Transportation Minister Wins TTC Sardine Award
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Transportation Minister Wins TTC Sardine Award

Why a transit advocacy group singled Glen Murray out for failing to fund transit, and who he thinks really deserves the blame.

On March 28, a group of advocates dressed as sardines literally laid the blame for Toronto’s transit dysfunction on the doorstep of Ontario’s transportation minister Glen Murray, awarding him the inaugural TTC Sardine Award for failing to “fix public transit.”

The prize was created by advocacy group TTCriders as part of its #ttcsardines campaign, which encouraged TTC riders to use social media to share pictures of overcrowding in order to highlight the funding and service challenges confronting the city’s transit system. The four photos that best represented the cramped conditions experienced by riders were turned into a poster “award,” and Friday, after a roving demonstration that included a streetcar ride, the costumed protesters placed it—along with a platter of sardines—in the entrance to Murray’s community office in Cabbagetown.

Murray, who was making an appearance in Waterloo that day and so not on hand to accept the offerings, was the recipient of this questionable honour because the group believes a higher provincial subsidy for the Toronto transit system’s operations is critical. TTCriders spokesperson Herman Rosenfeld said there’s not enough funding to pay for the operation of the system. “The TTC operations does not get regular funding from the province anymore,” said Rosenfeld. “It used to.”

Jennifer Huang, an organizer for the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, said riders are being asked to pay more for transit, while facing service cuts and longer wait times. “When that bus comes, it is so packed that we are like sardines,” said Huang. “We are not blaming this on TTC management or TTC workers,” she added. “The problem is the province does not fund it enough.”

PC Premier Mike Harris cut the provincial operating subsidy in 1998, after amalgamation, and successive governments have yet to restore it.

Rosenfeld said TTCriders is calling on the province to contribute $700 million a year. “This is not for expansion—this is simply to make it not so crowded. And that could help to pay for increasing capacity by about 20 per cent by putting more buses on, for signalling—it means some buying of capital equipment.”

This money, Rosenfeld said, would also go towards a 20-cent reduction in fares, which would especially benefit low-income people who depend on transit.

Transportation minister (and now TTC Sardine Award winner) Glen Murray, however, said the group’s blame is misplaced and that there’s confusion about where Toronto’s transit fix can really be found.

“The primary reason the system is overcrowded is not the operating budget; it’s the capital budget,” Murray said. “We have a $50-billion rapid transit infrastructure investment that we are almost $20 billion into, and we are paying for 90 per cent now of all of the capital investment.”

Capital investments pay for shiny new things: new subway lines, more buses, etc. Operation expenditures pay for the day-to-day things like a bus driver’s wages, or repairing the streetcar tracks.

Murray said the solution to overcrowding is new purchases—and he places the burden of responsibility for operational subsidies largely on the City’s shoulders.

“In 2006, the City of Toronto Act was passed, and the City of Toronto got more taxing authority to raise more new revenues for transit and other things they want than any other city in Canada.”

Murray said city council, under Mayor Rob Ford, eliminated some of these revenue streams—such as the vehicle registration tax—and reduced others, or used them for anything but transit. “We’ve given the taxing authority and they don’t use it,” Murray commented. “Use what you’ve got first, before you ask for more.”

Murray also levelled his sights at the federal government, which he said has a terrible record when it comes to transit investment, as well as his party’s provincial and federal NDP rivals.

“I don’t know the NDP is behind it, but the rhetoric that I’m hearing in front of my office sounds a lot like the New Democrats—which is also laughable” said Murray. “We’ve got a provincial NDP that loves to talk about transit,” he continued, “but squelches and squashes every initiative the Liberal government brings forward to get new revenue tools in.”

Asked what his acceptance speech would have been if he had be there in person to receive his TTC Sardine Award, Murray had this to say:

“In a city where Rob Ford has led this so-called end of the war on the car, which has almost created a war on everybody else, is a problem. I just think it’s ridiculous, and humorous, and I’ll take it with the sense of humour I have, but I’m hoping they’ll take that energy to the people who are actually not investing in transit. I think the intentions are good of the group. But I think their criticism is misplaced.”