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Smitherman wants to let seniors ride TTC for free

Mayoral candidate has ‘costed’ plan for off-peak hours
but won’t say how he’ll pay

By Anna Mehler Paperny

If George Smitherman is elected Toronto mayor, seniors would ride public transit for free - for four hours at midday, five days a week.

But the first glimpse at what Mr. Smitherman’s campaign has promised is a “robust” plan for the city’s ailing transit system has observers wondering how, exactly, he plans to pay for it.

He is expected to unveil his entire transit platform Friday. The plan, which would be rolled out shortly after the Oct. 25 election, is the former deputy premier’s first real platform announcement in what’s been a quiet campaign. The answer to almost every specific policy question so far has been “Wait and see.”

“The whole plan is costed,” a senior campaign source said Thursday, adding that the proposal to let those over 65 ride for free between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday wouldn’t place an added financial burden on the system.

But the way things stand, said transit consultant and former Metrolinx advisory committee member Ed Levy, Toronto’s notoriously cash-strapped transit system simply couldn’t support that extra strain: Such a move would require either a major funding transfusion, courtesy of senior levels of government - or a massive fare hike on the heels of a 25-cent increase that had fed-up commuters calling foul.

Reduced fares for seniors are nothing out of the ordinary. But it’s rare in North America to waive fares entirely, Mr. Levy said. For the past several years London has been experimenting successfully with a similar system, which lets older passengers ride for free during off-peak hours.

“My good friend there is constantly telling me about it,” he said. “It’s not just the Underground and buses, but it’s apparently the whole suburban railway system. … It’s a bit extreme.”

But, Mr. Levy noted, London’s public transit is a whole different financial beast when compared to the money-starved Toronto Transit Commission. The vast majority of the TTC’s revenue comes from the fare box: Take that away, he said, and an already shaky system can’t function without a major funding overhaul.

“Its a whole different mindset here.”

Seniors were responsible for about $32.1-million of the TTC’s 2009 revenue. Transit commission spokesman Brad Ross said although the system isn’t operating at full capacity in the middle of the day, “it’s certainly not running empty.”

Councillor Howard Moscoe, the transit commission’s former chair, said he doesn’t remember anyone proposing this before. But he doesn’t know where the money would come from.

“The demographics would strangle the TTC on that one: We have a population that’s rapidly aging. … That’s a formula for bankruptcy,” he said.

“I would run like hell from any candidate that made that promise.”

The source in Mr. Smitherman’s campaign said this proposal is in keeping with his vow to make Torontonians and elderly Torontonians more active.

“He’s said active seniors are healthy seniors, and helping them get around the city for free is just another way they can be more active and engage with the city.

“We want to be able to make sure the plan can actually be implemented, unlike some of our competitors.”

Mr. Smitherman isn’t the first mayoral candidate to play to the city’s seniors: Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti has made them a prominent part of his self-described “outrageous” mayoral campaign; He announced earlier this month he plans to eliminate property taxes entirely for seniors making less than $65,000 a year.

In some ways, says Ryerson University politics professor Myer Siemiatycki, playing to elderly constituents comes across as a purely political vote-getting ploy: Older voters are more likely to vote, period. And in a municipal context, where in 2006 only a third of the electorate cast a ballot, every vote counts.

“Grey hair corresponds with voter turnout. … So for a candidate looking to do some niche campaigning, seniors are a pretty good constituency to try to target, to go after.”

But he noted that given proportionally high rates of poverty among the elderly, “it kind of does take us closer to the notion of public transit as a truly public service and a means of mobility and the right to mobility.”

With a report from Kelly Grant




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