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Politicians eye slashing bus routes in budget squeeze

Decade of cuts leaves little else to do, TTC says

Joseph Hall
COMMUTER CORNER

The 98 Willowdale-Senlac bus runs a pretty route that wends its way along Grantbrook St., Cactus Ave. and Senlac Rd. in North York.

The bus is part of the glue that holds the tidy Willowdale community together. But according to a TTC service report, it should be one of the first routes to go in the event of further cuts to the $144 million operating subsidy it receives from the city.

The bus is one of 72 under-performing routes the TTC says may have to be scaled back or cancelled outright.

It’s not just Sunday service the TTC would look at slashing. It’s entire routes.

For city politicians eyeing more “efficiencies” in their transit system, these neighbourhood routes are where the rubber will hit the road.

“If the city’s financial woes wash over to the TTC and we’re required to cut our operating budget, then what you’ll see is cuts in bus routes,” says commission chair Brian Ashton.

“It’s pretty simple - 85 per cent of our (operating) costs are labour-related and a large part of that labour is involved in moving buses, so that’s where you find the money.”

The TTC has lost more than $100 million in operating subsidies over the past decade, and the loss of these marginal services won’t put an end to the system, which is projecting healthy ridership growth this year, Ashton says.

The TTC willc carry more than 400 million people this year, but the cuts could put the system into a downward spiral.

It’s a simple progression; buses are cancelled and those that remain are more crowded and less frequent as they’re forced to take up the slack. As service deteriorates, passenger volumes drop, leading to higher fares and further cutbacks as the system scrambles to make ends meet.

It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before. During the early 1990s, a combination of fare increases, budget cuts and recession cost the TTC almost 91 million annual rides.

The system, under former chief general manager David Gunn, responded by becoming more efficient. It chopped senior staff, dropped about 300 buses and rebuilt its rolling stock to save on purchases.

In short, it did more with less. And now, with the system collecting 82 per cent of its operating revenues from fares, it has become the most cost-efficient transit system in North America. By comparison, most other systems receive 50 per cent or more of their operating budgets from government sources.

But having already maximized its fiscal efficiency, the TTC has lost that option as a response to further cutbacks.

“I can find (the city) nickels and dimes, but I can’t find them dollars,” Ashton says.

“If we tighten our belt any more it will cut us in half.”

And outside of the operating budget, which the city has traditionally funded, lurks a more dangerous financial threat to the system.

It’s the TTC’s capital budget, 75 per cent of which has now been downloaded from the province on to Toronto’s property tax base.

“On the capital side, in the longer term you are looking at the reliability of your rolling stock,” Ashton says.

And as the city saw in a lethal 1995 subway crash, if the system isn’t kept in good shape though constant capital spending, it’s not just bus routes that will be endangered.

It will be lives.


Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at gjhall@thestar.ca




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