Wanna Buy a Subway?

For Sale:  One Transit System.  Slightly Used.  A Faded Beauty and a Handyman’s Special.  No reasonable offer refused.  Call Honest Rob’s Transit Hotline for details!

Adam Radwanski’s article in this morning’s Globe and Mail triggered a flood of emails between the latté-sipping chattering classes today as journalists, politicians and transit advocates tried to make sense of Mayor Ford’s scheme to upload the TTC, or at least its subway lines, to Queen’s Park.  By the end of the day, the McGuinty government had replied “no thanks” to the offer, but the issue will still get lots of debate.

I have to wonder if the Mayor has really thought through what he has proposed.  Here are a few small questions.

  • The City’s share of the operating and capital deficits for the entire TTC, including Wheel Trans, is over $1-billion.  How much of this would the province actually take over?  If Toronto wants better service — things like trains every 5 minutes at 1 am on a line carrying almost nobody — would Queen’s Park send us a bill for service in excess of their own standards?
  • If Queen’s Park got only the subway system, how would revenue for the TTC as a whole be shared?  Would the subway become a separate fare zone with its own GO-like premium fares?  Would the revenue split be skewed to make the subway “profitable” even though it depends for its huge demand on the surface feeder network?
  • If Toronto wanted a subway on Sheppard, but Queen’s Park thought that an LRT line was all the street really needed, (a) how would the City force Queen’s Park to build it and (b) would Toronto have to pay the difference in construction and operating costs for a subway?  Why should provincial planning trump local preferences when this almost never happens in any other sphere of provincial influence worth mentioning?
  • If Queen’s Park took over the bus and streetcar services, who would riders complain to about overcrowding, service quality, system cutbacks and fares?  Would Liberal ridings (at least while they’re in power) get better service than Tory and NDP ridings?  If people living in Long Branch elected a new government, would service on the Queen car improve?  (They’ve tried everything else.)
  • How much will it cost Queen’s Park to buy out objections from Hamilton, Mississauga, Ottawa and every other transit operator about an unfair subsidy by way of a Toronto upload?

Anyone who has dealt with GO Transit on a construction project, or with Metrolinx on transit financing, will know that “transparency” is not their watchword, information is difficult to come by, and future planning consists of whatever is announced in the provincial budget.  Don’t look for a politician because the board is a collection of untouchable agents of the private sector bringing their expertise to bear, don’t ya know, but certainly not interacting with the public on a day-to-day basis.

Radwanski reports that Queen’s Park wants ownership of lines it pays for to stay on its books.  At first, this looks like little more than accounting dodge — a way to show an asset to balance of the debt floated to build, say, a new subway.  However, a book asset’s real value is that it can be sold.  Remember Highway 407?  What would prevent Metrolinx from selling the Sheppard line to a private owner with no control over what the new proprietor might charge us for the use of “their” subway?  Would fares go through the roof just like highway tolls?

Selling or uploading the TTC is a hare-brained idea that does nothing to address the basic transit problems both Toronto and the GTA face.  Transit is a big, expensive business, and somebody has to pay for it.  Cook the books all you like, there is only one rider, one taxpayer, one citizenry stuck with the bills at the end of the day.

Debating who might “own” the transit system diverts attention from vital transit advocacy.  Mayor Ford and Premier McGuinty should concentrate on transit plans and strategies that are achievable, and convince voters of the need for good transit funding, even if this means new sources of revenue.