Eighteen Lost Years

My friend Bob Brent put together a spreadsheet listing many TTC operating and financial statistics for 1988, and 1996 through 2005.  Our ridership high came in 1988 just before the early 90s recession.  Service was mercilessly slashed in the nadir of 1996 thanks to funding cuts.

By 2006, we may just barely get back to the 1988 ridership level, but funding is another matter.

Those of you who love mulling over numbers will have fun here, but I will talk a bit about the highlights.

The CPI went up by 25% from 1988 to 1996 and another 20% from 1996 to 2005.  During the same period, the adult ticket/token fare went up by 74%, with the biggest jump coming between 1988 and 1996.  Riders were whacked by the funding cutbacks of the early 90s, but fare increases since then kept pace with inflation except in 2005 when fares rose faster.

The operating expense per trip or per vehicle km went up faster than inflation, but most of this change happened before 1996.  Meanwhile revenue per trip zoomed up by 113% with most of the change coming in the first 8 years.

The total amount of service operated in 2005 (measured in km) is 1% above the 1988 level, but this is on a system-wide level.  In fact surface operations declined by 4% while rapid transit operations rose by 10%.  That’s right — we ran 4% less bus and streetcar service in 2005 than in 1988.  The surface fleet is about 200 vehicles smaller, although they are running more service/vehicle due to higher utilization rates (fewer spares).

We are oh-so-proud of our subway system, but the surface system on which so many riders depend continues to suffer from years of neglect.

Riding dropped 20 percent from 1988 to 1996, and had crawled back up to 93 percent of the 1988 level by 2005.  Although it does not show up in these figures, there has been a long, gradual shift in the balance of peak to offpeak riding, with peak dropping from about half to around 40 percent of the total.  Several factors may interact to produce this change, but that is beyone the scope of this discussion.

The operating subsidy tells an unhappy tale.  Back in 1988, before the dark age of Mike Harris, the City gave $150.4-million to the TTC.  This included the provincial share that was paid via the City.  By 1997, Queen’s Park had bailed out, and the City shouldered everything.  Later, other levels of government came back to the table, but the total operating subsidy in 2005 was only 38 percent more than in 1988 even though the total cost of operating the system had nearly doubled.

The operating subsidy and fare levels are highly politicized values.  Nobody wants to raise fares, but the shrill cries to hold down budgets are equally irresponsible.  We are now in a perpetual Catch-22 where we cannot even plan to buy new vehicles because of the pressures this brings on current capital and future operating budgets, and we cannot operate more service because we have no vehicles.  We have difficulty getting budget approval just to run better service with the vehicles we already own.

If the City of Toronto (and the GTA surrounding it) want better transit, then they must be prepared to pay for it.

I am not letting Queen’s Park off the hook one bit here  — Provincial policy consists of backing a busway here and there, but nothing significant beyond a subway line we cannot afford.  Laughter is the only possible response to Queen’s Park’s pretensions of leadership on transit and development.

Looking to the Federal level for direct subsidy is a waste of time.  The interregional political squabbles and the absence of long-term certainty makes Ottawa a non-player in this portfolio.  Better that Queen’s Park concentrates its efforts on getting Ottawa to restore lost funding in nationwide shared programs so that the Province can redirect its own money to local transit needs.

At the municipal level, all governments need to direct more resources to transit.  This will have an effect on budgets and taxes, inevitably.  The “do nothing” alternative is not workable as we can plainly see from the traffic congestion in the GTA and the growing crowding on the TTC.

We have “done nothing” through the bumbling Mel Lastman years, and not much better through David Miller’s first term.  It’s time for some real leadership before those lost years stretch well into a third decade. 

13 thoughts on “Eighteen Lost Years

  1. Given the dearth of leadership at senior government levels, I think Miller needs to use the City of Toronto Act to tack 25 cents onto a bottle of liquor and pack of smokes and direct this cash to transit. I think we also need to develop a long term plan to put some kind of user/congestion charge in place, even if only at rush hour. Putting a $1 dollar electronic toll on the Gardiner between the 427 and Kipling wouldn’t even affect too many Torontonians but would raise a lot of cash. I know it’s a bit mercenary but 905ers don’t vote in Toronto, so how could they stop it?


  2. In the US, the most stable source of funding for transit has been locally adopted sales tax. For example, in California local jurisdictions can levy 0.25% sales taxes used solely for transit. I wonder how much a 0.25% transit sales tax levied in the city of Toronto would bring in on a yearly basis…I would suspect it would be enough to cover the 20% of operating costs that revenues do not bring in, thereby freeing the city and province to pay capital costs only.

    Certainly such a move would require new legislation from the province, but I suspect this small raise in the sales tax to provide funding for the TTC would enjoy widespread support.


  3. The traffic congestion problem in the GTA is starting to reach critical mass and in a few years you’re going to see a pile of funding for the TTC from all governments as motorists get fed up and reach the boiling point. We’re just not there yet. When it becomes an election issue, you’ll see some real action.

