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Who really stopped the gravy train

by John Lorinc

When council convenes this week to debate the new regime’s signature moves, I’m guessing Mayor Rob Ford won’t be rising to offer praise to former budget chief Shelley Carroll, former TTC chair Adam Giambrone and the senior bureaucrats who were allegedly complicit in the fiscal boondoggle that was the Miller era.

He should, of course, because this crowd — contrary to much of what we heard during the election — has made it possible for Toronto’s Waste Collector in Chief to deliver a property tax freeze for which he has no electoral mandate.

On top of the news from earlier this fall that the city will post a $275 million surplus for fiscal 2010, TTC chief general manager Gary Webster on Friday revealed that the combination of ridership growth and cost containment will yield a $60 million surplus for the same period [PDF]. The windfall, presumably, means the TTC will be asked to make do with a smaller subsidy from the city — $370 million compared to the $430 million that had been budgeted for 2010.

In other words, after the TTC’s annus horribilis, the embattled agency and Toronto commuters will ante up exactly enough cash to kill the vehicle registration tax for 2011. Because that’s how we’ll use the money in the post-war-on-the-car era, right? Certainly, the Fordists aren’t about to pat Webster on the head and urge him to re-invest those savings in better transit service or (shudder) lower fares.

The TTC windfall — achieved, it must be said, without the help of a professional board of citizen-appointees - brings the projected 2011 operating shortfall to a measly $168 million, down from initial estimates of $503 million.

Now let’s compare that opening position to previous years:

In 2009, the city entered the budget process facing a $679 million hole, which was subsequently filled with $400 million in one-time funds, including $238 million from Queen’s Park.

Coming out of the 2009 strike, the city was looking at a $500 million gap for 2010. But thanks to the strike dividend, lean wage hikes in the new collective agreement and some unexpected profits in the city’s investment portfolio, the Millerites delivered a balanced budget with a showily reduced tax hike, followed by the aforementioned surplus.

The savings came from a sweeping review by city manager Joe Pennachetti, who imposed across-the-board savings of 5% in each of 2010 and 2011. (Carroll, as budget chief, delivered the political support.)

It’s little wonder that Pennachetti, during last week’s executive committee session, repeatedly assured councillors that the city could balance its budget without a tax increase. After all, a $168 million gap isn’t such a formidable challenge when you’ve figured out how to surmount much larger fiscal chasms.

But instead of acknowledging the efforts of his predecessors and his own bureaucrats, Ford will yammer on about councilor expenses and the infamous snack table and leading by example, while his officials will take every opportunity to drive home the point that the new sheriff has delivered the long sought-after austerity we apparently crave.

If he’s such a straight shooter, let’s hear him give credit where credit’s due.