In my previous article, I reviewed the TTC staff report about the proposed fare increase, but didn’t say much (except in the comment thread) about my overall view on the situation.
The most important fact about Tuesday’s TTC decision, whatever it will be, is that it will not set, once and for all, either the fare and service levels for 2010, nor general fare policy for the future. Any attempt to do so runs directly into the limitations of the TTC’s mandate and the simple truth that neither the City nor Queen’s Park have clearly stated how much the TTC might get in operating subsidies for 2010.
For next Tuesday, as I have said many times, I support the proposed 25-cent token fare increase with all other fares rising proportionately. The attempt to grab $5 extra a month from Metropass holders is an unfair, precipitous action brought forward by TTC staff who have always fought against making the pass “the better way” to travel. That the scheme was announced by a press release rather than by a formal proposal from the Commission itself raises serious questions about who is setting policy at the TTC.
If the Commission adopts this fare scheme, the TTC will still be about $50-million in the hole going into the 2010 budget process. At this point we have no idea what sort of tradeoffs this might entail, and the Commission is asked to implement a fare change without all the facts on the table.
As I mentioned in my previous article, TTC staff claim that the system’s costs will rise by 7% per annum for the foreseeable future, but they do not quantify the source of this magnitude of change. Some factors listed in the staff report are non-recurring or have a limited effect on future budgets.
Next Tuesday, as we always see when fare increases are on the table, there will be many groups calling for various changes in fare structures ranging from a complete freeze to new discounts for certain groups of riders. I believe that the Commission, and by extension the City, should not be making fare policy on the fly. We are all badly served by “debate” that is inevitably presented as a decision that must be taken today lest the sky fall tomorrow.
Among the proposals we will likely hear are:
- A complete freeze on fares. This is extremely unlikely as both the City and Queen’s Park are in no mood to dole out more transit subsidies. That 7% annual increase would have to be absorbed through internal economies and service cuts. Moreover, we would face the same debate again next year. Everyone talks about the “fair” proportion of subsidy and fare revenue, but once you pick a level (68% by fares is the current magic number), then fares must increase every year to make up their proportion of a rising total budget.
- Scale the increase in pass pricing to the token rate rather than bumping the pass fare multiple from 48.4 to 50.4. This keeps everything on the same balance, and leaves in place the general policy (originated in the Ridership Growth Strategy) that the multiple should fall over time.
- Extend Student Pass pricing to university-age students. This proposal has the support of Chair Adam Giambrone as reported by spacing’s website and would cost the TTC $2.5-million annually. The likely implementation date would be September 2010, and so its effect on next year’s budget would be small.
- Create some sort of discount fare for people on some form of social assistance. This really is beyond the TTC’s mandate and ability. If the City (or any other agency) wants to give some group, however defined, TTC fares at a discount, they are free to do so through their own budget.
Any new fare scheme must be considered in the context of Smart Cards which will be implemented over the next 4 years or so. For example, the creation of a new class of tickets for the socially disadvantaged is meaningless if tickets themself will cease to exist. Conversely, if all fares will be paid via some form of Smart Card or even a credit card, there will be equity issues about how those with limited means would use and manage such fare media. The demographics of TTC ridership is very different from the commuter market now enjoyed by Presto for its demo program.
A broader question of any form of concession fare will be how one qualifies to receive it. Some people are formally clients of various welfare systems, others are merely poor. Why should one group have access to cheaper transit but not another? This is a debate that belongs before the social agencies and City Council, not the TTC.
The TTC has a problem of its own in the declining proportion of riders who pay the “standard” token fare. Metropasses have represented more than half of all adult riding for a few years, and this proportion will continue to grow. Moreover, if capping is built into Presto (such as is already available on the customer loyalty program from GO, or other systems), then people will get “Metropass” pricing simply by using the system a lot. This will be quite different from today where one must conciously buy a pass (if the TTC doesn’t run out) and worry about whether the up front cost will be recovered in the coming month.
Fewer and fewer riders will “pay retail” for transit, and the link between revenue and ridership will be tenuous. The philosophy by which the City makes transportation available to its citizens will change from a per usage charge to a flat rate once a certain threshold is passed. There may be several thresholds — time based, zone based, calendar based — but we should not use the limitations of old ticket-and-transfer based systems to dictate the options for future fare structures.
The TTC has, to its credit, brought forward multi-year plans for service including the Ridership Growth Strategy, the Transit City Bus Plan, and of course the Transit City LRT network. Metrolinx has a Regional plan, aka The Big Move, but it lacks three critical components: funding for local services to feed the regional network, funding for capital construction beyond an initial group of projects, and an overall philosophy of fare and revenue integration for the GTA.
The TTC, Metrolinx and the regional systems must conduct broad discussions about exactly transit is going. That doesn’t mean drawing lines on maps, but determining how a network will operate, who will pay for it, what sort of fare structure will be implemented, what standards will exist for local and regional services.
Metrolinx, which prefers to operate in relative secrecy these days, may not be the ideal entity to begin this discussion. Toronto should lead the way as the largest part of the regional transit network, and should emphasize openness in this process.
Transit is a large and expensive part of the municipal and provincial budgets, and we need an open discussion about options and goals. Even if we cannot afford everything we might want today, the options, the possibilities, need to be on the table. That approach informed RGS and other proposals. You can’t have an informed discussion if you don’t look at alternatives. You can’t react to changing cirsumstances (a new government more favourable to transit funding) without having ideas “ready to go”.
Election years are not the best times to start major consultations because every politician, and not a few advocates, tend to jockey for position and headlines rather than for serious, well-informed debate. But that debate must start, if only to force those who would lead Toronto to show their hand, to talk in paragraphs, not sound bites, about their visions for transit. Citizens must also articulate their view of transit. What sort of service do they want? How much will they pay in fares, in taxes? Where should the transit system be in five years?
That’s the real challenge for public transit, and this won’t be decided on Tuesday afternoon by the TTC.