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TTC's cause moves forward, but slowly

Royson James

THE AWFUL TRUTH about transit underfunding is beginning to register where it most needs to be heard and heeded - at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa. Progress is slow, yes, but perceptible.

It is true that the first word out of Premier Mike Harris’ mouth continues to be “No” when he’s asked if he plans to ease the funding crunch felt by the Toronto Transit Commission and other systems in the province. But if one listens further, one hears a softening of the Premier’s position.

Harris rightly says his government has already funded TTC capital needs to the year 2002. Then, he opens the door a crack. “Beyond 2002, that’s something that we can look at with some of our infrastructure money that we announced in the last budget.”

Harris said that Wednesday. It’s an encouraging development.

In Ottawa, where the federal government has never contemplated, much less practised, funding for public transit, Transport Minister David Collenette sounds like a convert.

First, he acknowledges the “enormous” funding decisions faced by GO Transit and the TTC; then he says his government recognizes it “should become involved in some way.”

He suggests his government might contribute about $1 billion worth of its fuel tax revenues to municipalities. And he says the province should do the same with its fuel tax slush fund. The amount, of course, is not enough, but it’s a start.

Ottawa and Queen’s Park rake in $2 billion annually from the GTA and Hamilton-Wentworth via fuel taxes. The senior governments keep it all.

Torontonians have been hearing about the astonishing need for government money to help with the TTC. On Wednesday, TTC chief general manager Rick Ducharme, as straight and credible as they come, said the TTC needs $3.8 billion over the next 10 years just to maintain the system which carries 87 per cent of all passengers in the GTA.

No city can afford such an expenditure, he said. Toronto needs help from the province and federal government.

Yesterday, the Canadian Urban Transit Association showed the need exists all across the country. Association president Michael Roschlau said commuters are being burdened - to the point of discouragement.

Five years ago, fares across Ontario paid 60 per cent of the transit operating cost (68 per cent in Toronto). Now, the average is 75 per cent (82 per cent in Toronto).

“If we don’t get more funding, people are just gonna go back to their cars,” Roschlau said.

Transit in Canada needs an estimated $9.2 billion in new infrastructure over the next five years. Of that, $3.2 billion is needed to replace or repair existing buses and equipment while $6 billion is needed just to meet anticipated growth demands.

Meanwhile, only $5.1 billion of transit’s infrastructure needs will be met with existing funding sources (primarily municipalities). So the shortfall is $4.1 billion.

South of the border, the federal and state governments have responded favourably to needs there - and none of their transit systems is as efficient as the TTC or GO.

A simple Canadian answer exists. Turn over some of the gas tax and vehicle registration revenues to public transit providers. British Columbia has done it. Quebec does it for Montreal.

There are other solutions, of course. But none is as simple, sustainable and accountable as this one. City councillors and the public should keep agitating till Ottawa and Queen’s Park respond.