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Transit commission did job despite the childish antics

It will be remembered for the scandals and the uproar. For the strike, the resignations and the “kindergarten” coups.

For the past three years, the latest edition of the Toronto Transit Commission, which meets for the final time Wednesday, often seemed to tear itself apart as a weekly sport. But the dull, technical, tedious and essential business the commission pursued between the crack-ups mark it a success.

“In the end, we’ll have to speak in rosy terms about what they’ve done,” says TTC deputy general manager Lynn Hilborn.

A member of a senior staff team that was often at loggerheads with its board, Hilborn speaks with surprising respect and admiration for the commission.

“I hope there’s a lot of continuity (of membership) on the next board.

“The TTC went through the knothole backward and it was only with the support of this commission that we could do all the things we had to do to survive.”

Over a period that saw a massive pullout of provincial money from transit and the continuing overhaul of the system following a 1995 subway crash, the TTC not only managed to survive but even to thrive a little.

It did so because on matters that counted most, the fractious commission and their beleaguered staff travelled the same track.

Like a family that bickers around the supper table but fights together when under attack, the seven commission members and their staff stressed two things - that the system be structurally sturdy and that it be financially sound.

“Despite the zaniness, I think both the staff and the commission were effective leaders on both those points,” says commissioner David Miller.

“And our biggest accomplishment has been maintaining the system and increasing service despite the massive budget cuts.”

They were cuts that could have crushed a more poorly managed system.

During this commission term the province went from paying 75 per cent of the system’s capital costs to nothing at all - pushing the city’s transit bill to $400 million a year from $160 million.

While this effectively scuttled any major expansion potential, it also threatened the rigorous upkeep and replacement programs initiated under former chief general manager David Gunn.

Yet, led by its bellicose chair, Howard Moscoe, the commission was able to purchase hundreds of new subway cars, rebuild dozens of buses and streetcars and maintain its $250 million a year “state of good repair” schedule.

On the operational side, the TTC remained the envy of every other North American transit system.

Over the 1990s, government support for TTC operations - things like payroll and fuel costs - dropped by some $180 million a year.

Yet the commission was still able to maintain the best bottom line of any major transit system on the continent.

While government sources pay about 50 per cent of the operating costs of most North American transit systems, the TTC covers 80 per cent of these expenses through passenger fares.

This enviable record was achieved largely by ignoring politics. The question that preceded most decisions was not “does this score political points?” but “does this make good business sense?”

“The goal of the commission and the staff was to manage and administer the assets in a prudent and responsible way,” Hilborn says.

The accomplishments, however, were often played out in a bizarre, very public way. During the past three years the commission has seen:

  • The bitter resignation of Gunn, largely regarded as North America’s best transit manager, after a series of feuds with Moscoe.
  • The resignation of commissioner Blake Kinahan, who along with Moscoe was one of only two holdovers from the previous commission. Kinahan also quit in a fit of pique last January after breach of trust allegations he brought against Moscoe failed to oust the chair.
  • Four bungled coup attempts against Moscoe. Led by Kinahan, vice-chair Rob Davis and commissioners Chris Korwin-Kuczynski and Brian Ashton, Moscoe, along with commission allies Miller and Joe Mihevc, deftly rebuffed each attack by turning the conspirators upon themselves.
  • A two-day strike in April, 1999, that saw Moscoe enrage staff and Mayor Mel Lastman by interfering in secret negotiations to cut his own deal with the transit union.

“We did waste a lot of time,” Korwin-Kuczynski says. “There were a lot of things done that maybe shouldn’t have been.”

In the midst of it all, however, there was a fierce determination to keep the TTC from deterioration due to the budget cuts.

During its tenure, the commission became the main lobby group for the reintroduction of provincial transit funding.

A booming economy has helped ease the pain of funding losses, with ridership expected to exceed 400 million for the first time in a decade.

The TTC has increased service on both subway lines and has opened or lengthened several streetcar routes.

“And that’s very good, but I can see real problems down the road when the economy is not so good,” says Moscoe, who hopes to be reappointed to his fourth term on the board after the November municipal elections.

“That could be disastrous, unless we have a stable source of funding from senior levels of government.”

In the end, this was Moscoe’s commission. And he directed its twice-monthly meetings - recently cut back to one a month - with aplomb.

In the final analysis, Moscoe says, his proudest accomplishment is the growth in system access for the handicapped.

“We’re back on track in terms of the disabled community,” Moscoe says.

“We have a clear program for revamping the Wheel Trans system and we’re making sure the regular system is becoming more accessible.”

That the city has a first-rate transit system in a time of brutal cutbacks is a testament to this commission.

That, not the absurdities, should be its legacy.

Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at