Those Vanishing Tokens

Today the TTC announced that token purchases, originally limited to 10-per-customer in the face of a coming fare hike, would now be limited to 5-per person.  If a station collector has run out of tokens, you will pay the cash fare of $2.75.

This has to rank among the more bone-headed moves the TTC has made.

The TTC has a fetish for collecting money, and the more it can get, the better.  In the name of eliminating bogus tickets, the TTC got rid of them for adults.  Ooops!  That was the fallback medium everyone used in the period when tokens vanished before a fare increase, but now it’s gone.

Some people may try to switch to a Metropass rather than taking a chance on token availability during December.  Indeed, some regular pass users who switch to tokens for that “short” month (from a commuter’s point of view) may stay with the Metropass.  Will the TTC have enough?  Don’t count on it, and it’s far too late for them to order more.  If you’re planning to buy a pass, don’t wait until November 30th.

Paying that cash fare doesn’t just hit riders for one direction on their trip.  Someone commuting home via the subway with a bus or streetcar at the end of their trip may try, but fail, to get tokens on their outward trip.  The next morning, they still won’t have tokens and will have to pay cash again for the inbound journey.

If the TTC had wanted to be the tiniest bit generous, it would have lowered the cash fare to $2.50 for the period leading up to the fare hike, at least trying to meet riders half way.  But, no.  The problem the TTC itself created will cost riders 50 cents more per trip for the next seven weeks.

Behind all this lurks the question of smart cards on the TTC.  Once fare collection is automated, the amount of fare can be changed on a whim, with no lead time, and no possibility of hoarding.  However, a lot comes along for the ride with the technology.

The original estimate for implementing Presto! on the TTC was $140-million, and the TTC got Federal funding (CSIF) to pay for it.  There was a small problem.  The estimate ballooned by another $277-million with no money in sight.  (This is one of those many “below the line” projects in the Capital Budget, hidden, but lurking.)

There are many unanswered questions about Smart Cards for Toronto.

  • What is so expensive about bringing them to the TTC?
  • Why is there no public report with details of the new, higher estimate, only a few pages buried in the capital budget (page 1,533 for dedicated readers)?
  • How much will it cost to operate and maintain the new system compared to the existing one, even allowing for the supposed reduction in fare evasion?
  • How much real enforcement will the TTC put in place?
  • What fare structure is contemplated?
  • Is the system designed with an expensive, complex back-end to aid in detailed trip tracking and billing?  What will be the marginal costs and benefits of such a system?
  • What is the role of credit/debit cards as the “smart card” medium rather than a dedicated system?
  • Who will own and maintain the system?  The TTC or Metrolinx?

The world-wide embrace of smart technology shows us that this is hardly something new, something Ontario and Toronto have to develop from scratch.  What’s the problem?

A huge, hidden issue has nothing to do with technology, but with subsidies.  Everyone talks about getting rid of fare boundaries, and there are many ways to slice that pie.  (Please, readers, don’t send in your proposals yet again, I will delete them.)  But switching the fare revenue around inevitably means that some will pay more so that others pay less.

“Paying more” can be achieved by raising some of the fares, but it can also be achieved with increased subsidies.  These are tradeoffs nobody wants to talk about.

To both TTC and Metrolinx:  Stop hiding this debate behind closed doors and start talking about how fares might be collected in a unified system.  How will fares be used to attract both the long-haul commuter and the casual, short-trip rider?  How will boundaries between systems, including those with GO Transit, be eliminated?  When will fares and service be treated as tools to encourage people out of their cars, to support local and regional planning ambitions, not just nuisances to be debated every year at budget time?