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The Case for a National Transit Strategy

Yesterday in Ottawa, sympathy from all parties for TTC chief Gary Webster and his call for a national transit strategy—but will Harper's cabinet listen?

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/17248968@N00/3407550821/"}Paul Sherwood{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Yesterday Gary Webster, the chief general manager of the TTC, went cap-in-hand to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Communities, looking for money to make the TTC affordable and efficient.

The committee’s job is to recommend to the government whether or not Canada should have a federal strategy for public transit. Judging by the name of the committee, you’d think support for an essential service in the country’s most important city would be automatic, but this is Ottawa in 2011, Year One of the New Harper Majority.

The country certainly needs some kind of transit policy. The TTC’s infrastructure is decaying quickly. Streetcars are overcrowded and old, and the commission’s already started making payments on new ones even though it knows it can’t afford them. In fact, the TTC expects a $1.5 billion capital shortfall over the next 10 years.

It’s a pretty clear choice: either you have decent, affordable, dependable public transportation or you have gridlock. Gridlock kills people by polluting the air. It kills businesses and jobs. And, in the end, it probably costs more than public transit.

It isn’t just a Toronto problem. Ottawa desperately needs to build a light rail system that’s part subway, part surface rail. Even with just a quarter of Toronto’s population, the capital is locked up for six hours a day. The single expressway is jammed every rush hour, and there’s simply no other transportation option, except buses.

And it’s practically impossible to describe the situation in Montreal without using the word “fucked.” The Metro, a gem when it was built in the 1960s, is now a half-century old. The streets above it are congested all day. The expressways that bring people in from the suburbs are literally falling down: a chunk of the Ville Marie tunnel collapsed last summer and the Champlain Bridge to the south shore of the St. Lawrence is in danger of collapse.

Streetcar track work at King and Bathurst. Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/picturenarrative/5961367073/"}picturenarrative{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Webster told the committee the TTC needs steady, sustained help, notably including help with operational costs and not just the kind of one-off bailouts and capital grants that generate photo-ops for politicians. Federal politicians may try to kick the ball down to the provinces—and some of the Tories and Liberals on the committee were making those kind of noises during Webster’s pitch—but the TTC manager gently reminded them that the federal government can’t let Toronto fail. “A healthy, properly funded transit system is no longer a luxury for good economic times—it is a ‘must do’—to ensure the economy remains healthy and to ensure people can get to work,” he said.

The TTC (along with every other City agency, board, commission, and department) has been told by the Ford regime to cut its budget by 10 per cent, which means a round of service cuts and a possible fare increase. Even with last year’s 25-cent hike, ridership is up three per cent, a normal annual rate of growth for the TTC these days. Webster said 70 per cent of the cost of the system comes out of the fare box. Riders would probably be willing to see that percentage rise by another 5 per cent, but if it slipped higher, say to the 83 per cent that TTC riders paid during the Mike Harris years, the system would suffer serious problems.

So, what are the chances the TTC will get sustained funding for improvements to its streetcar and subway fleet?

The members of the committee seemed very sympathetic to Webster’s pitch. The fact that no one in the Ottawa media, including the bureaus of Toronto’s four daily newspapers, bothered to send anyone to hear Webster shows there’s little partisan upside to real-life issues like transit. So the MPs from all parties took Webster seriously and acted like grown-ups.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/enian82/4366628831/"}Yeshwanth_enian82{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Olivia Chow (NDP, Trinity-Spadina), who introduced the private members’ bill calling for a national transit strategy, made it clear she’s dedicated to helping the cities fix transit systems, and she’s worried about the big capital deficits that are looming for the TTC.

Denis Coderre (Liberal, Bourassa), the vice-chair of the committee, seemed more worried about Montreal, but he should realize the situations in both cities are linked. He wondered whether the issue was entirely provincial, and whether transit could somehow be separated from all the other pressing infrastructure problems.

Meanwhile, Toronto area MP Mark Adler (York Centre) wondered why the TTC hasn’t followed New York’s lead and automated the ticket sales system. He asked why New Yorkers can put money into a machine, get a token, and enter the subway system without waiting in line “while a guy in a box is making change for $5 and $10 bills.” Webster replied that there’s no “business case” for changing the system, but the TTC may automate it because that’s what the public wants. (Montreal’s Metro has the same guy-in-box system.) Adler also suggested the TTC look at bringing back the old zone system, something Webster ducked completely.

Even Pierre Poilievre (Conservative, Nepean-Carleton), one of Stephen Harper’s little attack dogs, was sympathetic. He represents suburban Ottawa, and many of his constituents are stuck in traffic every day while the city frets over the cost and the route of a new light rail system.

But in the end, the decision to help bail out the TTC and put it on a 21st century footing will be made by cabinet—which means Stephen Harper and aides. It will be a political decision, based mainly on the needs of the new, fragile Tory grip on the 905. And if the TTC and its supporters are looking for the support they need to push this through, they’d be smart to tap into the frustrations of the suburban commuters who are represented by first-term Tory MPs.


Background: Gary Webster’s address to the Standing Committee

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