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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=""}Paul Sherwood{/a} from the {a href=""}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=""}picturenarrative{/a} from the {a href=""}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=""}Yeshwanth_enian82{/a} from the {a href=""}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


  • Anonymous

    Guy-in-a-box works, as long as the guy in the box knows he’s a Customer Service Representative and not just a change-counting automaton. There are stations in Seoul with a dozen guys behind counters handing out tickets (next to a wall of machines that do the same thing), answering questions and helping tourists and the elderly, so there’s nothing wrong with the model.

    I fear the only way Stephan Harper and his puppets will support a national transit strategy is when congestion in Calgary becomes a problem too big for Alberta alone to solve.

    Or if the tar sand companies can benefit somehow.

    Or if someone offers him all the kittens he can eat.

    • W. K. Lis

      Calgary, Alberta gets help from the province of Alberta because of the tax and fee revenue from oil. The government of Canada also gets revenue from taxes and fees from oil, but that does not go toward transit.

      • Mark Dowling

        29 per cent of the Federal Gas Tax Fund went to transit in 2007-8 nationwide
        In Toronto 100pc of that was allocated to transit, $407m between 2005-2010
        source: (page 20)

    • Mark Dowling

      For TTC, guy-in-a-box is a way to use workers who can’t do their normal taskings (recovering from injury etc.) which means you don’t necessarily have the most customer focused people. Some also may have huge commutes (George Robitaille, the original TTC Sleeper, drove in from Cobourg before he died of a stroke last year)

      What also happens is the TTC fills staffing gaps by letting some guys work huge overtime which (a) puts them in the sunshine list and fuels the outrage of those who feel a job in a box isn’t worth 6 figures and (b) means they aren’t rested in the face of dumb customer behaviour (which let’s face it we’ve all seen out there)

      • Anonymous

        That’s a problem that spills over into many areas of the TTC, but it doesn’t change the potential usefulness of a real live human on hand.

    • Anonymous

      “I fear the only way Stephan Harper and his puppets will support a national transit strategy is when congestion in Calgary becomes a problem too big for Alberta alone to solve.”

      Why? Calgary has 8 federal conservative MPs, and the 416 has 9 (if you count Pickering-Scarborough East). Harper likes majorities and can count seats as well as anyone else. And Toronto can’t blame Calgary for electing Rob Ford.

      • Anonymous

        The kitten comment should have made it clear I was being facetious. Just a little.

  • Anonymous

    ‘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.” ”

    So can people in Toronto… I put money ($3) in a token 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.

    • Anonymous

      New Yorkers actually can’t get tokens – they were phased out in 2003. But the point about automating fare sales is an important one.

  • guest

    Despite the potential substance and numerous avenues for exploration of this important issue, this article entirely misses the point. A NATIONAL transit strategy isn’t only about the TTC in TORONTO. Securing a workable model for stable revenue, investment and planning for transit will benefit urban areas (and the suburban areas that feed them) across the country. Simplifying this to be about the TTC, Harper-bashing and discounting the views of MPs out of hand does little to advance the debate with the consequence of little hope for the TTC and all other public transit systems across the Great White North. A bone to Ottawa and unhelpful comments about Quebec also don’t really help, except maybe to expose bias . . .

    • guest

      Agreed =/

      “The country certainly needs some kind of transit policy. The TTC’s infrastructure is decaying quickly”

      There are many more transit systems in this country than the TTC, and if you are going to have a nation-wide approach, the few large systems would actually stand out as being more unique rather than more defining.

      You want to save money? Get rid of the TTC union.

    • Mark Bourrie

      If the feds do pick this up, it will come down to some sort of sustained funding for operations, but there are only three cities that need immediate billion-dollar-plus capital infusions: Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

      • guest

        So why examine these two separate but related issues in detail, instead of conflating a national transit strategy with fixes to the TTC? You’ll never get federal buy in if you make it just about three cities who have mismanaged their transit investment all on their own. Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton are all major urban centres, but their transit is on track thanks to proper planning, investment etc.

        In order to pursue a national transit strategy, the first question is why? And you need a real value-added purpose rather than simply because things are bad. It has to be applicable nationally. Again there are arguments here, just dont make them coherently in this piece. Frame the question from a national perspective, outline the benefits of such an approach and then apply them to the TTC. If you’re only moaning about the TTC, then you need to address that to the appropriate level of government (i.e. not the feds).

