Updated December 16, 2019 at 5:30 pm
At its meeting today, the TTC Board approved the Operating Budget and fare increase without amendment. There were deputations on the subject of cash fares as well as the proposed expansion of the cadre of fare inspectors to reduce fare evasion. I have added a section at the end of this article address those issues.
Management’s presentation deck, which includes information on both the Operating and Capital Budgets is available on the TTC’s agenda page. It includes charts showing more detail about recent ridership changes, and these are now included in the postscript.
The TTC has released its proposed Capital and Operating budgets for 2020. These will be discussed at a special meeting of the Board on Monday, December 16 at 9:30 am in Committee Room 1 at City Hall (across the corridor from the usual room, CR 2, that the TTC Board uses). Note the early start time as there is no private session in advance of the public meeting.
This article primarily addresses the Operating Budget, and I will turn to Capital in a separate piece.
There has been a lot of TTC-related news and reports in the past year including:
- The TTC’s publication of a 15 year capital project forecast showing that the “cost of ownership” of the transit system is much, much higher than had been revealed publicly in past years.
- The provincial decision to re-neg on a planned doubling of the gas tax allocation to municipal transit systems.
- The provincial decision to retain ownership only of new rapid transit lines, and the concurrent removal from TTC’s financial projections of the need to contribute to new lines that the province will own.
- The TTC’s 5 Year Service Plan and 10 Year Forecast that gazes ahead to how the system might evolve over the next decade.
- Mayor Tory’s proposed additional levy to increase his City Building Fund, and related statements in the media about how the money this will finance might be used.
- The 2020 budgets just released.
With proposals and plans popping up from various agencies and political levels, it was inevitable that there are inconsistencies. Most notable is an emerging issue with whether the TTC will buy new vehicles, and at what scale.
The Service Plan shows projected growth in the streetcar, bus and subway fleets, and Mayor Tory speaks of the need for new vehicles as something that the City Building Fund can pay for.
[…] I am proposing to extend the City Building Levy further into the future to raise approximately $6.6 billion to invest directly in our transit system – including new subway cars, new streetcars, station improvements, and signal upgrades – and in building more affordable housing across our city. [Letter from John Tory to Executive Committee, Dec. 11, 2019, p 2]
At its regular meeting on December 12, 2019, the TTC Board heard a deputation from Unifor, who represent the workers at Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant, urging that the TTC commit to buying more streetcars while the production line for them is in place, and also reminding the Board that this plant also produced the Toronto Rocket subway trains which the TTC needs more of in coming years.
However, the Capital Budget explicitly notes that there is no money in the “funded” part of the Capital Budget for anything beyond vehicle orders already committed. There are two problems here.
First, projects are only moved “above the line” with official status on the approval of Toronto Council. This policy was implemented years ago to prevent the TTC from committing to projects for which no money was available and/or which did not have support at Council. Second, although the City Building Fund will make more capital available, it has not yet been approved by Council.
Moreover, there is no sense of what either the TTC’s or Council’s priorities for this money will be. The TTC Board has asked management to prioritize its capital projects on more than one occasion, but nothing has come of this. To be fair to management, “priority” is a concept that moves like leaves in the wind in the political environment, and these decisions must, at least in part, be made by politicians who cannot fob off such decisions on staff.
What is needed is a list of “must have” projects that have first call on any available funding after which Council can wrangle over whose pet projects get first crack at the leftovers. Even deciding what is “must have” is fraught with political battles such as whether expansion of the streetcar fleet will doom suburban drivers to forever be stuck on downtown roads rather than driving above sleek new subways, or at least around “flexible” buses.
I will turn to this in more detail in the Capital Budget article, but on the Operating side there is an issue of great concern: all of the new funding that seems to be coming transit’s way is for capital projects, not for day-to-day operations. The TTC’s ability to expand service is constrained by the level of city subsidy the Council thinks is “affordable” in the context of pressure on taxes, on the level of fare increase (if any) that is politically tenable, and the rise or fall in provincial operating subsidy (which comes out of gas tax revenue).