    What I see happening in about five years is a merger of the TTC, GO, Mississauga Transit, Brampton Transit, and YRT into one large transit agency — one system. Call it the “GTTC”. Eventually something’s got to give — the city cannot keep growing at this rate without improvements to the transit and road systems.


  4. I think that our provincial and federal governments have no choice but to raise taxes and allocate the tax increases towards public transit funding. No one likes to pay taxes, but the alternative is worsened gridlock throughout the GTA. Unfortunately, the City of Toronto (or any other municipal government) can’t do very much about it by itself unless the provincial government is willing to give it increased taxation powers.

    Which would you prefer? Cut taxes and sit in gridlock every day on the Gardiner or DVP? Or pay a few hundred dollars more in taxes per year (for a typical middle class individual) and ride on an efficient public transit system? Clearly, a better public transit system is worth the relatively small tax increase.


  5. In France, local authorities have the power to impose a small payroll tax for the purposes of public transport. It’s not an intuitively-obvious mode of raising the money, but it seems to work: it’s lead to a rash of new tramway construction, even in relatively-small cities (one of the latest is Mulhouse, population 112,000).


  6. I doubt that you’ll see a full merger of transit systems as Mimmo Briganti postulates above. Transit is highly political, and politicians do not eagerly give up their turf. Municipal politicians like their ribbon-cutting opportunities, and few such opportunities are as impressive as a new subway station / new GO station / new streetcar line.

    The whole problem, in fact, is that transit is so politicized. Of course the politicians pay the piper and therefor call the tune to some extent. But we need more expert, outside (non-political) input. It’s to be hoped that the new GTTA may be a mechanism to provide this.

    Toronto is a great city in so many ways. The biggest problem we face is transportation. If that doesn’t get addressed in a sensible and comprehensive way, in the next ten years, I see real problems ahead, not just for transit, but for the City more generally and for the whole GTA.


  7. Tom B. said about tolling on highways bringing in 905 traffic:

    “…but 905ers don’t vote in Toronto, so how could they stop it?”

    Watch for “GTA Pooling” to be an issue in the provincial election next year. Tom thinks nothing about charging a 905er a buck to enter Toronto, but fails to realize that Toronto is getting millions per year from the surrounding regions under GTA Pooling. It is supposed to help pay for the social assistance burden that Toronto has compared with the rest of the GTA, but there is no accountability in how Toronto decides to deploy it.

    Most 905ers would be happy to pay a buck or two per workday in exchange for getting close to $100 per month knocked off their property taxes.


  8. The ttc needs more money, they opearte at an 82% cost recover rate. Well above the second highest, which is NY at 54%. If it wasn’t for under capacity subway lines, I wouldn’t surprise me if the ttc could run a profit. The ttc obviously needs more revenue.

    All of the funding sources listed in this thread seem valid. I prefer tolls, simply because they not only raise money, but they also provide incentive for commuters to use transit over personal automobile. The concern has been raised before though about punishing people for driving into the city, when there is no comparable transit system for drivers to use as an alternative. If Mississauga had their busway, then tolling the Gardner could be justified.

    I would like to see increased parking costs. Parking is already incredibly expensive downtown, and some people choose to take GO downtown to avoid paying for parking already. However, the more expensive parking is, the more people will choose transit over private autmobiles. Again, if we are encouraging transit ridership through increased parking fees, there must be capacity to accept these new transit riders. GO trains are already packed, especially on the Lakeshore lines, and GO has no budget to purchase new trains.

    Tranist funding sources should also be incentives to use transit. If the ttc could somehow spend money they don’t have to increase capacity, then they could justify raising parking fees or impelementing tolls. I’m recommending ttc take out a loan, but transit capacity needs to exist before we raise funds through incentives.


  9. Thanks to Bob Brent for his work.

    Regarding Walt’s suggestion of more “expert, outside (non-political) input” for transit agencies, I have been pondering how to achieve this.

    Firstly, the best we might hope for would be “non-politician” or “non-sitting-politician” — but I would still like to explore the concept of advisory committees.

    Consider the TTC having a “best market practices” advisory committee or a “speed and reliability” committee.

    Citizens, riders, experts not on contract to TTC, and businesspeople could conceivably sit on these bodies, as advisors to the commission.

    Provided that staff and commissioners viewed the committees as useful (free) assistance and as allies — as opposed to busybodies trying to tell someone how to do their job — does this idea have legs?


    Steve:  The question here is whether such a committee would simply be a sounding board for questions about symptoms (inadequate service) as opposed to fundamental problems (funding and misdirected political priorities).  Yes, there are things the TTC might be able to operate or manage better, but the basic lack of resources is not something that a “citizen advisory” group is going to solve.


  10. Thanks for your response, Steve.

    I for one feel the need to determine which challenges faced by transit operators are caused by resource limitations and which ones are in fact opportunities for organizational or operational changes.  People who think buses are late because of bad supervision might come to learn how much is caused by traffic, or the scarcity of vehicles due to underfunding.

