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Circling the Wagons is Not Enough

By James Bow.

(Originally Published May 1, 2000)

I had intended to write this editorial for the April 1st update of Transit Toronto. Unfortunately, something went wrong and the file got wiped without my knowing. I had written about the debate between the TTC and the City of Toronto regarding this year's operating subsidy. As the issue appeared to have been resolved by the time, I thought that the mishap may have been for the best, since the material was now dated. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. So, here is my April editorial recycled for May.

The City of Toronto and the Toronto Transit Commission are embroiled in a budget battle and the predictable political pot shots are being thrown. The City wants to reduce the TTC's annual operating subsidy by over $5 million, and claw back some of the surplus funds the TTC has acquired recently. The TTC has responded with threats of fare increases and service cuts if its subsidy is not protected.

The TTC's cries, particularly during the first stage of this battle, did have the air of political hysteria around them. After all, threats of reduced quality of service are a predictable political refrain when funding is threatened. The City of Toronto was not asking for gobs of money, either. Even with the reduced subsidy, the TTC is sure not to increase fares or reduce service this year. Money is very tight at the City of Toronto, with every department having vital programs which need funding. It doesn't seem like an unreasonable thing for the City to ask.

However, I feel that the City of Toronto is being short sighted in pursuing a subsidy cut, even though, on the surface, the TTC appears as though it can afford it.

The TTC has already been cut well beyond the bone over the past ten years. Its annual operating subsidy has dropped over 40% since the late 1980s. By cutting the subsidy still further, the City of Toronto is basically asking the TTC to hold the line in service, if not cut it. But has inflation held the line? Has Toronto's population? Have jobs?

The TTC has spent the last decade circling its wagons and consolidating its service. This change has made the TTC one of the most efficient transit systems in North America (that and the effective stewardship of David Gunn), but this effect can only last for so long. The TTC has not been able to spend time, until now, preparing its service for future growth.

The 2000 budget, which pre-supposed an operating subsidy equal to what the city offered in 1999, managed to expand service, adding more trains to the subways and streetcars and buses to the surface routes. By reducing waiting times and increasing the number of available seats, the TTC was assured of making commutes quicker, more convenient and more comfortable for riders. Holding the line means increasing crowding, and that will lead to potential riders choosing to use the car instead.

I appreciate how tight money is at the City of Toronto, but the fact is that the TTC came up with a plan that added capacity and increased the desirability of public transit in the city. It prepared for future growth and laid the groundwork for service and fare stability for the next three years. All that was required for this to work was for the City to continue to fund the commission at 1999 levels.

That doesn't sound like an unreasonable thing to ask.