Rick Leary was appointed to lead the transit agency at the staff level.
Robinson, who was re-elected for a third term in October’s election and most recently served as chair of the City of Toronto’s Public Works and Infrastructure committee, said she and her family use the TTC on a regular basis — so much so that she noted she doesn’t know where her city hall parking spot is located because she takes the subway and walks to her office.
Robinson recently told Global News that her focuses for this term of council involve initiatives that improve reliability and capacity. For the new chair, that means accelerating the downtown subway relief line.
“I use transit every day. I’m observing what’s happening out there and also getting feedback from residents and transit users on a daily basis … On Line 1, we’re at a crisis level,” she said.
“(The downtown relief line is) absolutely top priority. Until I’m blue in the face, I will continue to say that. It’s such a critical piece of infrastructure. It has to be fast-tracked and it must be prioritized because it will create some relief on the most congested line.”
Under the current schedule, Robinson said the proposed subway line is forecast to be running by 2031. She said while money has been allocated for design, finalized funding for construction and operation still remains to be sorted out.
“It’ll be 2,500 rides per hour when the relief line is built that will be diverted … (opening sooner) is maybe not achievable, but I would like to see it moved up from that 2031 date,” Robinson said.
The other top priority for Robinson, she said, is seeing the completion of automatic train control, a new signalling system that allows subway trains to run closer together and aims to reduce wait times and increase capacity on Line 1. Robinson said there is a potential concern that the ongoing project, which has meant weekend closures over the past several years, could be delayed — something she said she wants to work to avoid.
When it comes to transit expansion in Toronto, Robinson said changing transit visions in recent years have hindered progress.
“We have to stop treating planning as a political football — that is the most critical thing we can do as a city council. We have to listen to the experts, and the issue is if we don’t stick to the course and stick to the plan, we get nothing built,” Robinson said.
“’Just get it built, make it happen, let’s do it’ — that is what I hear all the time. This dithering and back and forth, up and down, and treating transit as a political football has to stop.”
A more recent issue facing Robinson and the newly appointed TTC board will be responding to a proposal that could see the transit agency’s subway system taken over. Ontario Premier Doug Ford campaigned during the provincial election on uploading the subway as a part of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario’s plans for transit and transportation.
During a meeting in December, Toronto city council reaffirmed its support for keeping the TTC under the ownership of the City of Toronto and agreed to engage in discussions with the province. Those in favour of the plan argued it could mean cost savings for the city, while opponents said the move could cause problems for riders.
Robinson said her office has heard from people who are against the proposed move.
“It’s not a very appealing concept to have the subways pulled out of the system,” she said, adding that she’s waiting for more information.
“Seventy per cent of riders actually move from the subway to a bus or a streetcar … that’s significant. So it’s all integrated and it’s all interconnected.”
Meanwhile, Santos — a 12-year TTC employee who has worked as a streetcar and bus operator as well as a trainer — recently told Global News the subway uploading proposal is his top issue as he begins his term as union president.
“It’s basically a theft of the TTC … This is something we’ve paid for and we own,” he said, adding that he believes the upload marks the beginning of transit privatization and increased costs for riders.
Another concern for Santos is the TTC’s decision to conduct random alcohol and drug testing of employees. The transit agency put in place a fitness for duty policy in 2010 for all employees, which included drug and alcohol testing for those who need certification testing, those involved in an incident or where there is reasonable cause to test workers. The TTC has argued that random testing serves as a deterrent to alcohol and drug abuse.
Santos said the policy has resulted in morale issues for employees.
“We’re randomly testing thousands of people to try and catch one person who has made a mistake. Our statistics are well below industry average,” he said.
“It’s invasive on our human rights and our charter rights.”
In terms of how the union operates, Santos said he wants to get more “rank-and-file” members involved in the organization’s decision-making processes. In 2017, ATU Local 113 saw a shake-up with the resignation of longtime president Bob Kinnear amid a public fight with the union’s U.S.-based parent organization.
“Our membership has gone through some tough times over the last year … I want to build the trust and transparency we once had,” he said, adding that he wants to allow members to be able to vote online for major issues the union wants to pursue.
When asked about the recent leadership changes at the TTC, Santos said he “definitely” feels like there are allies at the transit agency. He said he wants to work with officials, and it’s a sentiment shared by Robinson.
“I think it’s actually excellent because it’s fresh ideas and fresh thinking. I think all the leaders want to collaborate together,” she said.