    Could an advisory board not act in several ways — first as a vehicle to explore which problems can realistically be fixed by the operator, and which require better funding?  The committee could educate riders in many forms, explaining the reasons behind common complaints (if the committee has a budget) and describing what is being done about operational issues.

    While it may not be appropriate for an advisory committee to act as champion for the agency when it comes to garnering public support for transit, what’s to stop individuals who are interested enough in sitting on or monitoring such a committee to become inspired enough to trumpet their support for better funding?  In fact, the American Public Transit Association has funded groups that bring together advocates and agencies.  GO and TTC are members of APTA.


    Steve:  I have no problems with transit advocacy and public input.  The problems arise when the transit agency itself lacks a sense of advocacy for anything other than the collection of expensive pet projects that have been sitting on the shelf for decades.  One huge problem in Toronto is that it’s up to people like you and me to advocate for alternatives, and the TTC does a very bad job of really describing what LRT could do.  Even the scheme for an LRT network in Scarborough is morphing into a collection of busways.  At this rate, I doubt you will ever see a streetcar east of Victoria Park.

    At some point, the politicians have to take responsibility for being involved and knowledgeable.  They have to push for discussions of alternatives.  They cannot abdicate the field on the grounds that there is no money, especially while embracing follies such as the Spadina and Sheppard subway extensions.


  11. Steve, I want to point out that CPI numbers should never really be taken at face value.  You said that the CPI increased 25% from 88 to 96 and another 20% from 96 to 05.  Let’s compare it gold, which is a true store of wealth.  The average gold price in 1986 is $367.66 USD.  It closed yestaday at $637 USD.  This is a whopping 73% increase in a decade.  The CPI only captures a 50% increase in price for the same time decade.

    Steve:  I am not convinced that the price of gold represents anything more than the nervousness of investors looking for a safe haven.  It is not necessarily representative of the true cost of buying a loaf of bread.  Amazingly, the price of gold has bounced all over the place for the past decades, but I don’t remember ever seeing the price of anything I buy go up or down to match those fluctuations.

    There is a deliberate attempt by the government to conceal inflation for many purposes like not increasing CPP payments as fast.  Since tokens increased 74% in prices in a decade.  I would say that TTC fare is not exceeding the rate of inflation.  In any case, it is an excellent store of value.  If I had a roll of token from 1986, my rate of return would be the same as gold but with none of the volatility.

    Steve:  I really cannot accept the conspiracy theory about manipulation of the CPI.  This type of number is generated my many governments and private agencies all over the world, and faking the value would be very hard to do on a sustained basis.

    The cost per km did unfortunately outpace inflation even when measured against gold.  Given the volatility of in the price of oil, pension burdens and other cost, it is not really the TTC’s fault.  If a bus is stuck in traffic, of course it will cost more to travel that km.  The operator’s pay is the same, while more buses are needed to maintain the same quality of service.  If Toronto trams have their only exclusively guideways, we can run the trams in multiple unit.  This means one operator can operate maybe three trams together.  This would lower the cost per km considerably.  Remember, in an organization, labor is always the largest cost.

    Steve:  The point I was trying to make is that since 1996, we have not seen wildly out of scale changes in costs or revenues.  I am getting quite tired of every TTC problem being explained as vehicles stuck in traffic when even a simple examination of running times on many routes will show that there has not been a large change over the years except for a few specific routes and times of day.  One major effect on operating speed is the time spent loading passengers.  If this is done with overcrowded vehicles, stop times go up and service slows down, congestion or no.  The TTC does not want to address that problem because it does not fit with their simplistic view of the world.


  12. Why tax smoking? Tax parking.

    *Every* parking spot, beginning in downtown Toronto – that’s condo/commercial parking garage, street front, at grade lot, school/college lot, mall lot etc. gets slapped with an annual parking licence fee as is the case for residential street permits and parking pads. The licence fee would be scheduled to rise by CPI or a TTC fare index whichever is higher.

    [which in the case of green P/impark/etc. would translate to x cents per hour increase].

    Also – no councillor should be TTC commissioner while possessing a City Hall parking pass. I can’t see why a Metropass holding smoker should pay for the non-smoker who brings his Porsche to work at King and Bay.


  13. On the toppic of LRT expansion:  I get the sense that there is a huge sentiment against their construction due to wheather.  I keep hearing from people that “LRT’s can’t stand up to Canadian Winters”.  They reference the Scarborough RT stopping because of ice, as well as suspended service on Calgary’s C-Train due to inclement wheather.  People want rapid transit, and somehow they have been conditioned to think that automatically means subways.

    Steve:  Even the subway has problems with snow and ice some times.  Sometimes the TTC can’t get all of the trains out of the yard.  Sometimes there is ice buildup on the power rails, although new heaters are supposed to have fixed that.  When the snow is really deep, even the subway can’t get through it.

    Many recent SRT problems are due to the aged computer systems (the ones that run the signalling system, not the ones on the cars) that don’t work well in cold weather.  They are to be replaced in the coming year, but I suspect we have another winter of unreliable service ahead of us.


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