The Fiscal Realities of Ridership Growth

During the TTC board meeting on June 13, two of the fiscal conservatives on the Commission ran aground on the cost of running a successful transit system.

As I reported earlier, the TTC has an embarrassment of additional riding and will begin increasing service in September and through the fall to bring crowding within the Commission’s service standards.  More service, of course, costs more money and it is very unlikely that this will be made up from added revenues.  We are, after all, trying to give all current riders better service rather than forcing them to ride on the roof, and we are trying to attract new riders to the system within the constraints of the fleet size and available operating staff.

With Metropasses now a highly attractive fare medium, more people are buying them and more rides are taken on each pass.  This dilutes the revenue per ride as ticket, token and cash fare riders migrate to the cheaper, fixed-price pass.  Riding is going up, but revenue is not. 

Commissioners Michael Thompson and Peter Milczyn wondered openly about changing the fare structure to recover some of the additional cost including schemes such as zone fares or charging for transfers.  They should talk to their constituents in Scarborough and Etobicoke respectively.

Suburban riders take longer trips to get to work, and a transfer between routes is almost inevitable for most of them.  Downtown riders might organize themselves to stay within one route, either the subway or a streetcar line.  Charging for transfers or imposing a zone system penalizes those for whom the transit system is already less attactive — the long distance traveller — and is likely to disproportionately affect those who can least afford it.

My rationale for that statement is that long, tedious trips including transfers are likely to have a larger proportion of “captive” riders who cannot afford to trade up to an automobile as an alternative even though it would be very attractive in comfort and travel time. 

Do these Commissioners/Councillors really understand the impact of their proposals?

During the same debate, Commissioner Thompson spoke of a “crisis” facing the TTC, and indeed he planned to launch a “strategic planning” process for the system.  Yes, we need a strategic plan, but the real “crisis” is that everyone hopes that somehow the problem of transit funding will solve itself for both the capital and operating budgets.

There is no magic here.  If you want better transit, then you must spend more money.  This may come from fares or taxes or transfers from other governments, but it must come from somewhere. 

Anyone who talks about charging for transfers or imposing a zone fare system, but  never breathes the words “fare increase” is not being honest with the TTC’s riders.  The irony here is that the amount of money needed to operate better service is between $6- and $7-million on an annual basis.  This is less than one percent of the total operating budget and could be funded by a miniscule fare increase.

Any change to bring in zones or charge for transfers would be complex to implement, and unless the base fare were lowered substantially, would bring in far more revenue than is needed for the service improvements.

In another context, Toronto Council seems willing to increase the subsidy to passengers by about $13-million to operate the York University subway extension.  Why do we happily go forward with such schemes but nickel-and-dime plans for better bus and streetcar service?  The real reason, no doubt, is that York U won’t see its first passenger until at least two further terms of Council while better bus and streetcar service is something for today, for this year’s budget.

Support future spending for a dubious subway project and you are a visionary investing in the future of our city.

Support better transit for riders today and you are a wasting precious taxpayer dollars on riders who should be paying more for their service.

I look forward to seeing Commissioners Thompson and Milczyn with coffee-pot fareboxes on buses in Scarborough and streetcars in Long Branch defending the public purse from marauding, oversubsidized riders.  It will be a great photo op for their re-election literature.