The 2020 Operating Budget projects a rise in subsidy from the City of Toronto and higher fare revenue, but does not really address the backlog in service deficiencies across the network. The Service Plan, released only a week earlier, foresees no significant service improvements until 2021. The Service Plan claims that all services are operating within the Service Standards, while the Budget claims that there is a need for more service to address crowding. This is the hallmark of a policy framework changing on the fly.
There is a ten cent fare increase proposed for March 2020 that would apply across the board to Adult and to most concession fares. This has provoked a common response that fares are already too high and subsidies are too low, and in turn that ties back to the absence of operating funding in the proposed City Building Levy.
However, freezing fares brings new costs year by year, but no new service. Whether fares change or not, the City needs to have a long-overdue debate about its target for “good” transit service that amounts to more than building a subway to every Councillor’s house. A big frustration with higher fares is that riders see every day how service does not meet their needs both in capacity and reliability. Charging more for an inferior product is not good marketing.
The TTC, ever alert to wresting more fare revenue from passengers, plans to hire 50 more Fare Inspectors. It would be amusing to compare the cost and benefits of these employees to the effect of hiring 50 more operators to drive buses and streetcars.
TTC management, possibly at political direction, consistently fails to produce future year plans that show what a “growth strategy” would look like, and they are content with a plan that barely keeps up with population and job increases. More transit will cost more money. We all know that, but we do not know what can be achieved and at what cost. That was the goal of Mayor David Miller’s Ridership Growth Strategy, and more recently the system improvements proposed by Andy Byford over bitter objections from John Tory’s campaign team. If we do not know what could be done, and how this might be achieved, we will never try.
Overview of the 2020 Operating Budget
The Operating Budget covers both the “conventional” transit system and Wheel-Trans. There is often confusion between the full TTC budget amounts and those discussed in the Council debates. The TTC version includes all costs and revenues including fares and subsidies. The Council version looks only at the subsidy number (the “net” budget). It is possible for the percentage change in the gross and net budgets to be different depending on changes in revenues (primarily fares, also advertising and miscellaneous income). A common flaw in a lot of TTC debates is the hand-wringing about the Council/taxpayer expense while forgetting that the lion’s share of the TTC’s revenue comes from riders paying fares, and a much smaller chunk from provincial gas tax.
The intent of the new budget, according to the report, is to preserve all of the improvements made to the system over past years, and to add onto this base.
The 2020 budget is summarized in the following table [p 5 of the Operating Budget report]:
The total budget in 2020 is affected by various factors:
- The starting budget pressure over 2019 was $101.2 million, of which $27 million is due to one-time revenue and savings in 2019 that cannot be repeated in 2020 (notably a large draw from a City transit reserve fund).
- Savings from efficiencies implemented in 2019 plus implementation of the Auditor General’s recommendations amounted to $31.6 million bringing the net opening pressure down to $69.6 million.
- Other changes include service increases, Wheel-Trans improvements, an Anti-Racism strategy and a Transit Enforcement Independent Complaints Office.
This brings the total change in the budget to $84.7 million according to the report’s text, or $84.0 million according to the table above.
In order to achieve this, the TTC proposes to get more revenue from four sources:
- $7 million net from the passenger revenue protection strategy;
- $19.4 million recovery of 2020 incremental bus service costs during construction of the Eglinton and Finch West LRTs from Metrolinx;
- $31.4 million (net) to be realized from a 10 cent fare increase (with the exception of adult cash fares) effective March 1, 2020; and,
- $26.9 million in increased City funding, representing a 3.5% increase over 2019.
The TTC budgets for Metrolinx recoveries, but has yet to be paid. If past experience with Metrolinx is any indication, the TTC should not hold its breath. The budget is artificially low by the amount of Metrolinx payments that will probably never be seen. This is one of several ways that the TTC is forced to “share” the cost of provincial programs.
