A Little Accuracy Would Be Nice

The National Post reported comments by former City budget chief David Soknacki at the Board of Trade in which he claims that in the past decade:

  • The TTC staff went up 13%, while the service operated rose by only 1.3%.
  • The cost to Toronto taxpayers for the TTC went from $125 to $250.

This sort of statement gets red-blooded, tax-chopping politicians, not to mention the Board of Trade, hopping mad.  If only the information were accurate and in context.

First let’s look at service levels.

In 1998, the TTC operated 106.6-million km on its surface network, and by 2008, this was up to 126.3-million.  That 18.5% more, and even allowing for the fact that 2008 was a leap year (and had one more day’s operations in it), that’s a lot better than 1.3%.  The surface fleet rose from 1,744 buses and streetcars to 1,985, or 13.8%.

On the rapid transit network, service rose from 71.7m to 78.2m km, or 9.1%.  Most of the increase came from restoration of mid-90s off-peak service cuts and a small bump from the Sheppard Subway opening.

During this period, the TTC was subject to changes in labour laws restricting hours of work in the transit industry, and this triggered a requirement for more operators to perform the same work.

We can have long debates about the merits of Local 113, not to mention the non-union staff at TTC, but the simple fact is that over the past decade the TTC ran more service and hired more people operate the system.

Second, the “transit tax” per capita.

During the mid 1990s, funding for transit and other municipal services was butchered by Queen’s Park, and the City of Toronto (among others) is still digging its way out of that hole.  Transit services were scaled back, ridership dropped, and the farebox recovery rate went above 80%.

Over the next decade, City policy favoured a return to better service quality (the Ridership Growth Strategy) and to a farebox recovery at the so-called historic level of 68%.  There is nothing magic about this figure.  It just happened to be the level when Toronto and Queen’s Park came to an agreement about the amounts of subsidy each would provide, locking in at the then-current level.

In 1998, an adult token cost $1.60 (and had done so since 1996), while the Metropass cost $83 and was not transferrable.  Today, the token costs $2.25 and the Metropass $109 (leaving aside various discounts available).  That’s an increase of 41% on tokens and 31% on passes.

Better service and a higher proportionate subsidy for service combined to drive up the subsidy required by the TTC.

  • In 1998, the total operating subsidy was $146.3-million paid entirely by the City.
  • This rose to $299.6m by 2007, of which $208.0m came from the City with the rest from other governments. 
  • The next year, 2008, the City contribution dropped back the 1998 level even though the total subsidy continued to rise to $316.9m.
  • For 2009, the total subsidy will be about $400m thanks to the combined effects of inflation and the 2009 fare freeze.

Over the 1998-2008 period, it is roughly correct to say that taxpayers somewhere (local, provincial, federal) roughly doubled their contribution to the TTC, but that increase was paid back to riders in better service and lower fares, relative to the total cost of operation.

Many politicians pay lip service to the need for better public transportation, and if anything, spending is far behind where it should be, especially for system expansion.  None of that will come without higher subsidies.  We can debate whether those the TTC and other transit agencies get today are spent wisely or effectively, but the need for more transit is inescapable.  Talk about efficiency plays well to the mythical taxpayer, but more often this is code for “no more transit money” at a time when that’s the worst possible choice.

For a detailed look at TTC fares and operating statistics, please visit Bob Brent’s website.