We used to brag shamelessly about our transit. And then we nickel and dimed it
This isn’t how the TTC is supposed to be.
Remember when it was the best transit system in North America? It wasn’t so long ago the TTC was held up as the model for big-city public transit with the mayors of big, brash American cities humbling themselves at our feet to get a look at how we did it.
Now people from Dallas — that pickup-truck-loving, oil-rich city in Texas — and Calgary — that pickup-truck-loving, oil-rich city in Alberta — come to Toronto to explain to transit enthusiasts here how they built their light rail transit systems in just a few short years.
“When we started (in 1996), people around here said nobody is going to get out of their pickup truck to get on a train,” Gary Thomas, president of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, told a recent summit on transportation.
But 60,000 people a day are doing just that — getting on to Dallas’s 70 kilometres of light rail, a system that’s going to expand to 150 kilometres in eight years. The city also has 60 kilometres of GO Train-style commuter rail and 50 kilometres of strictly enforced carpool lanes.
“Dallas seems like the least likely place for a public transit renaissance, but it’s working,” said Thomas. “And I’m just tickled being in Toronto telling y’all about this.”
We know how they did it. Money. They have it. We don’t.
Today, we’re reduced to wondering whether the TTC will even operate tomorrow. Its workers say a lack of money in a proposed contract led to the labour dispute that’s got the city teetering on traffic chaos.But even when the buses, streetcars and subways are running, we’re still inclined to complain about the TTC’s shortcomings: I didn’t get a seat. It was too crowded. I had to wait 20 minutes for a bus. I didn’t get a seat. Boy those streetcars are loud. It cost too much. The driver was grumpy. I didn’t get a seat.
It’s not supposed to be like this. Why can’t we be more like Montreal, where monthly passes are really cheap? Or New York or London or Paris, which have subways everywhere and neat “smartcard” technology? Or Hong Kong, which makes money on transit?
We know how they do it. Money. They have it. We don’t.
But now’s the time to start talking about it. Whatever transit system we come up with is going to last for 50 or maybe 100 years — as TTC chairman Howard Moscoe likes to point out in defending the underused $1-billion Sheppard subway line.
“You don’t build subways for one year; you build subways for 150 years,” says Moscoe. “If somebody 150 years ago in London, England, had not won the debate (to build the world’s first subway), then the losing side would have put more horses on the street and London would be drowning” in horse manure.
“You can’t measure the value of a subway in a one-year horizon. Not possible.”
So let’s start with money. We should have lots of it for transit. This city is, after all, the economic engine of the country. There’s wealth in this city. But our taxes leave our city, and they leave our province and they go to Ottawa. (Note to reader: Check the Star’s archives under “New Deal for Cities” for relevant background.)
Ottawa gives our money to have-not provinces, like Quebec, which supports socially progressive initiatives like public transit. In a nutshell, one of the reasons Montreal’s equivalent of our Metropass is half the price of the TTC’s is that you helped subsidize it.
Transit needs a lot of money because it’s a losing proposition. Outside of the example of Hong Kong — where the transit agency is also a land developer — transit worldwide loses money.
Transit in Toronto, believe it or not, loses less money than transit anywhere else, recouping about 80 cents from fares for every dollar spent on operating buses, subways and streetcars.
This “fare recovery ratio” is better than almost anywhere, which means TTC patrons are subsidized less, and pay more out of their own pocket than other transit users.
Even New York City’s transit system (MTA) recoups only 50 cents on every operating dollar it spends, prompting Jay H. Walder, lecturer in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, to conclude: “There is no practical scenario under which the MTA could be financially self-sufficient. Even if the MTA were to increase its `fare recovery ratio,’ it would still be reliant on governmental subsidies and taxes to balance its budget.”
Sound familiar? Like Toronto city council at budget time?
The U.S. government has got into transit in a huge way. Cities across America — Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, you name it — are tapping into the stream of money available to support bus service and the construction of light rail and damn the “fare-recovery ratio.”
And if you think the problem in Canada is a lot of fat in our transit systems, think again. Taken as a whole, transit systems in Canada recover 62 per cent of their total operating costs from the fare box. This compares to averages of 55 per cent in France, 44 per cent in Sweden, 41 per cent in the United States, and 28 per cent in Holland.
“Years of belt-tightening, restructuring and `making do’ have left Canadian transit properties stretched to the limit of their abilities and resources,” writes Michael Roschlau, president of the Canadian Urban Transit Association.
But there are signs politicians and transit leaders are seeing the light. That’s why in the coming months:
GO Transit will actually start constructing its long-awaited third rail — the opening it needs to double rail traffic along the Lakeshore corridor. It went through the environmental assessment stage and design stages years ago, only to have the money pulled out from under it in the early 1990s. But construction now seems a go with $650 million in funding guaranteed from Ottawa and Queen’s Park.
Brampton Transit will introduce beefed-up service in May, paid for in part by a 5.7 per cent city property tax increase.
York Region Transit will introduce Viva, its bus rapid-transit service along Hwy. 7 and Yonge St. that has seen property taxes rise about 6 per cent a year.
The province and federal government are rolling out gas tax money to municipalities, to be used primarily for transit.
Even the “smartcard” fare payment system is coming, eventually.
The province is forming a Greater Toronto Transportation Authority with an eye to better planning regional transit needs with housing, retail and employment centres, and to decide where and how money on big projects ought to be spent. (There should be plenty of political infighting there.)
But the big question is still the TTC, which is 10 times bigger than GO Transit. There’s hope a new City of Toronto Act will lead to sustainable funding, giving the city more autonomy and new sources of money. It should also get rid of provincial rules that have hamstrung innovations with the TTC, making it virtually impossible, for example, to introduce bus-only roads.
As for the future, Toronto loves its subways. But they cost about $100 million a kilometre. For that price, the city could build a decent LRT system across the city, or put in dozens of bus-only roads.
Bus-only roads will be springing up soon enough, to York University and the north end of Yonge St. between Finch and Steeles. TTC leadership, including Moscoe, have “found religion” on LRT after visiting American cities where LRT is revolutionizing the way people get around. And subway expansion — hey, it’s part of the city’s brand — remains a TTC goal.
Whatever you ask for, though, you will have to pay for: Through your taxes to City Hall, Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill.