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Gee: Applying Fordian logic to the TTC -- stop the dreaming, stem the bleeding

by Marcus Gee

Like the ancient mariner buttonholing the wedding guest, outgoing Toronto Transit Commission chair Adam Giambrone has a warning for incoming mayor Rob Ford and the new city council. Don’t spend all your time arguing over whether to scrap streetcar lines or build subways instead of light rail. Spare some attention for how to pay for what you’ve already got.

Running a huge transit network costs a bundle. The TTC’s expenses for 2010 are budgeted at about $1.4-billion, and they keep going up. The costs of diesel fuel to run all those buses and electricity to run all those subways goes up as energy costs rise. The cost of paying all those drivers and ticket takers and supervisors goes up as contractual wage increases kick in.

Even its own success costs the TTC money. More and more people are taking the system, despite the aftermath of a tough recession. Each rider costs the TTC about $1, even after collecting his or her fare. Ridership is projected to rise by 11 million in 2011 from this year’s forecast of 476 million.

In its latest budget update, the TTC predicts that expenses will go up around 8 per cent next year and leap by about the same amount in future years. As Mr. Giambrone puts it: “Transit costs are to the city budget what health-care costs are to the provincial budget.” They rise relentlessly, gobbling up tax revenue and crowding out other things that government does. Transit advocate Steve Munro says that “it’s like watching a taxi meter, except the increments are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Mr. Giambrone, who dropped out of the mayoral race this year and decided not to run again for his council seat, thumbs through his final report as TTC chair till he comes to a chart showing the TTC’s financial outlook. It shows that even with fare increases, the TTC will need another $200-million in annual government subsidies to cover its expenses by 2015. It is short another $1-billion over the next five years for capital projects, including basic stuff such as fixing track, sealing leaky tunnels and replacing a half-century-old signal system.

How to satisfy these funding demands is a crucial question for the TTC. Yet we didn’t hear a whisper about it in the election campaign from Mr. Ford - or any other candidate, for that matter. The candidates preferred to talk about their fantasy plans for costly new subways or light-rail lines. It made for lots of pretty, colour-coded transit maps but had little to do with the real needs of North America’s third largest transit system.

Expanding rapid transit is important, no doubt. After a long pause without any major new transit lines, the public would like to see progress. Talking about new subway loops is a lot more titillating than talking about capital-budget shortfalls.

As TTC chief general manger Gary Webster puts it: “It’s not really as exciting to talk about the new roof you’ve got as it is to talk about the new whirlpool bath you put in when you extended your house.” On the other hand, “You’d never build an extension on your house without fixing the roof first.”

That has a simple, Fordian logic. Before they start fussing about streetcars versus subways versus light rail, the mayor-elect and other city leaders need to have a grown-up conversation with the public and with higher levels of government about how to pay for a transit system that will meet the needs of a mobile, rapidly growing populace.

Mr. Giambrone’s report suggests that, to start with, the city should do away with ad hoc, occasional fare increases and switch to a predictable annual increase of 15 to 20 cents. The report also calls on the provincial government to kick in more to subsidize the TTC and to look at other sources of revenue for transit, such as road tolls or an increased sales or gas tax.

Whatever the answer, the new crew at City Hall needs to remember that paying for the transit system we have is at least as important as building the one we would like.