Fare Integration: A TTC/Metrolinx Non-Update

Updated April 29, 2016 at 9:00 am: Information added about the joint meeting.

The joint meeting of the Metrolinx and TTC boards was something of a love-in with much generous praise of each other’s organization and shows of “working together” with joint presentations on major issues. In his opening remarks, TTC Chair Josh Colle noted that although the two organizations had similar goals, there would be times when the TTC and Toronto Council would not agree with Metrolinx. It is too early to tell whether cracks began to form in the building foundations at Union Station where the normal state of Metrolinx meetings is sunny and the concept of disagreement is banished in the (usually) well-managed agendas.

A substantial chunk of the meeting was consumed with opening remarks and overviews of the two organizations by their respective CEOs. At an initial meeting, this might be expected, but it follows a distressing pattern where substantive discussion is pre-empted by management back-patting eating into the limited time available. The idea that Metrolinx and TTC Board members would need an overview of each other’s current activities says much about the degree to which each board is informed about transit in the GTHA in general. (One might make a similar observation about some board members with respect to their own agencies, but that’s another topic.)

The TTC made a point of citing their own ridership numbers and, by implication, the scale of their operation (not to mention its longevity) compared to Metrolinx. For its part, Metrolinx noted that it has just reached 10 years of age, but completely forgot that GO Transit has been around for almost 50 years.

Cross-border travel at 58 million rides per year might increase by as much as 8 million with some form of TTC/GO/905 fare integration and the removal of the boundary between TTC and other systems, but this would still only bring the cross-border total to about 12% of the TTC’s total ridership. The main benefit of fare integration would be to reduce fares for existing riders.

In his opening presentation, TTC CEO Andy Byford dwelt at length on five “megaprojects” within the TTC, and showed a list of other major improvements in the hopper (see p34 of the presentation). All of these have been implemented at least to some degree except for Time-Based Transfers, and the idea has been sidelined for the moment in part because it is perceived to be too expensive by some city politicians. The most recent word on the subject was in a December 2015 update on fare policy:

While introducing a 2 hour time-based transfer is still considered a worthwhile service improvement that would reduce complexity and make the TTC consistent with other transit agencies within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, the ongoing Fare Integration work, led by Metrolinx, may propose changes to transfer rules. That being the case, it is recommended that further analysis or implementation should follow the completion of the Fare Integration work if required. [pp. 2-3]

This is something of a Catch-22 because transfer rules are obviously part of any overall fare strategy – they affect the attractiveness of transit for multiple “short hops” on a single fare without the need to own a Metropass (or some equivalent). Moreover, the ability to make many short trips on one fare speaks to the problem of “trip chaining” often cited in debates about bias in fare policy towards longer commute journeys and against the type of travel more common to the un- and under-employed.

Transfer rules across the GTHA should be part of any “fare integration”, and yet the topic has been completely ignored in Metrolinx work to date. Metrolinx sloughs off the topic claiming that these are local policies, not regional issues, forgetting that regional planning is impossible without considering local effects.

During the update presentation, TTC’s Deputy CEO Chris Upfold noted that the TTC network is an integrated design with free movement between routes and modes. Josh Colle gave as an example the St. Clair streetcar which runs directly into two subway stations and talked of how the system would have to be “de-integrated” to accommodate a separate fare for subway travel.

Metrolinx Chief Planning Officer Leslie Woo replied that the concepts in the study are only for analysis with a business case, economic and operating impact studies to follow. Considering how long the study has been underway (see main article), one might think that economic and operating impacts would have been an integral part of early analysis to determine whether options were viable. Instead, Metrolinx forged onward with its preferred view of fare structures strongly leaning to a distance and class-based tariff ignoring the issues for transit operations, not to mention the potential effect on riders. Again, the blinkered view of an agency with relatively small ridership and a uniform demographic precluded consideration of the effect on an operation ten times its size serving much more complex travel patterns.

TTC Commissioner Shelley Carroll asked about reports to come in fall 2016, and their implication for actual implementation of new fares. Woo replied that Metrolinx is very open to meeting with area Councils, agencies and transit management. That reply dodges the basic problem that Metrolinx has acted as the gorilla in the room in its dealings with local transit agencies, and the threat of losing provincial subsidy always hangs over municipalities who don’t sing from the Metrolinx songbook.

Chris Upfold stated that the TTC Board and Toronto Council need to take a position on fare integration. He suggested that this cannot happen until something is actually proposed, and nothing is going to happen to fares within 2016. That’s all very well, but Metrolinx history shows that once a proposal emerges from staff, it acquires the endorsement of a provincial agency and is cast, if not in stone, in very fast-setting concrete and is almost impossible to change. Toronto needs to understand what a new tariff would actually look like in order to take an informed position. Otherwise, the process is nothing but endless rounds of approving “principles” that could have far-reaching effects. “Equity” to one person might mean time-based transfers (in effect limited-time passes), while to another might mean fares charged by distance and class of service.

“We can leave the decision to later” is a recipe for Metrolinx cooking up a tariff and claiming that Toronto (or other cities) don’t object when the process precludes such objections until after the tariff is fixed. This is the same cart-before-horse process we see in transit project assessments (mini-Environmental Assessments) where early decisions discard options that are almost impossible to reinstate later even if the early work is shown to be flawed or outdated.

Metrolinx Board Member Iain Dobson asked why we couldn’t just “do something, somewhere” such as eliminating the Mississauga/Toronto fare boundary as a trial. Upfold replied that Presto would have to be in place for this (so that fares paid on one system would be valid on the connecting legs of a journey), and that there would be a need to fund such a reduction in fares for the affected riders. The fact that both agencies have had paper transfers for ages and could simply adopt a policy of accepting each other’s as a valid fare seems to escape him.

TTC Commissioner Joe Mihevc noted that “fare integration” is one of those areas where the mandates and outlooks of the regional and local agencies and councils will not align. Toronto residents may not be happy with using the TTC to support lower fares for the 905.

Metrolinx Chair Rob Prichard opined that a $40 million cost to provide an integrated fare is not much of a problem. He should talk to his good friend, John Tory, for whom this amount is more than a 1% tax increase, and who has torpedoed much less expensive transit initiatives through TTC budget cuts.

TTC Vice Chair Alan Heisey remarked that Toronto already subsidizes the 905 by about $50 million annually through the TTC operating subsidy, and Commissioner Rick Byers reiterated that the TTC already has the lion’s share of the region’s transit ridership.

Prichard ended the discussion saying that we don’t know what the right answers are now. One might ask “why” considering how long his staff have been working on the question.

In the media scrum following the meeting, Josh Colle was asked whether subway riders should worry that their fares are going up. He replied that, no, this should not be a concern and gave as strong an indication as any we have seen to date that the whole “subway fare zone” concept is dead in the water. It is amazing what a little political realism can bring to a debate.

As I have said in other forums, I would love to attend a public meeting where the Scarborough MPPs and Councillors (not to mention the well-meaning social activists on the Metrolinx Board) explain to their constituents how they will get a shiny new subway, but will have to pay more to ride it while commuters from Markham enjoy lower fares.

Original article (April 25, 2016):

The TTC and Metrolinx boards will meet in a joint session on the evening of April 27, 2016. Among the items to be discussed is an update on the Fare Integration study that has been underway for some time between these agencies and other GTHA operators.

Based on discussions at recent Toronto Council and TTC meetings regarding the “motherlode of reports” that will hit Council in June on a wide variety of transit issues, one might have expected something definitive about Fare Integration. Alas, this will not be so as the projected date is now in fall 2016. That poses a challenge for discussions of SmartTrack (ST) which depends strongly on integration with the TTC network and fare structure for its attractiveness. Of course, given that ST has dwindled to no more than a few stations added to what the GO Regional Express Rail (RER) would provide anyhow, the point may be moot. However, as long as we pretend that ST is a going concern, then its fare structure remains an issue for debate.

Chris Selley in the National Post wrote recently about the importance of Fare Integration and the political minefield it represents. Recently we have seen just how badly Metrolinx can screw up its planning with the botched implementation of the UPX service to Pearson Airport. The idea of Fare Integration has been around for some time, but discussions have always been quite general on matters of principle and general concepts with no explicit examples of how various schemes might affect riders or subsidy requirements.

It is worth reviewing the history of reports to the Metrolinx Board on this subject.

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