These recoveries were received up to March 2017, but not received since then and are the subject of ongoing discussions with Metrolinx. [p 6]
Additional service resulting from construction projects is paid for in various ways:
- Capital budgets for TTC projects include the cost of replacement service.
- The City of Toronto pays the TTC to cover extra costs resulting from City projects.
- Metrolinx pays the TTC to cover extra service costs from its work on Eglinton and Finch. This is a direct pass-through of TTC costs with a zero net effect on the budget. However, additional service does consume buses that would otherwise be available for service improvements.
Revenue Protection Strategy
The “revenue protection strategy” aims to reduce fare evasion on the TTC by increased inspection, and to that end the budget proposes an additional 50 Fare Inspectors. This is over and above 70 new positions created in the 2019 budget, but not fully staffed during that year.
The 50 Fare Inspectors have a cost of $3.2 million in 2020, and they will bring $10.2 million in new revenue for a net of $7 million. These are partial year numbers because the expanded Inspector force must be hired and trained before they start to have an effect in the field.
We are committed to reducing fare evasion across all modes and to establish a progressive model (from education to warnings to tickets) in which customers are treated in a fair and equitable manner; including those customers who are unable to pay. The TTC will have zero-tolerance (no warning) for someone caught fraudulently using the wrong concession card (i.e. child card).
The deployment strategies have been and will continue to be informed by data analytics to identify areas of risk for passenger revenue loss. Resources are assigned to high fare evasion risk areas based on ridership and revenue data and in-field observations. These employees, combined with additional revenue control strategies (i.e. customer and employee awareness campaigns, hardware and software changes to PRESTO equipment, and TTC fare gates in order to improve reliability and availability etc.) are expected to reduce future revenue loss. [pp 21-22]
The TTC will have a much larger fare enforcement staff than the complement assigned, on an overtime basis, to traffic management and enforcement by the Police Service showing how skewed the relative priorities are in Toronto. Fare Inspectors “make money” by increasing revenue. Police to enforce traffic laws are seen as a cost to be avoided.
Updated December 16, 2019: This discussion continues in a postscript to the article based on debate at the TTC Board meeting.
Sources of Revenue
The breakdown of revenue is shown in the following chart. Note that this is misleading because it does not explicitly show the provincial contribution of about $90 million that is taken from the overall gas tax subsidy which for the provincial fiscal year 2018-19 was $185 million. The remainder of the provincial gas tax and all of the federal gas tax money goes to the Capital budget.
Passengers pay 59% of the combined cost of the conventional and Wheel-Trans systems, but the percentage is higher, 67.4% for the conventional system whose cost recovery ratio has been the traditional measure of the rider’s share.
Proposed Fare Increase
The TTC proposes to get more money out of the farebox, $31.4 million, from a ten cent increase in the fare across most categories. The exceptions are:
- Adult cash fares (and the Presto ticket equivalent) do not change.
- The reduced fares for those on the City’s “Fair Pass” program will rise by only five cents, but the TTC expects that City subsidy for this program will provide the other five cents.
- The price of various types of passes will rise by (roughly) the target fare multiple for each pass times ten cents.
Senior and student cash fares will rise by ten cents, and because the fare multiple for their passes is higher than the multiple for adult passes, the concession passes will actually go up by more than the adult ones ($5.70 for a Presto monthly senior/student pass vs $4.85 for an adult pass).
The 2020 increase continues a pattern where the percentage increase in concession fares for senior and students is higher than the increase for adults. Both see a ten cent jump, but for the concession fares the change is 4.7% while for full fare adults it is 3.2%.
Growth in Expenses
Expenses projections for 2020 started off at $106.1 million higher than in 2019, but this was offset by $31.6 million in savings and efficiencies. Much of the change is unavoidable if service is to be preserved at least at existing levels. An added cost in 2020 is that this is a leap year adding one day to the calendar, although this will be partly offset by fare revenue.
There were one-time savings in 2019 due mainly to the timing of events. These savings will not be available in 2020.
