Now that TTC ridership is finally growing at a respectable pace, there is a huge question to ponder: How can we keep this up without breaking the bank? And the bank is us — whether through fares or new taxes or private sector investment, society must find money to keep transit running properly.
A fast-growing TTC brings several immediate challenges, ranging from the obvious to the unexpected. As riders on GO Transit have discovered in recent years, high passenger growth without enough added capacity results in very noticeable crowding. Announcements about new lines and vehicles are reassuring, but they take a while to become reality. And then it takes cash to run them.
Although extra riders bring extra revenues, transit is a product that sells at a loss. Greater numbers of people boarding buses and trains means greater subsidies are needed to run the service every day.
Despite a trend to more economical Metropasses, TTC fares continue to cover a higher proportion of daily costs than almost all other North American transit agencies (GO is even higher.) But moving towards charging the full cost to riders would send many back to their cars.
Lowering the operating cost through efficiencies is a must — and the TTC does a bad job of showing the public how it is doing this — yet any savings won’t come close to bridging the subsidy gap.
It may be possible to reduce transit expenditures through privatization, but that’s a risky road. Worldwide experience indicates government does not often save much money overall by contracting out transit service. Add in considerable labour upheaval, and the minority willing to risk private transit dwindles.
The other surprise about recent ridership growth is it still isn’t enough to grab substantial market share from cars. As people move to the sprawling GTA, auto use rises as fast, or faster, than transit use. This is the number we need to watch: The percentage of citizens taking buses, streetcars and trains compared to driving is stuck around 18 per cent.
There was a time when the provincial government contributed to the TTC, both by investing in new lines and by helping fund daily operations. It looks like Queen’s Park may be ready to start building again, but the latter must be addressed, too.
And 416 is not alone. GO Transit’s operating subsidy from the province has been lagging behind growth for more than a decade. If we want GTA transit to thrive, we have to come up with practical, acceptable ways to pay for it. The alternative is not hard to imagine.
The regional economy suffers when taxation becomes too onerous, but what if services like transit fall behind? Long commute times plus congested roads and trains dampen the enthusiasm of business to locate or expand here.