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Lorinc: What about the TTC operating budget?

When I count the votes on the new council, it seems pretty clear that a Transit City vs. subway vote, due in February according to TTC chair Karen Stintz, will be extremely close. But for now, the numbers tilt slightly in favour of Mayor Rob Ford’s agenda. Based on the Liberals’ mealy pronouncements last week, I would not be shocked if they decided to capitulate rather than defend Metrolinx’s Big Move.

From Queen’s Park’s perspective, Ford’s gambit could free up some cash in the short term and the rest of this expensive mess gets kicked way down the road, for someone else to deal with. Add in some creative bookkeeping and a bit of political blather about a new era in provincial-municipal relations, and the transit expansion file once again drops into a boring-machine-sized wormhole.

After all, the Liberals, with their eyes firmly trained on the 2011 election and the mirage of an economic upswing circa 2013, may be tempted to play let’s make a deal with the new mayor and ante up enough pledges of capital to at least get started on a Sheppard subway (engineering studies, etc.), even while continuing construction on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT (west end Liberals).

So far, the debate has been entirely about the capital spend and the financial impact of cancelling various Metrolinx contracts. The operating budget shortfall for Ford’s subway scheme is another story entirely, but one that has yet to be acknowledged publicly by either of the participants in this weird transit tango.

In theory, a fiscally conservative mayor should care about building a transit line that could cough up a substantial operating deficit for decades to come.

And, again in theory, a deficit-addled provincial regime should care about the TTC’s operating budget, because Toronto politicians - and Ford will be no exception - are constantly asking for Queen’s Park’s helping in soaking up all that red ink associated with maintaining an aging transit service (over $400 million last year).

But so far I haven’t heard a peep from the mayor about whether a Sheppard subway stretching from Downsview to Scarborough Town Centre will have any hope of becoming financially viable within the foreseeable future. I’m hoping TTC general manager Gary Webster will have the courage to include those calculations in the options he presents to the new commission next month (he will).

Here’s a bit of a preview:

The Sheppard stub currently serves about 47,700 customers on an average weekday, a figure that is less than 10% of the Bloor-Danforth volume and 7% of the Yonge-University-Spadina ridership. According to my colleague Steve Munro, those figures translate into a peak-period ridership of about 12,000.

The TTC says subways earn their keep when peak hour ridership exceeds 15,000. Now consider that the long-term TTC projections for the Sheppard East LRT ridership crest at 3,000 by 2031. Build a subway and, yes, some more riders will come. But the reality is that no one reading this post will live to see the day when the Sheppard line will be surrounded by enough density to make it worth the green.

Which isn’t necessarily a reason not to proceed: subways do attract density over the long haul. But upzoning and redevelopment is measured in decades. In the meantime, council either has to pick up the tab for an even larger TTC operating shortfall (or impose higher fares to cross-subsidize its loop-closing expansion).

How much of a shortfall is difficult to say. When David Miller once threatened to mothball the Sheppard line as part of a budget cutting drive, city officials said the move would save about $10 million a year, although that figure is likely high.

Ford’s platform promise - from Downsview to Yonge, and then from Don Mills to Scarborough Town Centre - essentially triples the Sheppard line. So while I’m hesitant to do the arithmetic, such a route will require three times the power, three times the personnel, three times the routine maintenance, and on and on.

Politicians of all stripes routinely make the mistake of building infrastructure without first considering how to deal with the cost of running it. So quite apart from the debate about whether the provincial should crack open its Big Move plan and give Ford what he wants, the new mayor and the new council needs to ask which is more cost effective: running LRTs or subways.

If Ford genuinely wants to show “respect for taxpayers,” he’ll confront that question now rather than let some future council figure out how to pay the piper.