Although they are not “expenses”, the loss of one-time revenue sources creates a hole in the budget that has, in this case, been covered by spending cuts. In 2019 there was a one-time draw of $15.4 million from the transit stabilization reserve, and other one-time savings of $11.5 million.
Other savings and efficiencies brought projected expenses down by $29 million for 2020, and these changes can be sustained through future budgets.
New and enhanced services will add $9.5 million to the total, but these are not all related to “on the street” improvements.
- year 1 of the commitment to improving surface transit schedules,
- a comprehensive fare policy and fare collection strategy,
- an increase in Wheel-Trans Contact centre capacity to reduce abandoned calls,
- the implementation of ombudsman recommendations to implement anti-racism initiatives and to establish an independent office to handle Transit Enforcement complaints,
- the Business Transformation task force,
- initial start up costs related to the Eglinton LRT, and
- a system wide mid-block stops review. [pp 5-6]
Spending on operator overtime is down thanks to the hiring of 169 more operators in 2018. The reduction trend shows a saving of $7 million, but this translates to only about $41,420 per operator, less than their full cost. However, the availability of operators for overtime work varies greatly depending on the weather, the day of the week and the time of the year. When service is crewed from regular staff, it operates rain or shine and this is a benefit to riders. Too often, the TTC Board and Council has fixated on head count rather than considering the effect on actual service.
The Service Budget
The TTC remains fixated on changing schedules to provide more running and recovery time as the way to improve service reliability, and to reduce short turns. However, this does not directly address basic questions of service reliability along routes (TTC measures only at terminals) nor of route capacity. Five corridors are targeted for “improvement” but it remains to be seen whether this will actually bring better service that riders can see and experience. The affected routes are 29/929 Dufferin, 35/935 Jane, 39/939 Finch East, 37/937 Islington and 86/986 Scarborough.
The 2020 5 year service plan initiative will improve surface transit schedules by adding 1,000 weekly hours of service to adjust schedules to reflect actual operating conditions and therefore improve reliability and predictability of service for customers. [p 13]
To put this in context, the Service Budget for 2019 ran roughly between 180,000 and 185,000 hours per week, and so 1,000 additional is just over half of one percent.
The TTC acknowledges that its service is not up to scratch:
While service improvements have been made, more needs to be done to relieve overcrowding and congestion, deliver on putting out the service we advertise, and maintain our service reliability. [p 13]
The Service Budget gives no indication that there will actually be more service on the street to address this problem. Over half of the “Service Changes” category is for the annualization of changes made part way through 2019, and another big chunk relates to calendar and seasonal changes.
The statement above about 1,000 extra weekly hours to reflect actual operating conditions is not borne out by the numbers in the table below.
The budget includes a statement about the transition to Low Floor streetcar operation that does not match stated plans.
Due to low availability of streetcars in 2019, certain streetcar routes were operated using buses in 2019. With delivery of the remaining LRVs planned for the end of 2019, these routes, with the exception of the 505 Dundas, will convert to LRV operation in 2020. While overall service hours are reduced through this change, the ridership capacity on these routes will increase given the larger vehicle size. 506 Carlton and 511 Bathurst are 2 key routes that will see the conversion to LRV operation and increased capacity. [pp 18-19]
Actual plans previously announced are:
- 506 Carlton has already been converted to low floor operation.
- 511 Bathurst converts to low floor cars in January (this is already underway pending the retirement of the CLRV fleet), but then reverts to buses in April for construction projects.
- 505 Dundas reverts to streetcars beginning in April.
- 503 Kingston Road will remain a bus operation through 2020 due to construction planned for Wellington and Church Streets.
It is troubling to see such a key document as a budget quoting inaccurate information.
Fare Policy Review
The budget includes a $1 million one time item for the Fare Policy Review & Collection Strategy including an RFI on fare collection systems. This is intriguing given that the TTC is saddled with its Presto relationship both by contract and by provincial policy.
The TTC hopes that this will:
- Increase ridership, customer experience and satisfaction through improved products, pricing and payment technology.
- Complete a comprehensive review of our fare structure and polices with a focus on equity.
- Improve fare & service integration through collaboration with regional partners.
- Improve revenue controls mitigating revenue loss from fare evasion. [p 23]
It is self-evident that some of these changes cannot be accomplished under the current Presto technology, and that some of the “integration” we hear so much about really depends on someone footing the bill for a reduction in what are now cross-border fares.
A review of concession fares is also in the works.
- Examining discounted post-secondary fares as part of TTC’s overall fare structure.
- Reviewing current fares with a focus on equity and affordable transit for all customers, including students.
- Improving revenue controls for any discounts on proposed post-secondary fares, mitigating revenue loss and fare evasion. [p 24]
The underlying question is whether discounts or subsidies should be given based on a status directly related to income such as the Fair Pass, as opposed to by membership in a class which is presumed to all have economic challenges (seniors and students).
Woven into all of this will be pressure for regional consolidation of fare policies, provincial subsidies and the varying degree of financial commitment to transit funding around the GTHA.
Details of Budget Changes from 2019 to 2020
The tables below show the effect of various factors in getting from the 2019 to the 2020 numbers and the relative importance of each factor. The second table expands elements of the “Base Pressures” category.
The saving from “efficiencies” are detailed in the table below:
Revenue changes are detailed below. Although there will be some added revenue from ridership growth, this will be less than the projected loss as the average fare per trip continues to decline. Note that these changes are shown for the fare structure as it exists, and the new revenue from a March fare increase is a separate item.
Looking Ahead to 2021 and 2022
The next two years face new costs of $102 million in 2021 and a further $69 million in 2022. These estimates do not include the effect of any cost-of-living increases from a new contract with union staff due to be negotiated in 2021, nor is there any provision for fare increases to offset these costs.
There is a danger that funding the operating cost of two new rapid transit lines (Eglinton, and later Finch) will crowd out other system-wide changes to service quality. These include provision of the budget headroom needed to operate an expanded fleet. As is too often the case, there are proposals to buy vehicles and build garages, but not to operate them.
Postscript: Discussions and Additional Information at the December 16, 2019 Board Meeting
The Process of Setting Budgets
A very contentious deputation addressed the question of notice and consultation on the proposed fare increase. The budget reports came out online on Friday afternoon, December 13, and there was almost no time for reaction from the public or politicians as would normally have been the case. No alternative fare increase scenarios were presented, and the budget discussions took place in an atmosphere where unquestioning Board approval was assumed. Moreover, with a Monday morning meeting, the ability for people to make deputations was limited by their personal schedules.
The TTC used to have a Budget Subcommittee, but it fell off the table because it never quite could get around to meeting. The true irony here was that the Committee Chair was himself a budget hawk who one would expect to make every effort to discuss budgetary options. Some planned meetings in 2016 and 2017 were cancelled, and the committee was not even constituted from 2018 onward.
There is a structural problem in how the budget is presented even at committee in that it is an all-or-nothing full version of the budget. What the committee should be doing is debating options for areas within the budget including fares, service levels, and the funding of long term plans. Each of these can be handled on its own without a fully worked-out budget document, and can be the platform for policy discussions about the TTC’s direction. These meetings should not be a case where management simply makes presentations expecting a pat on the head and a rubber stamp of their plans.
Included in the management presentation were two charts showing ridership data in more detail than in the original report.
The first chart shows the divergence of growth in boardings versus growth in trips (ridership) arising from changes in the fare structure. With the two hour fare on Presto, what used to be two or more separate trips and fares is now a single fare, but it is still multiple boardings (one passenger boarding one vehicle). The cost per boarding has gone down with the more generous transfer rules, and this has driven up demand even though revenue did not grow at the same rate
Even though “ridership” declined from 2015 to 2019, boardings went up. Moreover, some of the “ridership” decline is probably due to over-allocating trips to Metropasses and therefore claiming higher ridership than actually existed. The shift to Presto has provided the convenience of a card to people who do not wish to pay for a full monthly pass worth of trips, and the trips they are taking now include more boardings because of the two hour fare.
