The TTC's Past, Transit's Future
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The TTC’s Past, Transit’s Future

Photo by Marc Lostracco.
With all the recent hubbub over taxes, cutting costs, and shutting down elements of the TTC, folks have been a little concerned about the fate of everyone’s favourite public transit system. While Mayor David Miller continues to passive-aggressively beg Ottawa and Queen’s Park for funding, many wonder if it’s possible to run the TTC without it. Haven’t we been a big, tough, independent city in the past? Can’t the Toronto Transit Commission operate purely on the dollar of Torontonians? By looking at the past, perhaps we can avoid some of the transit mistakes of previous governments. So let’s hop into our wayback machine and take a look at how the provincial and federal governments have helped (and hindered) the TTC.

Up until 1921, Toronto’s transit was run mostly by business moguls such as Alexander Easton and William Mackenzie. The TTC itself was created, ironically enough, by the Province in 1921. Back then it was known as the Toronto Transportation Commission and operated those new-fangled electric streetcars, and for a few decades, the TTC operated mostly on fares. During the Second World War, gas rationing made the TTC a much more affordable alternative to driving and ridership (as well as revenue) boomed. As the war came to a close, congestion grew, and streetcars proved to not be enough for our growing metropolis.
Construction began on the subway system in 1949. The project was funded almost entirely by the revenue that had been built up during the TTC’s war boom. The Yonge subway line opened in 1954—the same year that the TTC became the Toronto Transit Commission. The change of name was a result of the Province amalgamating Toronto and its then-suburbs into the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto. With this amalgamation, the TTC absorbed the transit needs of a much wider area. Suburban demands for transit caused the TTC to make a number of unprofitable and expensive routes and thus fares slowly began to cover less and less of the TTC’s operating costs. Sound familiar? While the urban planners of the post-war era brilliantly designed suburbs to be car-friendly, the automobile began to replace public transit as a primary means of transportation for citizens and ridership continued to plummet. The City and the Province stepped in with a subsidy to make up for this loss, while the federal government mostly stayed out of the TTC’s operating costs.
The federal and provincial government’s cash did help the TTC expand, however, and in 1959, provincial funding allowed for construction to begin on the University line, which was seen as a requirement for expanding the Bloor-Danforth line later on. The Province made it known that it was responsible for the line’s construction—a smiling Premier Leslie Frost broke ground on the project and Premier John P. Robarts switched tracks on when it was completed in 1963. Much like the now-threatened Sheppard line, ridership of the University line was lower than expected and the TTC eliminated night and Sunday trains in 1969, replacing them with a bus that ran up Avenue Road. This continued until 1978, when the Spadina extension opened.
2007_07_31oldstreetcarnewstreetcar.jpgIn 1972, the TTC ceased making an operating profit and depended even more heavily on funding from the City and Province for day-to-day operations. Capital funding from the province continued to help expand the subway. In 1971, the Ontario Municipal Board paid for $37.5 million of the projected $79.6 million cost of extending the subway north to Finch. Similarly, the Spadina subway also required approval and significant funding from the Province
In the mid-1980’s, Premier Bill Davis proposed the Network 2011 transit plan, which was meant to drastically improve and expand Toronto’s transit system. Again, sound familiar? However, a succession of provincial governments in the ensuing years ensured that this plan would never come to fruition. The Liberals were elected and then the NDP, both of whom couldn’t justify spending their money on a plan written by a Conservative government, so it was all but scrapped. Only the Sheppard and Eglinton West subway lines remained feasible, and in 1994 Bob Rae’s NDP government approved construction on both projects.
Alas! Once again, one party was swept out of power in favor of another. In 1995, Rae was voted out and Mike Harris came to power, cutting all capital funding of public transit. The Eglinton West project was cancelled and Mel Lastman’s baby, the Sheppard subway line, just barely held on. It finally opened in 2002 and may prove to have a shorter life than originally hoped. Throughout the 1990s, provincial funding for TTC operations continued to dip. With the formation of the megacity in 1998, more people began to rely on the TTC, and operation costs continued to increase. The same year, the Province ceased its contribution [PDF] to the TTC’s operating subsidy
In recent months—particularly since there’s a provincial election looming—we’ve heard of a lot of plans to expand the TTC. The McGuinty government’s MoveOntario 2020 sounds nice, but it is not much more than an election promise at this point. It could prove to be as effective as Davis’ Network 2011, particularly since the Conservatives and NDP lack a concrete transit-expansion plan and are likely not to continue with McGuinty’s plan if they are elected. Since Miller’s Transit City plan is encompassed within McGuinty’s, it may never see the light of day.
Until 1998 the Province had been holding the hand of the TTC for decades. The federal government has given very little to the operational needs of the TTC—something that our mayor and urban activists have voiced their frustration about in the past. While the tax credit for transit passes is a start and funding for projects such as the Spadina subway extension and MoveOntario 2020 are great as well, more needs to be done. So far, the Province and Ottawa chip in their fair share of capital infrastructure costs [PDF], yet as we now know, it’s the cost of operations that need funding. The slashes of the 1990s have led us into our current situation. It’s about time that we got back to the old ways and brought back provincial funding for TTC operations, but we need the federal government to chip in money as well. The past has shown that subway closures can be as temporary as transit improvement plans, but cooperation on the part of all levels of government may be able to eliminate the former while promoting the latter.
Special thanks to Transit Toronto for their excellent history of the TTC. Bottom photo by tysonwilliams from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.