        • guest

          Previous comment should start ” So why NOT examine”

        • Mark Bourrie

          The question really is “why”? Why do you need a transit strategy for small-town Canada? Do you need different ones for towns of 10,000, 100,000, 1,000,000+. The cities aren’t saying they need help because their system is mismanaged. They’re saying it because the cities are the economic engines of the country. They’re saying a city the size of Toronto cannot function — not be inconvenienced, but literally cannot operate — without a full transit system, something that, say, Guelph or Barrie or even Quebec City may not need. There are only two cities in the country with a subway, and a third, Ottawa, that desperately needs one. This fact separates the large cities from the rest. And the process underway in Ottawa is to discuss whether Ottawa gets involved at all, which is an awfully big “if” with a Conservative government that’s about to start hacking the bureaucracy, cutting programs, deregulating and privatizing. My odds that the feds will pick up this ball: one in twenty, and only, as I said in the piece, if the 905 Tory MPs feel threatened.

          • guest

            The problem with this line of argument is that if your assumptions hold true (which I think Van, Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton and probably Winnipeg and Saskatoon would take issue with) is that it’s not the feds’ business – constitutionally. If the feds really want to pick up this hot potato a case must be made for the benefits of such a strategy nationally. A well designed strategy could be applicable to all manner and sizes of urban areas – neither being a one-size fits all, nor x number of individual plans.

            If the feds saw the lack of transit as a threat to the economic engines you specify, then they could easily transfer money to the Province to deal with it. That does not necessarily speak to a strategy, and it certainly wouldn’t be a “national” one.

            The point behind a national transit strategy would be to provide a stable planning framework which could provide a formula/consistent source of funding for both operations and capital expansion (in and ideal world). Such a strategy would likely articulate some first principles guiding transit development (and likely operation), provide guidance for future investment and give jurisdictions that need it the space to press ahead with development/catch-up.

            Knock-on advantages would be to provide a degree of certainty that would allow for better planning of regional transit strategies, again not limited to the three cities-proper you reference.

            I also take issue with your assessment of who is asking and why. Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary aren’t asking for this help from the feds, because they fund their systems, they work well (more or less)and are continuing to evolve. The responsible provinces and municipalities have managed their systems (including investment decisions) much better than places like Toronto and Montreal. I would argue that in the case of the TTC, the system has been mismanaged, not necessarily by the Commission itself (although this is debatable) but by the levels of government responsible (City/Province).

            It’s not clear either that the province would appreciate the feds budding into this conversation.

            In sum, the TTC might be better served with a municipal, regional or provincial transit strategy, perhaps supplemented with some additional federal money. I thought that was Metrolinx was supposed to do, but that’s a whole other debate.

          • Anonymous

            Gee do you think it could have something to do with Toronto and Montreal being Canada’s two largest and densest cities that were developed before cars dominated everything? Ever consider that moving millions of people through 18th century street grids might be a little more tough and more expensive than moving thousands of people around the much wider street networks of cities that mostly developed in the 20th century? Even in Toronto the difference between the old city of Toronto and the inner suburbs is huge. The older denser parts of the city requiring much higher levels of transit such as subways than the low density suburb parts were bus and/or LRT is more than sufficient.

  • Stopitman2001

    Even if the Feds were to only cover 30-40% of the operating costs of the TTC (compared to the 50% it used to get and the 50%+ NYC’s MTA gets), it would make a huge difference. Suddenly the subsidies would come off of the city’s back and some of that extra money could be put into repairs and cleaning the stations.

    A zone based system would also be a good idea – we used to have it. The problem I guess would be enforcing it with a token system since we don’t have Presto rolled out across all subway stations yet. I doubt ridership would go down much since the roads are so congested that we’re past the point where people will switch back to cars. Let’s also be honest with ourselves – the TTC was vastly rich before Metro forced them to expand into the inner suburbs with the caveat that it would receive 50% subsidies. An extra 10-20cents/ride if you travel farther isn’t going to kill most people’s pocket book.

    • Mark Bourrie

      Webster said the Presto system can handle zoning. The old gripe about the TTC’s zones was the zone border was at Yonge Street. Get on the Queen car at Bathurst and take it to Parliament Street and you needed two fares. Get on the Queen car at Bay and take it to Long Branch, then switch to the Lakeshore streetcar to Mimico and it was one fare. They’ll have to come up with something that seems more fair. Ottawa has a weird system where you get a transfer when you get on a bus and use a ticket or $3.25 cash fare. It’s your proof of payment, and you can’t get another transfer at any time in your trip. The transfer times out in 90 minutes. Periodically, security guards come on the buses and write $150 tickets to people with expired transfers. But if your bus is caught in traffic or behind a demonstration or you have a long wait while you change buses, it’s easy for the 90 minutes to time out.
      (Another thing TO people should watch for when they visit Ottawa: you might not ask for a transfer if you plan to make a straight run on a TTC streetcar, and do the same thing in Ottawa if, say, you’re taking a bus from the Greyhound station to downtown. And the Ottawa drivers won’t remind you to take a transfer/proof of payment, leaving you in a position to appear to have not paid and setting you up to be publicly humiliated by being taken off the bus by security guards and whacked with one of those $150 tickets.)

      • guest

        Toronto is one of the few jurisdictions that uses a location based transfer system. Most systems use a timed transfer/proof of payment model. The benefits of the latter are enormous – particularly given the ability to make multiple stops on one trip, say for running errands (which would get people out of cars, reduce congestion and thereby reduce transit times too). Benefits which significantly outweigh the hypothetical “humiliation” you describe above.

        Also the TTC is finally moving to this system (just a question of when) as announced with the new streetcars.

    • Anonymous

      We all pay the same taxes where ever we live in Toronto, zone fares are in effect a tax on where people live. Plus in Toronto low income people are all concentrated around the inner suburbs and have the worst transit while only relatively well off people can afford to live downtown and have the city’s best transit. Zone fares would end up costing those with the lowest incomes more money for worse TTC service than it would cost those with much higher incomes and access to the best transit.

      That’s simply not fair at all. Why should low income people pay more for worse TTC service? Why shouldn’t the financially well off with the best transit options downtown pay more instead? After all they get better transit and can easily afford to pay a bit extra.

      As someone who lives in the inner suburbs myself and who has been stuck at home this past couple weeks because I couldn’t afford TTC tokens a higher fare for me would greatly restrict my ability to go anywhere outside my neighbourhood. People like me have the longest commutes and the longest wait times, so why should we pay more for less?. If I could afford to live downtown where transit is far better I would but I can’t.

      People shouldn’t be further penalized for having a low income than we already are. I have no doubt those arguing for zone fares live downtown where they figure they won’t have to pay any extra personally for their top notch transit access and couldn’t care less about the low income citizens of the inner suburbs.

  • Anonymous

    Unlike how it was described in this article, Montreal has electronic fares with the OPUS card which seems to work well. The system is being rolled out across Quebec. Wikipedia says you can use it on four transit systems, but if it could work province-wide on every transit system, you’d have a really progressive system encouraging a mobile, car-free lifestyle. You put money on a card, and there are paper all-day cards for visitors. You touch a reader with the card and walk in. I don’t know why they still have people in the traditional fare collector’s kiosk, but probably for information and security. The person I spoke with when I last visited was polite and bilingual.

  • Aaron Gibb

    Very poorly written article. OPUS smart cards have been in use since 2008 and can be used on all 16 metropolitan Montreal and Quebec City transit agencies. Cards are loaded via machines in metro stations or at authorised retailers (deps etc.). Loading a card takes 30 seconds and the machines accept debit, credit or cash. 1, 2, 6 or 10 ‘tickets’ can be loaded (which act as a 2 hour unlimited transfer) as well as 1 day, 3 day, weekly or monthly unlimited travel passes. After 6 pm, 1 day or 3 day unlimited travel ‘occasional’ passes are also dispensed for those who do not have an OPUS card. Subscribing to an annual pass allows you to bypass the machines completely as your card is loaded automatically each month. An annual subscription comes with a free month and also qualifies you for $19 BIXI membership as well as $5 monthly Communauto car share membership. I subscribe to all 3 and pay a total of $73.27 month for unlimited STM, BIXI and car share access.

    Next time, do a little research. The last time I had to visit the “guy in box” was in July, 2008 when I picked up my OPUS card.