The whole concept of “ridership” is becoming obsolete as the TTC has historically defined it because fewer and fewer riders travel on a fare medium that does not allow unlimited transfers within a set period. This will require a rethinking of the key statistic in tracking demand for services.
The other chart of interest shows the turnaround in demand on the system that began in April 2019. Although the budget was based on an upswing starting in January, it did not actually appear until midway through the year. Total ridership reported on an annual basis may still be below budget, but it is growing and this will put pressure on service going into 2020.
Cash Fares, Fare Evasion and the Penalization of Poor Riders
The hiring of 50 new Fare Inspectors, described earlier in this article, generated a lot of debate both from public deputations and members of the TTC Board. This ranged from charges that fare enforcement is effectively a tax on the poor and on racial minorities who are seen as easy targets, to a claim by Deputy Mayor Minnan-Wong that if only there were no fare evasion, the TTC could avoid a fare increase.
These positions are difficult to untangle, but a few points should be made.
First, of the roughly 5% of fare evasion (about $60 million on a fare revenue base of $1.2 billion), this is mistakenly ascribed to 5% of riders. However, the majority of rides are paid for with passes and those who have them have no incentive to “cheat”, and indeed they cannot because they have already paid for travel in bulk.
Riders with passes tend to be concentrated in areas where frequent transit use is typical and where the pass more than pays for itself in reducing the effective cost of each trip. However, many riders do not use the TTC enough to justify buying a pass (even those who might be eligible for the discounted “Fair Pass”) and they will pay-as-you-go. Of these, many choose to pay by cash rather than loading money onto a Presto card.
The cash fare (as well as the legacy tokens and tickets) does not offer a two hour transfer, and this makes these fare types inherently more expensive relative to the service a rider receives. One can argue that a “reasonable person” would get a Presto card, but that has its own challenges including the relative scarcity of locations to buy and load a card in suburban areas (there is an exclusive franchise for this from Metrolinx to Shoppers Drug Mart). Some riders have limitations with banking online as a means to load a Presto card, much less having Presto dip into their account which might be running close to the bone. This leads to paying by cash.
For its part, Presto has still not produced a mechanism for bus operators to issue a Presto fare receipt (in effect a validated one-fare ticket) for cash fares paid on buses, and the receipts issued on streetcars are not machine readable by fare gates. This fouls up the extension of two hour fares to all riders.
As for fare enforcement, the TTC’s premise is that $3 million worth of new inspectors will generate $10 million in additional revenue, or $7 million net. The TTC intends to track actual revenue gains to determine whether this level of recovery is actually achieved. Note that because this program will begin midway through 2020, the numbers are for a partial year and would be higher on an annual basis if this is sustained into 2021.
Even assuming that the payback is achieved as expected, there is no guarantee that this would scale up with, say, another 50 inspectors generating equivalently more revenue. Some of the loss is due to malfunctioning equipment that prevents payment, and also from wide open station entrances that encourage people to waltz in without paying.
Claiming that fare cheaters are responsible for the fare increase is cheap political bunk. Fare evasion has always been with us and, at best, the change in fare collection may have added to but certainly did not create the problem. That entire $60 million is not “new” lost revenue, and the TTC has assumed for years that evasion was costing $20-30 million annually. Moreover, even if the TTC regained all of that supposed loss, this would be a one-time improvement in revenue that would not be available to offset a fare increase or to add new service in future years.
What cannot be disputed is that the TTC is expending resources to catch fare evasion, and the penalties are far higher, than comparable efforts by the Toronto Police Service to enforce traffic laws and the level of fines that result when they do issue citations. There is something deeply wrong when two classes of scofflaws are treated so differently especially when bad motoring behaviour can have fatal consequences far exceeding the crime of “stealing” a free ride. Equally, although it has been discussed, there appears to be no progress on improving the video coverage of transit vehicles, notably streetcars, where motorists endanger passengers by driving past vehicles at stops. Should we conclude that the TTC cares more about its revenues than about passenger safety?