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The TTC is in danger



"The province recognizes that its withdrawal from public-transit subsidies was a serious mistake,” says councillor Brian Ashton, chair of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). “It’s now looking for a way out of that position, and at how it can be seen to be a champion of transit.”

That much is generally agreed upon by those who follow the politics of public transit. But whether the province will be a transit champion without wrecking the TTC is another question.

There’s an irony to the province wanting to get involved with transit and “fix” it. “For 50 years the TTC has been the international model of a good system,” says Ashton. “So what are they trying to fix?”

That kind of question hasn’t stopped the province from messing around with transit. When Tony Clement was minister of municipal affairs (he moved over to health in the recent cabinet shuffle and in his first week privatized the operation of radiology machines after-hours at Sunnybrook hospital), his favourite scheme was apparently to strip the TTC of its subway system and put it under the control of GO Transit. That would nicely divide the current integrated transit service in Toronto and leave the bus routes ripe for privatization. In short order, Toronto’s public transit system would be a shambles.

Chris Hodgson is the new minister, and the government now seems to be worrying about how it can fund capital expenditures for the TTC while placating the interests of the 905 politicians. The rumour from the province is that the best way to achieve that is to put responsibility for the TTC and all other transit operations in the Toronto area under the Greater Toronto Services Board, which now manages GO Transit. You can almost hear the ominous words of the Queen’s Park press announcement rolling out of the minister’s mouth: “This change will reduce duplication, save money and improve service.”

None of it is true. These different operations might all be called “transit,” but they have virtually nothing in common, and putting the TTC into the same boat as the other transit systems in the urban area will most probably result in its demise.

First, there’s the size problem. The TTC has more than 410 million riders a year, whereas GO Transit has 35 million. On a daily basis there are more people on the Queen and King streetcars than on the whole GO operation. Mississauga Transit carries 23 million riders a year, and Markham only 3 million.

Then there’s the cost and efficiency problem. The TTC is the most efficient transit system in North America, with the rider paying more than 80 per cent of the cost, and the subsidy being a modest 35 cents a ride. The GO Transit rider pays about half the cost, and the subsidy is $5 a ride. Subsidies for the small transit operations around Toronto are more than double those incurred by the TTC.

And then there’s the difference in function. The TTC’s job is to provide the basic means of transportation for many people as they move around the city on a daily basis. When the TTC collapses, the city almost stops moving. Outside Toronto, transit is mostly an add-on. No one would think of using GO Transit to get to a party or visit their mother — it’s a commuter service between home and work. The suburbs of Markham, Mississauga and Richmond Hill are generally accessible only by automobile, and for most trips within suburbia, transit is not a viable option. Anyway, the distances between things in the suburbs are so great that transit takes too long, and service is so sporadic it can’t be counted on. In the city, transit’s a necessity. In the suburbs, the necessity is a car.

One TTC staffer said quietly, “It won’t serve anyone better by amalgamating. GO and the TTC serve two different markets, have different cost structures and are complementary, not competing services.” But it doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The province would be delighted to pry the successful TTC away from the control of Toronto city council. Its friends in the 905 area would be equally delighted to get hold of the sizable amount of money the TTC generates — sizable, that is, compared with GO and the suburban operators.

The common practice of the North American suburb for the past 50 years has been to grab hold of good transit systems serving compact, mixed-use areas and expand them into sprawling suburbs where they don’t make sense and aren’t affordable. It takes just four or five years to run a good transit system into the ground. This kind of sad scenario is generally why American cities are currently sinking big bucks into trying to reinvent public transit in places where it once thrived. The subsidies now paid there tell almost the whole story: the subsidy per passenger for transit in Los Angeles is $3.80, in Philadelphia $3.05, in Atlanta $4.35. Even in New York, where almost no one has a car, the subsidy is $1.20 per rider, more than three times what it is in Toronto.

Is this the future of Toronto’s transit? Ashton’s fear is that maybe some deal is being cooked up with the province as a budget trade-off.

“What’s the mayor doing?” he asks. “Is the mayor making a deal?” Good questions, scary answers. The last time Mel Lastman turned his attention to transit was when he pushed through the approval of the Sheppard subway line, the billion-dollar subway to nowhere.

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto.