Ontario Supports Transit? Metrolinx Subsidy Cut By 30% (Updated)

Updated June 27, 2019 at 6:00 am:

Metrolinx has announced that the 38 bus routes, previously cut in the name of “efficiency”, will continue to operate two trips in each of the peak periods. See the end of this article for details.

On June 27, 2019, the Metrolinx Board will meet to consider various items including their 2019-2020 Business Plan and 2018-2019 Draft Annual Report. This will be a challenging year for Metrolinx because its subsidy will fall from the budgeted level of $467 million in 2018-19 to $321.2 million in 2019-20 thanks to the machinations of the Ford government. (The amount provided in the 2018-19 government spending estimates was even higher than Metrolinx’ budget figure at $505 million, but actual requirements were lower.)

There was no press release or photo op announcing this change, and it was buried in the detailed estimates for the Ministry of Transportation. Funding for Metrolinx operating subsidies appears under “Vote 2702” within the estimates.

For 2018-19, this contained many more entries than the following year:

Urban and Regional Transportation
Salaries and wages                                   $  6,744,300
Employee benefits                                         834,500
Transportation and communication                          305,600
Services                                               13,638,700
Transfer payments
 GGRA – Electric Vehicle Education 
  and Awareness                        $  4,919,000
 GGRA - Transportation Demand 
  Management Funding Program              1,000,000
 Community Transportation Grant 
  Program                                 3,000,000
 GGRA - Other                             8,000,000
 Metrolinx Operating Subsidies          505,290,600
 Electric Vehicle Incentive 
  and Infrastructure Program            102,774,100
 GGRA - Green Commercial 
  Vehicle Program                        24,616,000
 Ontario Seniors Public Transit 
  Tax Credit                              9,700,000
 Participation and Awareness Grants         450,000
                                       $659,749,700
 
Subtotal                                             $681,272,800
Less: recoveries                                    ( 173,832,200)
Total operating expense to be voted                  $507,440,600

The corresponding list for 2019-20 is much shorter and smaller. The Metrolinx subsidy has fallen, the green subsidies are gone, and there is an unexplained cut in the Seniors Public Transit Tax Credit.

Urban and Regional Transportation
Salaries and wages                                   $    780,100
Employee benefits                                          96,600
Services                                                  189,800
Transfer payments
  Metrolinx Operating Subsidies         $321,214,300
  Ontario Seniors Public Transit 
   Tax Credit                              3,578,600
  Participation and Awareness Grants         450,000
                                        $325,242,900

Total operating expense to be voted                  $326,309,400

Last week, I asked Metrolinx how they planned to deal with this cut, but they are still looking into it. Meanwhile, the reports before the Metrolinx Board give some indication of what is happening.

The table below consolidates information from the Annual Report for 2018-19 and the Business Plan for 2019-20.

Notes:

  • Capital lines such as contributions from the province and amortization of existing assets have been removed to show only the operating revenues and expenses.
  • Presto fee revenue projections for 2018-19 are not available because Metrolinx did not publish a Business Plan for that year. Actual results are shown separately in a chart on page 26 of the Annual Report.
  • UPX service was consolidated with GO Transit operations a few years ago and its financial results are not reported separately.

[The same table as a PDF: 2019V2018_BudgetAndPlan]

2018-19 Results

Thanks to a better-than-budgeted year in 2018-19, Metrolinx is already one step ahead of the game, at least on a budget-to-budget basis. This is not unlike the situation commonly seen at the TTC where the actual results are better than budget, and this gives a leg up on the following year’s requirements.

Fare revenue was 5.1% above budget, although other revenues were below budget giving an overall increase of only 3.2%.

The wide take-up of Presto by TTC riders with the elimination of legacy fare media drives a big jump in Presto fee revenue for 2019-20. A comparable jump in revenue will not be available in future years to offset rising costs. However, Presto operating costs have come down a lot. This is good to see, but such drops cannot be reproduced indefinitely for future savings.

PRESTO will also continue its work on the ambitious objectives of delivering new forms of payment (PRESTO Tickets) and reducing its operational costs by 25%. These will remain focus areas heading into the new fiscal year with significant progress having been made on these objectives to date. In 2018-19, twelve cost savings initiatives were identified and savings targets for the year were achieved with the largest contributor being vendor consolidation and maintenance optimization. Moving forward, PRESTO’s 2019-20 operating budget is already reduced by the 25% cost savings and PRESTO will include the execution and realization of savings from many of the remaining opportunities. [Annual Report, p 41]

Metrolinx may be considering a shift of more front line support to transit clients (e.g. the TTC). This could improve maintenance turnaround times, but also would represent a transfer of costs between vendor and client.

Payment Equipment: Over time, reduce PRESTO’s role in managing equipment, focusing on facilitating transit agencies to directly purchase fare equipment and associated services. [Annual Report, p 43]

On the expense side, the total was only 0.7% over budget although this was achieved by a variety of reductions offset by a large increase in “Supplies and Services” which includes consulting fees.

Although there was a budget of $508.1 million for required subsidy, the net amount came in at $494.9 million.

Of particular note in 2018-19 is the considerable over-budget spending on “Supplies and Services” which includes consulting contracts. This was mostly offset by underspending on Operations, Equipment Maintenance and Facilities & Track.

2019-20 Budget and Plan

For 2019-20, fare revenue is expected to grow by 16.7% over the previous year’s budget amount, or 10.7% over the actual results. This comes from a projected 7.7% rise in ridership over 2018-19 actual results plus the effect of the current year fare increase. Fares account for about three quarters of total operating revenue, and overall results, as on the TTC, can be influenced by how closely Metrolinx hits its ridership expectations.

What is less clear is how any ridership growth will interact with proposed fare improvements including reduced costs for short trips and better co-fares with local operators, notably the TTC. Although Metrolinx crows about how Presto “enables” various discounts, these are not available to all riders.

  • Users of the UPX, the much more frequent service in the Weston corridor, recently lost their fare discount for trips transferring to/from the TTC, as well as their monthly loyalty fare cap.
  • TTC riders who travel with monthly or yearly passes on Presto do not receive any discount for GO+TTC trips.
  • Co-fare discounts for seniors and students are lower than for adults, and as with adult riders, these do not apply to pass holders, only to full single fare rides.

If there is any move to better “integrate” fares for all riders, not just those paying full fare, this will be a cost either to Metrolinx or to local transit systems depending on the cost sharing arrangement. Metrolinx’ attitude to subsidies for fare reductions is that this takes money from service provision, and they expect other transit agencies to benefit from added ridership and, by implication, to provide fare subsidies at the local level.

The budget also includes one-time revenue of $40 million for sale of surplus assets. Although this helps to reduce the call on subsidies, it creates a gap that will have to be backfilled with other savings or revenues in future years. The Business Plan describes this revenue as supporting the Transit Oriented Development Program, and yet its actual effect is to reduce the operating subsidy.

On the expense side, there will be a big drop in “Supplies and Services” over previous year actuals, but a smaller drop on a budget-to-budget basis because of the overrun in 2018-19. Spending on “Facilities and Track” will also fall in the coming year. It is unclear whether this represents a reduction in the quantity and quality of maintenance, or if some sort of “efficiency” program is underway.

The various categories of expense and revenue are described in the Business Plan:

In the 2019-20 operating budget, the largest allocation is operations expense, which accounts for 35% of the total operating budget. This includes items such as support train crew wages, train control dispatch and PRESTO operations.

Next, labour and benefits account for 30% of the operating budget, supporting transit ridership growth. Facilities and tracks account for 13% of the operating budget, and include rent, property taxes, hydro, winter maintenance and other facility repairs. Equipment maintenance accounts for 11%, covering support services, inventory, inspections and yard operations. Finally, supplies and services represent 11% of the budget, which includes all types of professional services, bank fees, staff development and advertising.

Transit operations fare revenue is based on a year-over-year increase in ridership and GO fare changes implemented on April 20, 2019.

Non-fare revenue sources typically include billboard advertising, track usage fees from corridor ownership, transit operations partnerships on UP Express line, interest on working capital and reserved parking fees. In addition to these more typical sources of non-fare revenue, the total PRESTO fee revenue and proceeds from sale of assets to support the Transit Oriented Development Program are projected to be $107.2 million and $40.0 million for 2019-20, respectively. [p 62]

At a recent Metrolinx Town Hall, the question of the drop in subsidy was raised from the floor, and CEO Phil Verster deflected this by saying that Metrolinx is improving efficiency in the use of its assets. This is not entirely true in that the budget mixes one time and recurring revenues, and depends on strong growth in Presto fees both in the current and future years.

Part of that “efficiency” is the reallocation of services, something that happened recently with the removal of service from a few GO bus routes without notice or consultation. Meanwhile, GO added rail service to Niagara Falls that carries even fewer passengers than the bus services that were cut. Even though there is one train a day each way at hours when almost no ridership is attracted, Metrolinx trumpets this new service as an “accomplishment”. Clearly the political influence over Metrolinx decisions continues from the Liberals into the Conservative government.

Updated June 27: Limited service on the 38 Bolton/Malton service will be preserved pending implementation of a local replacement by the Town of Caledon. See details at the end of the article.

There is a fundamental problem with the overlaps and gaps between GO as a regional operator and local transit systems, where they exist. When GO decides to cut a service, there may be no local route to take up the slack, or it may not provide as convenient a service. This shows the degree to which Metrolinx is unaccountable and is a fundamental issue in “regional integration”. Although they are looking at alternatives such as shuttles with smaller vehicles or autonomous vehicles, the reality is that routes will vanish until Metrolinx gets around to serving the area again.

Videos from Town Hall:

Looking Ahead to 2022

The three year projections for Metrolinx operating revenues and expenses are shown in Exhibit 7 of the Business Plan.

Fare revenue growth is projected at about 7% into 2020-21, and at 5.6% in 2021-22. There is no ridership projection for these years.

Presto fee revenues will also grow, but they will not keep up with projected operating costs. The $37.4 million shortfall in 2019-20 is projected to fall to $16.8m by 2021-22 thanks largely to strong growth in fee revenue. How much of the fee growth will be due to greater takeup of Presto as a fare medium and how much is due to changes in the fee structure for various Presto client systems is not specified.

“Metrolinx Internal” comprises $8.4 million in non-fare revenue plus $40 million from asset sales. It is not clear that the latter amount would actually be available in future years, and in any event this is described above as supporting the TOD program which is part of the Capital Budget, not Operating. This cannot be both a source of operating revenue and contribute to the capital program.

The “Net Operating Requirement” grows by $37.1 million in 2020-21, or 11.8%, but only by $8.4 million or 2.4% in 2021-22. Fare revenue will grow by $90.6 million (13.5%) while transit operating costs will grow by $148.4 million (16.2%). This spread is partly offset by the projected reduction in Presto costs net of fees, but the large growth in fee revenue (36%) is essential to these projections.

The big change in the third year is the “Capital Through Operating” line which consumes almost all of the planned increase in “Operating” subsidy.

What is not shown, at least not explicitly, is the effect of the opening of the Eglinton-Crosstown line planned for fall 2021. This will affect at least six months of the 2021-22 fiscal year for Metrolinx, but there is no indication of the associated costs and revenues, let alone how these might be split between Metrolinx and the TTC.

Updated June 27, 2019 at 6:00 am

Following pushback at the Town Hall on June 24 and intervention by the Mayor of Caledon, Metrolinx has announced that it will retain limited peak service on the 38 GO bus pending implementation of an alternative local service by Caledon. In the best Twitter tradition, there is a typo.

The existing schedule provides 6 and 7 trips on route 38 Bolton/Malton in the AM and PM peak respectively, and 2 in each peak on the 38A Bolton/North York. The new schedule goes into effect on July 2, 2019 and provides only 2 trips in each peak period on the 38, and no service on the 38A. The GO Transit Service Changes page encourages riders to use alternative means to make their trips.

To what extent this is a “victory” for riders remains to be seen with an agency and a government that are deaf to consultation.

15 thoughts on “Ontario Supports Transit? Metrolinx Subsidy Cut By 30% (Updated)

  1. Any indication from the Biz Plan if the capital amount has dropped? Since the freight bypass has been cut is that shown anywhere in the Plan?

    Steve: I will review the capital plans separately, to the extent that Metrolinx publishes any details. However, the freight bypass would be a future expense and would not show up in current year figures. If it’s done as a private sector project, it would not show up on Metrolinx’ books until it was in service and was then being paid for under, say, a design-build-finance contract.

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  2. Steve writes:

    Meanwhile, GO added rail service to Niagara Falls that carries even fewer passengers than the bus services that were cut. Even though there is one train a day each way at hours when almost no ridership is attracted, Metrolinx trumpets this new service as an “accomplishment”. Clearly the political influence over Metrolinx decisions continues from the Liberals into the Conservative government.

    It’s not just absurd politically and logically, it’s to the point of abject embarrassment watching Verster ‘purger’ himself trying to spin his own ball backwards while swearing it’s running forward.

    To be honest, I no longer watch the Town Hall Meetings to garner an insight into the curious machinations of GO and ML. I watch to see and hear the latest utterings on the style of the Emperor’s Clothes. That he has none seems completely lost on Phil’s desperate spinning.

    Route 38 does run almost empty off of peak. I know, I use it sometimes to get myself and bike to the north of Bolton and cycle up to the Caledon Trailway. I will miss it, but can fully understand the service *off peak* being curtailed. To average the off-peak with peak is absurd when looking at the actual utility and need. I thought the locals in the most recent Town Hall Meeting were exemplary in their presentation of case.

    At *the very least*…attempts should have been made to tide over the peak service until a longer-term solution can be found.

    It seems Mr Verster has lost track of his background with ScotRail, Network Rail and other far more civilized providers.

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  3. Stephen, route 38 survives for now. Please see this tweet from Metrolinx.

    A cut in subsidy is not necessarily the end of the world. It might actually force them to make some hard decisions. Instead of operating parking lots and structures for free, it would be a good time to charge money to park. Given all the illegal parking I see at GO stations, I am sure more officers can ticket more people.

    Steve: I agree, but there is no mention of this in their business plan. Metrolinx has always been terrified of driving riders away through parking charges, and I doubt the Ford government would support such a move viewing it as part of a “war on the car”.

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  4. Benny:

    Many thanks for that. Sanity appears to prevail. I was at Malton Station just yesterday, and the termination notice was posted in the office wicket.

    Of course, the logic now begs the question: how is this suddenly possible when Verster pleaded that “the buses are needed elsewhere”? This was the obvious answer all along. And it behooves the folks who presented such compelling cases at the Town Hall meeting well. It sounds facile, but I’m proud of them. Steve’s overview might also have had an influence. There’s a damn good story in there somewhere!

    Instead of operating parking lots and structures for free, it would be a good time to charge money to park.

    As an avid cyclist, I couldn’t agree more. It seems that Metrolinx is in the business of building parking lots, and as an added ‘plus’, they serve them with transit.

    I’ll miss my excellent connection to then ride further north to the Caledon Trailway (a superb rail-trail very close to Toronto, and a similar ride distance at the western end to Georgetown GO) but it heartens me that good people have a reprieve for now for a service that’s essential.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Easy solution to the budget cut: Just swallow MTO and ONTC, and assume their budgets, and then maneuver your organization so it becomes the sole Ontario transportation empire.

    Service cuts? Pish tosh. If your objective is just to keep the budget topped up to a level that won’t disturb your paycheque, those of the friends you’ve imported from the UK or those relatives who are working at firms with lush Metrolinx consulting contracts, then you’re in business. Silly boy!

    What was it the late John Candy used to say in the guise of one of his many on-screen characters? Oh, yeah. “It blowed up real good!”

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  6. @Stephen Saines
    I also don’t like Phil Verster. It’s weird that I had no idea who the previous CEO was, but Verster keeps shouting his name out to everyone, often accompanied by him saying some very political and partisan things. He feels too much like a self-aggrandizing political toady to me.

    It’s no wonder he didn’t seem to express any concerns about the budget cutbacks. He “solved” the problem by raising fares and then squeezing the TTC for an additional $50m in PRESTO revenue. I’m not in favour of cutting transit funding in general, but even I know there’s a lot of things in GO Transit that could be cut instead of passing costs onto an even more deeply budget-constrained transit agency like the TTC.

    Steve: To be fair, the extra TTC revenue is due to the increased usage of Presto by TTC riders with the end of legacy media, notably monthly passes. What is annoying, however, is the question of Presto support by Metrolinx and front line device reliability. Presto still loses money, and will continue to do so in future years, and this is an incentive to minimize the cost of system support.

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  7. So the “war on transit” has finally begun, the only thing being discussed in the future will be how much service will be cut, they’ll be no replacement buses or streetcars, they’ll be no all day GO Trains and definitely no new subways. Let’s sit back and listen to all the bozo’s bitching and complaining when it takes them ages to find a parking spot after spending a significant time getting there. Welcome to the future where car is king. Then these right wing political ideologues can then give me full justification why I should continue to re-cycle, when they have no care in the world about the environment. Steve you do a grand job here in your column, but I’m a little too pessimistic here and I don’t see any real future for transit in Ontario at this point.

    Steve: Much depends on the coming Federal and 2022 Provincial elections. If the Tories get/keep control, transit is doomed.

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  8. Now its the 905/365/289, 548/519/226, 705/249, and maybe 613/343 turn to experience the Ford’s anti-transit measures that the 416/647/437 experienced under Mayor Ford.

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  9. Stephen, most of the GO stations are not even bicycle friendly. While I do not mountain bike like you do, I do cycle around town. Try riding a bike near Oshawa GO in the morning and see what happens. A lot of cyclists take the GO bus out of the city for their country side ride. It used to be that cyclist would drive their car out of the city and park at a Home Depot parking lot. After that, they would ride around and return back to the car. At least with the GO bus like the 38, people can leave their cars at home for a country side ride.

    GO should not be about just moving commuters. Using GO for leisure is also a good way to ensure that there is a viable way to get around for tourists too. There should be no reason why someone visiting Ontario must rent a car.

    Steve, why do you think the Conservatives are bad on the transit file? I do not see how the Liberals are any better. Mr Trudeau has 4 years to approve the HFR for Via Rail. On the eve of the election, he still wants to study the HFR some more even though it should be built a decade ago. This is the same government that did not purchase a new set of rolling stock for The Ocean and the Canadian. The Infrastructure Bank has not finance anything except the REM line. The Ontario Line does not even have the Infrastructure Bank money in it.

    Steve: There are two problems with the Conservatives. First, they really don’t want to spend money, and have created a fictional, deep deficit as “justification” for widespread cuts. From the fallout in many portfolios, they clearly have no idea of how this translates into real world effects, and are appallingly insensitive and politically inept just like their leader. Next we have Doug Ford and his hatred for Toronto coupled with a love of subways. This has skewed transit policy toward his ill-considered takeover of TTC assets plus large construction proposals (not actual building yet). In turn that plays into a power grab by provincial mandarins who think that Toronto does not know how to do anything, or at least use the situation to say “taking over the subway is easy”. Meanwhile we hear nothing about service beyond some commuter rail improvements for which the enabling works have been underway since before Ford came to office.

    Federally, I have a problem with the whole HFR/HSR situation because for too long HSR dominated the conversation. This ups capital costs and reduces the number of cities that would be served. Finally we are talking about HFR, but I’m not holding my breath. VIA certainly isn’t much of an advocate for its own improvement and seems content to operate a dwindling fleet and service. Nationally, the problem with VIA is that it has so little presence outside of the Quebec-Windsor corridor. Stephen Harper actually liked trains, but this did not translate into much concrete change on the ground.

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  10. I agree with Benny Cheung that the Trudeau Liberals have been dragging their feet on the transit file. I also agree with Steve that Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives are all about making cuts without any regard for service quality. Under the circumstances, I think that the NDP led by Jagmeet Singh is the best choice.

    Steve: The problem is that the chance Singh will form a government is only slightly better than the likelihood that Ford will embrace LRT. If we have a minority government, then the NDP can advance its policies, but this assumes that they have any real influence.

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  11. Please don’t tell me you support VIA’s High-Fantasy Rail project, Steve. If you do, you’re definitely not getting an invitation to my first Hollywood film premiere.

    Steve: I only wish VIA would concentrate on improving what they have rather than pursuing a new line that will consume gobs of capital while leaving passengers waiting for a real train to show up.

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  12. So now the $1.50 discount for a TTC-GO “co-fare” (for those fare categories that get this discount) is on the chopping block.

    Steve: This is no surprise given that the funding for this was set up by the Liberal government and was intended to run out, probably after a new permanent integration tariff. Then there was an election.

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  13. Steve said: I only wish VIA would concentrate on improving what they have rather than pursuing a new line that will consume gobs of capital while leaving passengers waiting for a real train to show up.

    VIA has concentrated on addressing all the low-hanging fruit in the corridor. Comparable improvements to the corridor are at least as capital intensive as their HFR plan. I think they’ve made the right call to roll the dice. It’s certainly a lot better than just operating a dwindling service.

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  14. Service to Bolton was already ridiculously infrequent for a population of more than 25,000. I’ve been on that bus recently and it has no problem filling up during peak times, and had moderate but not terrible occupancy in the off-peak.

    I don’t trust Caledon to do better. Bolton is too far from regional nodes for their to be enough incentive for Caledon. That’s why we have a regional transit operator in the first place.

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  15. Apologies for a late reply on this, but this topic has garnered more response than I would have thought, and that’s excellent, as it portends a policy that has always existed, but being applied in a *transit negative* way now.

    Benny Cheung | June 28, 2019 at 11:59 pm writes:

    Stephen, most of the GO stations are not even bicycle friendly. While I do not mountain bike like you do, I do cycle around town. Try riding a bike near Oshawa GO in the morning and see what happens. A lot of cyclists take the GO bus out of the city for their country side ride. It used to be that cyclist would drive their car out of the city and park at a Home Depot parking lot. After that, they would ride around and return back to the car. At least with the GO bus like the 38, people can leave their cars at home for a country side ride.

    I have to make clear that I am in no way an “off-road cyclist”. My machine is in fact a fifty year old racing classic rebuilt by Argos Racing in the UK, and by myself various times, into a road touring machine. This might sound like a meaningless nuance, but it’s important. It is my *prime* and only means of owned transportation. I’m a week away from being seventy, in phenomenal shape considering years of cancer, and more than able and willing to use GO to get me where my need to do distance is safe and good for all concerned. There are seasonal limits to that (and the cause of much anguish when weather and common-sense interrupt, Winter ages me, Summer keeps me young and healthy).

    *It saves ‘The System’ huge amounts of cost to maintain an aging population*! That cannot be overemphasized. It pertains to all age groups, and Ontario can either invest in health and fitness up-front, or pay the many-times greater costs to institutionalize the sedentary masses after the fact. The talk of ‘debt costs’ is applied in incredibly short-sighted ways, and mostly by people in power in terrible shape. Investing in health is surely priceless! Best I leave that there.

    Cycling isn’t just ‘leisure’ as the Dutch and Danes especially demonstrate. It’s a ‘way of life’, it’s a way of saving huge sums and having a happier, healthier and *more affordable* way of transit, combined with bus and rail.

    In all fairness to Verster, he’s been dealt shid for breakfast. What boggles the mind is that he voluntarily ordered it according to his own words. As to why is another story…

    Make no mistake Benny, I highly appreciate your comments, but this isn’t about ‘Recreation’…it’s about Health, in so many ways, and of course commuting necessity, and if some of us stop pushing these matters, we’ll all end-up looking like so many of the incredibly slothful members of the present cabinet, and even worse, acting like them.

    As a footnote, I’d like to add that on many of the rail-trails within GO’s reach to access (there’s some superb ones, absolutely suitable for quality road-bikes with slightly larger section tires) the usage is very low save for when close or in an urban area. I can go for 20-30 kms sometimes without passing a single user. Ontario has a golden opportunity to ‘make things better’. This regime won’t.

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