Can the TTC Survive Budget 2012?
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Can the TTC Survive Budget 2012?

Yesterday the TTC made its presentation before the Budget Committee, and the news wasn't good.

Photo by {a href=""}Jason Allies{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Yesterday afternoon, the TTC made its annual presentation [PDF] to Toronto’s Budget Committee. For many years, creative shuffling of priorities and assumptions, plus a touch of magic, balanced the books and transit improved. Yes, everybody wanted more, but there was hope that the bus lurching down the street was headed in the right direction.

2012 is different. Toronto is a city that should nurture transit and encourage its growth. Instead, the Ford administration only wants a few megaprojects, preferably with someone else footing the bill. Are you waiting for a bus? Wait longer, pay more and don’t grumble. We all have to sacrifice. That’s the message.

The Budget Committee is an odd place as Mayor Rob Ford’s power ebbs. The members are Ford loyalists with their newspeak of “efficiencies” rather than “cuts,” with their fiction that so long as one bus plies a route, there is still “service.” The hard questions come from councillors who sit in as guests (i.e. those who are not members of the Budget Committee) grilling staff for details we should all have for informed debate. Opposition members prepare the ground for the big fight in January at Council.

What are the big issues?

It’s all about service

Although the transit commission looks like any other city committee, it is really a separate agency and can make major policy decisions independently of council. However, when Mayor Ford says “cut ten per cent” the transit commission, dominated by Ford loyalists, dutifully slices into the budget and cuts service before council has a chance to vote on alternatives. The TTC’s gift to Toronto for 2012 will be less service on many routes.

Whenever he’s asked, TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster repeats that riders care more about service than fares. Cutting service is not TTC staff’s preferred option, but one that is forced on them.

Councillor Doug Ford treats this as an improvement to TTC efficiency, but the numbers tell a different story. Service reductions will save the TTC $21-million in operating costs, but will cost them $7-million in lost revenue as riders desert overcrowded routes. That’s 3.5-million fewer rides, or 0.7 per cent of the TTC’s anticipated half-billion customers in 2012. Those are rides the TTC will no longer serve, and that’s a real cut.

Can the cuts be reversed? Yes, with the will of council to properly fund the service, but they must understand the implications. Putting $14-million back into the transit subsidy (or raising an equivalent amount with a fare increase) is only the start.

The TTC adjusted its bus and streetcar fleet plans based on new, more-crowded loading standards. They will buy fewer new vehicles and pack riders in more tightly for years to come. A smaller bus fleet avoids the cost of more garage space. If Toronto maintains service quality at 2011 levels, it must not just pay to run that service, but invest in the fleet needed to carry more and more riders.

Transit City’s shiny new LRT lines would have replaced major bus routes reducing or eliminating the need for a larger fleet. Now that reduction comes from poorer, more crowded service.

How many people can fit on a bus?

Come January 2012, new TTC loading standards will bump the average load on buses by about five during the rush hour. That’s 10 per cent more, but this change assumes that there actually is room on today’s service to handle more riders, and that that space will actually be used.

Riders on many routes now complain that they can’t get on vehicles either because they are full, or because empty space beyond the centre doors (and the steps into the rear part of the buses) goes unused. How long will drivers sit at stops pleading with riders to “move back” before they give up and pull away from unhappy waiting throngs at the stops? How will the TTC plans for better “customer service” deal with this?

Outside the rush hour, the standards will add about 10 riders to the average bus or streetcar, and 15 on the long cars used on Queen Street. This change only applies to busy routes (service every 10 minutes or better), but with a 25 per cent jump in allowed crowding, many routes will suffer. For bus routes, the new loading standard is only a bit below the old rush hour standard, and all-day crowding will be even more a fact of life on the TTC.

That may be more “efficient,” but it also means that many riders who travel outside rush hour for comfort will no longer have this option.

What about the fare increase?

TTC’s operating budget, the one that pays for the service (as opposed to capital investments in infrastructure) includes provision for a 10-cent fare increase in adult tokens, and comparable adjustments in other fares. One item sure to attract fire is the proposed 10-cent increase in seniors and student tickets that continues a trend of shaving the discount for these fares.

The TTC claims it doesn’t want an odd value for a ticket, but that’s a bogus argument. Tickets are sold in strips, and it’s the value of the strip, not the individual ticket that matters. When fares were much lower, fractional ticket values like seven-for-a-dollar were common. Cash fares have to be easy to pay, but that’s no excuse for gouging on the ticket price.

The fare increase will bring $40-million in new revenue, but the TTC will lose $10-million from riders who choose to stop taking transit, or who take fewer trips. Of the net $30-million, $8-million will go to plug a gap in the Wheel-Trans budget. That’s right, of that dime fare increase, at least 2 cents in 10 will be used to subsidize Wheel-Trans rather than supporting regular TTC service. What’s going on here?

Paying for Wheel-Trans

When the Mayor said “cut ten per cent”, he meant “cut everywhere.” At the TTC, there are two parts of the operating subsidy: one for the regular service and another for Wheel-Trans. On the regular service, riders pay most of the cost through their fares, and a 10 per cent cut in subsidy translates to a much lower cut in the total budget. On Wheel-Trans, the budget is 90 percent subsidy, and a cut there has a big effect on the service Wheel-Trans can provide.

Between the subsidy cut and increased cost of operation, the TTC was short $13-million for Wheel-Trans in 2012. $5-million was to come by cancelling Wheel-Trans eligibility of kidney dialysis patients under the cover of Toronto’s Core Service Review. However, TTC Chair Karen Stintz now says that the service will continue for six months while the TTC seeks alternate funding.

All of the Wheel-Trans shortfall will come from a cross-subsidy between the regular operating budget and the one providing service for the disabled. Over half of the proposed cuts to regular service would be unnecessary if the TTC were not using regular fares to subsidize Wheel-Trans.

This is a troubling precedent. Wheel-Trans once enjoyed its own special provincial subsidy (long gone), and it was funded through a separate line in the City’s budget. To preserve even the service riders now have, it will be subsidized from fares on the regular system. A problem lurks out in 2014 when provincial legislation will mandate improved service for the disabled. Will the extra cost be carried by Queen’s Park, by the city, by regular fares or by further cuts to service on the regular system?

The Scarborough Side-Show

The Scarborough RT; photo by {a href=""}PLTam{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

One line in the TTC presentation triggered a crisis for Scarborough councillors and for supporters of Rob Ford’s transit plans.

“SRT—approaching end of useful life” seems simple enough. The Scarborough RT (which links Kennedy Station to Scarborough Town Centre) has been a problem child for decades. Its capacity is below existing demand, never mind what may come in the future, and the technology is unreliable especially in bad weather. Replacing and upgrading the line should have begun years ago, but a decision was mired in funding and technology debates.

With Transit City, conversion of the SRT to LRT (the technology planned for the Eglinton and Sheppard lines) was an obvious choice. However, actually making the change will require a shutdown and the TTC was worried that it wouldn’t be finished in time for service to the Pan-Am Games.

What do the games have to do with the RT, you ask? The University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus will be a venue with a new aquatic centre. The TTC plans to run many buses to this site and had hoped to end the shuttle at the RT rather than taking buses all the way to Kennedy Station. An alternative scheme, extending the planned Sheppard LRT south on Morningside, never got off the ground thanks to the cancellation of Transit City. The TTC must keep the RT running for almost four more years to late summer 2015, and then the line will close for reconstruction.

At this point in yesterday’s budget presentation, the wheels came off the discussion.

The RT and Eglinton lines are now a single project, the Eglinton-Crosstown line, and the original plan was to open the whole thing at once in 2020. However, with the decision to put all of the Eglinton portion underground, the TTC worries that construction won’t actually finish until about 2022. This is not a question of feasibility, but of how much of Eglinton would be torn up at any one time for station construction.

For about an hour, the story from Gary Webster was that the RT would close in 2015 and would not reopen until 2022. Seven years would elapse with bus service where the RT had been while Scarborough languished without rail transit.

Many phone calls later, the story changed. Webster admitted he had erred, and that Metrolinx (the provincial agency behind the Eglinton-Crosstown project) now actually planned to open the Scarborough segment of the new line as soon as it was ready in 2019. The Eglinton line will connect in at Kennedy and provide through service in 2020.

The RT shutdown from late 2015 for at least three years was included in presentations by then Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne during an Eglinton-Crosstown roadshow. It’s no secret, but the spectre of a much longer shutdown caught everyone off guard.

The Mayor’s office was not amused by the link some councillors make between this issue and the cancelled Transit City network. In fact, Scarborough would have been served by the Sheppard LRT at least to Morningside well before the SRT shutdown if Transit City had proceeded. The shutdown would have been annoying, but riders from the outermost parts of Scarborough who now feed into the SRT at the Town Centre would have an alternative route over to Don Mills Station. Imperfect, but better than nothing.

What is “Sustainable Funding”?

Backers of Miller-era schemes are often challenged to explain how their plans were financial sustainable, how the city would have paid for things like the Ridership Growth Strategy with its more comfortable loading standards and its reduced reliance on fares in the budget. The answer, of course, is that the city chose to make transit more attractive and to shift more travel away from cars. Like any city program, this would be financed through city revenues be they taxes or transfer payments from other governments.

Had Council not been bullied into killing the vehicle registration tax, flat-lining the property tax rate, and cancelling a proposed 2011 TTC fare increase, “sustainability” of many city programs would not be in peril. We as a city get what we pay for. Some genuine efficiencies may be found, but these tend to be one-time savings that only put off the hard questions for another year.

Does Toronto believe in better transit for everyone, not just a few long-term subway projects? January’s budget debate will show where Toronto is headed. Will it be to roads clogged with SUVs for those who can afford them, or to transit that moves everyone around the city on a comfortable, attractive network?