By Paul Bocking (Originally published in April 2014 issue of Bluffs Advocate)
What could we do with $700 million more a year for Toronto’s transit? TTCRiders member Jennifer Huang says the transit users group in consultation with senior TTC staff estimates that restoring regular funding from the Ontario government for the TTC operating budget would both lower fares by 20 cents and increase the frequency of subways, buses and streetcars by 25%. “It’s in everyone’s interest to have more affordable and more frequent transit.” says Huang.
Provincial funding for the TTC’s operating budget (covering employee wages, regular maintenance and other non-capital costs) was eliminated by the Ontario Conservatives under Premier Harris in 1995. TTCRiders estimates $700 million would restore this funding to pre-1995 levels, helping Toronto out of its annual budget crunch and also finance immediate improvements including new subway signal technology allowing a greater frequency of trains.
With a provincial election possibly imminent, the activist group’s #TTCsardines campaign has been building public support to pressure political parties by drawing attention to overcrowded buses, subways and streetcars. Transit users are invited to submit online photos of the crowded conditions they experience on their daily commutes. The campaign has received wide coverage from CP24, CBC, 680News Radio and Metro among other media. It culminates with the delivery of a can of sardines on March 28 to the politician revealed to be the most responsible for these conditions. The identity of the politician and their level of government is a closely guarded secret according to Huang and TTCriders member Herman Rosenfeld.
The status quo is that the TTC depends heavily on fares to cover over two thirds of its operating costs, with the municipal government contributing nearly all remaining funding, aside from federal gas tax revenue. As a result the TTC is consistently forced to raise fares to make up for funding gaps. “The TTC has a higher proportion of revenue coming from fares than any system in North America. The poorest people -who don’t have cars, are paying the most. It also pushes away people that have cars from using it.” Rosenfeld says, however adding that “Public transit is a great equalizer. Everybody uses it. It builds solidarity between diverse groups of people.”
High fares are especially hard for the elderly, says Huang. According to research by senior citizen advocacy groups, without a car and on a fixed pension, many are forced to choose between buying less food to afford fares, or being isolated at home. The issue is especially serious in sprawling suburban Scarborough, where walking distances to clinics, libraries and grocery stores can be long. At current government funding the TTC projects a 10 cent fare hike in 2015, on top of this year’s 5 cent fare increase.
City councillors also bear responsibility for rising fares and declining funding leading to service cuts on dozens of bus routes since 2011, says Rosenfeld. While the provincial government ultimately holds most of the purse strings, councillors, particularly in Scarborough have consistently voted against the relatively small sums necessary to restore bus frequency on routes like the 43 Kennedy and the 167 Pharmacy. City Council increased TTC funding by $20 million in the 2014 municipal budget raising it to $433 million. However had funding on a per-ride basis remained at 2010 levels, growing usage would have city funding be $474.5 million today, according to the Toronto Environmental Alliance. Per-ride funding declined by 13% from 90 cents/ride in 2010 to 78 cents in 2013. Meanwhile the TTC was used over 527 million times in 2013, up approximately 10% from 477 million rides in 2010.
The $20 million increase appears even less generous considering that ridership growth beyond expectations yielded additional revenue of $22 million in 2013 -money that Council redirected to general city coffers rather than reinvest in the TTC.
Significant attention has been spent over the past several months discussing the best means to expand transit infrastructure, especially the Scarborough LRT vs. subway debate. Toronto residents would benefit from politicians at all levels giving as much attention to the less glamorous but no less critical issue of ensuring the riders of our existing buses, subways and streetcars are able to do so affordably and with greater speed and comfort. See the results of the #TTCsardines campaign at ttcriders.ca