It’s the conversation some say Toronto council has been afraid to have — whether contracting out could lead to a better, more affordable TTC.

Until the mayoral race and budget deliberations suddenly brought the issue to the surface, “There’s been an absolute refusal to even consider it,” said Coun. Peter Milczyn, who sits on the Toronto Transit Commission. “There may have been people in the civil service who’ve seen the value of this, but they wouldn’t be allowed to pursue it.”

Privatized transit might be a radical notion in downtown Toronto. But at least two major regional transit operators already contract their operations.

GO Transit is about halfway through a five-year contract with Montreal-based Bombardier Inc. to crew its trains.

York Region Transit’s regular bus service and its premium VIVA bus rapid transit are based on the system of contracted providers inherited from communities such as Markham that were amalgamated into the regional system a decade ago.

“It’s good value for our citizens and we have very substantive contracts,” said York Region chair Bill Fisch. “We have a process. If they do badly they lose money; if they do well they get bonuses.”

York, which has four private bus providers, also contracts some routes to the TTC. Each supplier is allowed to operate in only two of the four regional service zones so the system is unlikely ever to shut down entirely because of labour or operational issues. When VIVA drivers employed by Veolia Transportation went on strike two years ago, riders still had the option of using the YRT routes.

The flip-side is that the employer, not elected officials, are responsible for how long a labour dispute drags on.