Transit: the Silent Necessity


I've learned that the Toronto Transit Commission will be opening its new Sheppard subway line a week from today. Regular service begins on Sunday, November 24, but the opening ceremonies, with the political speeches, the free cake, and free rides, will take place on Friday, November 22 between noon and 2 pm. I won't be there, as I'll be working, and that makes me a little sad. I attended the opening of the new Harbourfront streetcar route back in 2000, and that was a lot of fun. Still, I will have my chance to ride the new line soon.

A part of me believes that any politician who stands up next Friday to take credit for the Sheppard subway marks himself as a big hypocrite. This is because the opening of the Sheppard subway comes at a time of great pessimism among transit circles. Even in the year 2000, when the Harbourfront streetcar line opened, the TTC was enjoying rising ridership. Its subsidy was assured. Service levels were finally looking up after a long and very hard decade. Now, the riders are staying away. Government funds are drying up, and the TTC faces the nasty prospect of raising fares and cutting services, and facing even greater ridership losses. You can't blame the economy, this time, and the fallout from September 11 stopped being a legitimate excuse two months ago.

The TTC (and its sister agency GO Transit) need money, plain and simple. Don't give me guff about government waste or private competition -- the TTC and GO Transit are the most efficient public transit agencies in North America, recovering more than 82% of its revenues from the farebox. The TTC itself has seen its operating subsidy cut by over $100 million per year since the early 1990s. Don't talk to me about fat -- the fat has gone. We now see an emaciated transit system, and it's a situation that's damaging the quality of life in the City of Toronto.

During the 90s, municipal, provincial and federal governments faced off against huge debts and deficits. I have to agree that, in 1993, we were probably taxed to the limit, and we could no longer sustain our spending. Today, the federal and provincial governments have beaten the deficit, largely doing so by piling the expenses onto the governments that were lower on the pecking order. Ottawa cut transfer payments dramatically, pushing their deficit problem on the provinces. To balance their books, the provinces downloaded their service costs onto the municipalities. The municipalities only exist because the provinces legislate them so, so the municipalities have nobody else to dump their expenses onto.

Toronto's problem is twofold. Municipalities in Ontario have very limited taxation powers. Cities either charge developers hefty fees for building subdivisions, or homeowners and landlords are charged a percentage of the value of their home. Neither tax rate gives any consideration of the taxpayer's ability to pay, unlike income tax (and, to a much lesser extent, sales tax). Developers can usually afford the charges on their subdivisions, but in a city like Toronto, whose urban boundaries have sprawled well past the city's political boundaries, developable land has dried up. So have the development charges. Thus, as infrastructure ages and has to be replaced; as other costs rise, the city is left with no choice but to place the burden on homeowners and businesses. In this death cycle, repeated across America, this can prompt some businesses and homeowners to flee to suburbs with lower taxes.

So, the pressure is on in the municipalities to cut services and expenses. Even here, there is a pecking order, and public transit appears to be at the bottom of it. Toronto's police have seen their budgets increased at the expense of everything else, even firefighters, despite the fact that crime in Toronto has dropped dramatically. There is no disputing the importance of policework, just as there is no disputing the importance of education programs and services for children, but as a result of all of this, the Toronto Transit Commission's needs usually get addressed last.

In the era of high deficits, service cuts and fare increases were probably inevitable. They were, however, easy to implement because the costs weren't readily apparent. Sure, we can add ten cents to the cost of a ticket. We can space the buses thirty seconds further apart. We pack five more people on per streetcar. Who will notice? But now, after ten years of this activity, Toronto transit users are paying twice the fare to use half the service. Like the frog that's placed in a pot of cool water that doesn't notice as the temperature is gradually increased until it's boiled alive, the TTC has reached that boiling point.

With users paying double for the use of half, is it any wonder that the modal split has been shifting to the car for the past fifteen years? And this has had a grave effect on Toronto's quality of life. The city has seen some of its worst smog days ever this past year; there is no sign of this getting better. The roads are unmanageable and people are becoming less productive, spending more time in stressful commutes. Some businesses are even looking elsewhere to set up shop after one too many shipping delays.

As we begin to understand the true costs of automobile dependency, we have to do more than mouth platitudes about the importance of public transit. If we want to get more people out of their cars, we need more buses, more streetcars, more subways, and fewer reasons not to pass through the turnstiles. We need service back to 1995 levels. We need lower fares. Most of all, we need to stop seeing public transportation as an expendible expense. The City of Toronto can cry all it wants about downloading from the province of Ontario. The province of Ontario can call out Ottawa for its hypocrisy in promising money for public transit, but not actually providing it. They can do all that, but if nobody stands up, bites the bullet and says, public transit needs funding now, and I'm going to do it, they're all just spitting in the wind.

The TTC has been the dumping ground for cuts for the last decade, and this has to stop. I've signed an online petition demanding that the TTC receive the funds it needs to operate through 2003 without a fare increase or service cuts.

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