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TTC essential? No, there's a better way: Blizzard

by Christina Blizzard
Queen’s Park Columnist

The way to reduce costs and improve service at the TTC isn’t by declaring it an essential service.

It’s by bringing in competition.

That’s the conclusion of Ben Dachis, a policy analyst for the respected C.D. Howe Institute.

Toronto City Council will vote Thursday to ask the province to declare the TTC an essential service, in line with services such as police and fire.

“Bus routes are ripe for contracting out,” Dachis said in an interview, pointing to the system in London, England, where the once publicly-owned bus service was opened up to competition.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re not profitable on their own. That’s beside the point,” Dachis said.

“Companies can compete for the right to provide that route for the least amount of subsidy from the City of Toronto and it will still cost the city less.”

Private companies could even compete with public services.

With a variety of companies operating the system, if one union goes on strike, the entire system isn’t crippled.

“Right now, when the union goes on strike, the entire TTC goes on strike and the whole operation is shut down.

“If we had a diversity of operators and one of them went on strike, we would lose a fair bit of operations, but not all of them,” Dachis said.

And it’s competition, not necessarily privatization, that produces efficiency.

A similar project to contract out the London Underground failed. While there are plenty of companies that can run a bus line, there aren’t many able to run a large subway system.

Council should take a deep breath before they push ahead with their plan. Designating the TTC an essential service will make it more difficult for the city to move ahead with contracting out.

Instead of simply becoming a matter for negotiation, the issue would go to arbitration.

And a third party arbitrator is a lot less likely to side with the city when it comes to contracting out.

Just as wage deals settled by binding arbitration tend to wrestle taxpayers to the ceiling, any move to contracting out would likely be rebuffed by an arbitrator.

At Queen’s Park, Liberal MPP David Caplan has a private member’s bill that would require the TTC to become an essential service. It’s already at committee, so that would be the fastest way for the government to ram it through.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said Wednesday that he will take a look at what the city recommends and see if it’s “sensible and reasonable,” before deciding on what form of essential service designation they will put forward.

There are hybrid systems. Montreal’s transit system has the right to strike, but must provide rush hour service. Paramedics here have the right to strike, but are required to maintain emergency services.

“It’s got to be something that’s sensible, that’s workable and we’re going to wait and see what they come forward with,” McGuinty told reporters.

Council should be careful not to trade away the short term gain of getting workers back on the buses against the long-term efficiencies and cost savings of contracting out.

Lumping the TTC in with cops is wrong. It may be essential, but it’s not an emergency service.

When you find a burglar in your house and dial 911, who do you expect to respond? A cop with a gun? Or a ticket collector and a bus?