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Lastman can't hide from TTC's needs

The message from Mayor Mel Lastman came through loud and clear — no bad news allowed, not when the city’s Olympic dreams hang in the balance.

The mayor blasted Councillor Brian Ashton, chair of the TTC, for having the temerity to remind people about the cash crunch facing transit. Ashton had warned that unless the TTC gets assurances of long-term funding, big cuts are coming.

A tough message. Too tough, it seems, for the mayor.

Last week, Lastman accused the councillor of taking advantage of Toronto’s Olympic bid to further his “pet project,” the TTC, and called his comments “stupid.”

So what are councillors supposed to do? Stay mum about important city issues until after the International Olympic Committee picks the winning city on July 13?

Forget it. The mayor’s inference that councillors should keep a lid on bad news is offensive and wrong. And his suggestion that Ashton’s concerns could somehow tip the Olympic vote in another city’s favour is ridiculous.

There are plenty of issues facing Toronto which can’t wait for the Olympic vote. Transit is at the top of the list.

The crisis facing the TTC is a simple one. During the 1970s and ’80s, the system expanded subway and streetcar lines, added buses and saw ridership jump to a high of 470 million a year, up from 275 million.

Now all the equipment bought during this boom period must be replaced and it won’t be cheap. Subway cars are $2 million each. By 2010, the TTC will need 212 of them to replace 30-year-old subways it is running now. The bus fleet is aging too. Over the decade, Toronto will need 1,180 of them at $500,000 apiece. And the city’s 196 streetcars need costly refurbishment.

Toronto Council has promised the TTC $200 million a year in capital funding but the system requires at least another $80 million a year to meet its needs. The shortfall worsens, starting in 2006 when the TTC’s capital budget rises sharply to an average of $460 million a year to pay for new vehicles.

Without the funding, there will be no more money to replace the aging vehicles. That will force the TTC to reduce service on some routes and eliminate it entirely on others.

For a system that carries more than 400 million riders a year, that’s not “stupid,” as the mayor called it. That’s serious.

The test will come later this year when the TTC has to order 300 new buses. Will council commit the money to buy them? Will Queen’s Park and Ottawa help share the cost?

Important questions, which council shouldn’t ignore, despite what the mayor says.