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TTC use peaks as gas prices surges

It’s standing room only on TTC, GO


If the price of filling up is getting too high and you’re thinking now would be a good time to start taking the bus or the train to work, get in line. In fact, there may be so many people headed for the bus shelter or train station that transit experts wonder not just whether you’d get a seat, but whether you’d even get any elbow room.

“I think that people are going to look at more affordable ways to get around, but I don’t think the TTC is in a position to take on millions of more riders,” says Gord Perks of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. “People are looking for alternatives, but the frustrating thing is the city of Toronto isn’t ready to carry a lot more people on transit.”

Salesman John Missios of Toronto says, “The higher gas prices go, the less I drive my car,” though he acknowledges that public transit can be “a slow tortuous way to travel.”

As bad as public transit’s reputation is — especially in the eyes of those who drive — ridership is rising across the GTA. There were 537 million trips taken last year — the most since transit’s heyday in 1989. Transit experts can’t pinpoint the reason, but they agree the price of gas is a factor, with some predicting the price of a barrel of oil may hit $100 (U.S.)

“We are starting to see an increase in our ridership,” says Gary McNeil, managing director of GO Transit. “You can’t say it’s because of the high price of fuel, but the high price of fuel does encourage transit use.”

The cost of gas is, of course, a double-edged sword for transit. “Can ridership increase enough to offset the rising price of fuel? Is there enough capacity to accommodate that?” asks Michael Roschlau, president of the Canadian Urban Transit Association. “There is a delicate balance.”

GO Transit just passed a budget — for the fiscal year that started this month — that is probably already $3 million short on its fuel assumptions, said McNeil, who opted to pay market fuel prices instead of hedge on the futures market.

York Region Transit also expects to pay about $900,000 more for fuel this year. And for every cent that a litre of diesel fuel rises, it will cost Mississauga Transit another $140,000 a year.

The TTC, however, hedged against rising fuel costs by buying fuel futures, locking its after-tax price in at 54 cents a litre, compared with today’s price of 75 cents, saving $12 million to $15 million a year. By the time the contract expires in March 2006, the TTC hopes prices will be lower.

Public transit officials said a significant rise in ridership would help bring non-budgeted revenue to help offset fuel costs.

“If you fill up a bus, your cost recovery is good,” said York Region Transit’s Irene McNeil. “But then there’s that threshold where you can’t fill it any more and you have to go and buy new vehicles.”

If oil prices stay high and commuters continue to switch to public transit, riders will be shoulder-to-shoulder in rush hour for the next while. Or worse. Mississauga Transit, the GTA’s third-largest system after TTC and GO, routinely strands passengers on its busiest bus routes because there simply isn’t space. Oshawa Transit added a few bus routes this fall that filled up immediately.

“There’s latent demand across the GTA,” said Roschlau. “Many of the systems have capacity restraints. A lot of the investments have been announced in recent years. The capacity that will result from that is not in place yet, but it’s coming.”

GO Transit has an aggressive 20-year plan to double capacity to about 90 million rides a year. While shovels may be in the ground this spring to build a third rail along the Lakeshore corridor, it will take two years to order new locomotives to push longer trains and extend platforms in the first phase of the program.

The TTC has modest plans to beef up service — including bus-only roads — and is ordering 100 extra buses for more suburban routes, but they won’t be in service until 2006.

More tangible public transit gains will be felt in the 905 area this year, which has seen double-digit ridership growth rates.

Brampton Transit is increasing capacity by 25 per cent in May with 18 new buses and new routes. In September, York Region’s high-end Viva service, through which it hopes to raise its 12 million passengers a year to 36 million, will debut with about 80 new buses along Highway 7 and Yonge Street with links to GO and TTC stations.

But changing work habits — starting early, or working late to avoid the 7:45 to 8:30 a.m. rush hour — may be the best solution for commuters.

“If you don’t take the subway in that 40-minute crunch time for us, we don’t have a problem,” says Rick Ducharme, chief general manager of the TTC.