A Buck’s Worth of Blarney

Today the Liberal Party of Ontario announced that it would cut all, yes, all transit fares in Ontario to just $1 if they are elected. The cut would apply through to 2023-24 (the provincial fiscal year end is March 31), and is sold as a way to get 400,000 cars off of the road every day.

This is a plan so simplistic, so poorly-thought-out, that even Doug Ford could have authored it, possibly after a few of his short-lived one dollar beers from the last campaign.

Regular readers here will know that I view across-the-board fare reductions as little better than snake oil because they benefit people who do not require more subsidy while doing nothing to improve what they actually use, transit service. The Liberal plan goes even further by giving massive fare reductions to regional transit riders who now pay double-digits for a one-way ticket.

They show the monthly saving for a commuter from Barrie’s Allendale GO station as $434.30. In other words, this plan would see a Barrie commuter subsidized by over $5,000/year.

In a separate pledge, the Liberals promise $375 million in annual transit funding to support existing systems, more service and “more intercity connections”.

Let’s check the math:

Assuming that:

  • Each car represents at least two trips (fares) for a round trip (single occupancy)
  • The saving/trip is at least $2 based on local transit fares
  • The trip only uses one transit system (e.g. TTC, YRT)
  • There are 250 commuting days per year

This gets us up to $400 million per year.

But don’t forget that we’re giving a break to all of the existing riders, and just for the TTC that would be around 300 million rides per year, or another $600 million and change.

We have not even talked about other transit systems, or the much larger savings GO Transit riders would see.

The big problem, however, is that all this money will not buy one more bus trip’s worth of service. That forlorn display in transit’s shop window will not improve one bit even with a big sign “Sale, Only $1!”.

Buck-a-ride will not deal with the last mile problem of getting people who now drive to their transit trip be it a local bus stop or a parking lot.

Already, the TTC reports that it is increasing service on some routes because of crowding. Where will it put a large influx of new riders, assuming that they appear?

In the short term covered by this proposal, the TTC has some surplus vehicles (albeit no operators to drive them) because they are not yet back to full service across the system. Even at full pre-pandemic service, they had a generous number of spare buses.

Systems elsewhere in Ontario do not have the robust demand we see in Toronto and could have more headroom for growth within existing operations, but the ability to carry all of those new riders without extra operating costs should not be assumed.

With this announcement, the Liberals have side-stepped commenting on the really big issues like the scope of transit expansion they would fund and their vision for planning that doesn’t start and end with subway tunnels.

When they get around to publishing a platform, we might see how transit fits in their wider scheme of spending and priorities across the many government portfolios. For the moment, this is a cheap, ill-conceived piece of campaigning from the man who turned Metrolinx into his own photo-op generator, the Minister for Kirby Station.

33 thoughts on “A Buck’s Worth of Blarney

  1. A great post Steve.

    Why can’t Del Duca talk to someone like you before he decides to make an election promise?

    Steve: My advice is too complex and involves actual thought rather than sloganeering. I really don’t think he would listen, and I am sure he knows I don’t think highly of him at all.

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  2. Some people have been fooled into thinking Buck-a-Ride is Transit policy – no sir – it’s Housing policy. For $1 the Government of Ontario will provide the homeless a shelter, warmth and wifi as they endlessly shuffle back and forth on their all-day two way GO tour of Ontario. Better yet, sign up for the Northland route and you may never have to leave.

    Normally the homeless chose TTC as temporary shelter but now that the nice trains are the same price why not?

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  3. $1 transit fares is idiotic at best.

    Right now, Toronto to Niagara is around 25 dollars each way. Cut transit fares to $1 each way and you lose $48 dollars on a return trip that would otherwise be very lucrative.

    Does he not realize how much money he would be losing with this stunt? It would look good but cost a fortune.

    As well, I am not saying places like Thunder Bay or Kingston aren’t important but what we need is not $1 transit fares across Ontario. What we need is the return of subsidies in Toronto to keep fares low here.

    Smaller transit systems like that in Thunder Bay do not need subsidies but I would be lying if I said we did not need them in Toronto. Other GTA transit systems would also benefit from subsidies alongside Ottawa but that is a discussion for another day.

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  4. How does the Green Party’s plan stack up in comparison?

    Steve: The Green Party’s platform has some generalities about transit, but no specifics about the level of support that would be provided.

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  5. How much is a fare discount which has an inbuilt sunset about building ridership and how much is it about persuading those who work in large office buildings that it won’t cost them much as much as it used to give up working at home.

    Steve: A few points on this issue. First, only about one third of TTC demand comes from downtown commuters. Although they have not come back to full strength yet, demand is building. The big winners are GO transit riders, but they still have to get to the trains, and will drive to do so in most cases. The lack of a good local feeder system is a fundamental constraint in the growth of GO demand, and GO’s perpetuation of the park-and-ride model does not eliminate the need for a car. This is central to their business.

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  6. I concur this policy proposal is unwise, for many of the reasons you note.

    1) If successful in attracting new riders, will there be sufficient service in place to accommodate them?

    2) Inordinate subsidy to the long distance rider, may, even encourage sprawl (depending in part on where this goes when 2024 arrives).

    3) Opportunity cost, the money would be better expended on more service; and to the extent it looks at fare reduction, extended the co-fare to Toronto, and reducing the cost of cross-regional travel would likely produce better results for the $

    ****

    All that said, I think there’s something here to be discussed. The idea of fare simplification (across age, system, region etc.)

    As an example, if a 40-ride cap were introduced to TTC, the monthly pass would fall to $128; that compares with the low-income discount pass at $123.75, or the current seniors/student pass at $128.15.

    Much more cost-effective, and easy for everyone to understand if you end up with one-fare price, one pass price, no one has to ask for a low-income discount (something that can be undignified to some, and which in any event you need to know exists in order to obtain)

    That said, $1 is not the sustainable price.

    If, modestly raising current senior/student prices (by the fare, but not for passes), there’s some wiggle room on finding the best number, but I like the idea in principle.

    For GO, I think some subsidy to reduce fares is reasonable, and I’d start by cutting the base fare to match TTC at $3.20.

    After that, I’d really like to see a move to charge for parking, but directly offset that by using that revenue to lower fares.

    So if someone coming from Barrie pays $6 per day for parking, they get a reduction of $3 per ride each way to Toronto.

    The priority for new cash, especially for GO needs to be accelerating 2-way and off-peak service improvements though vs fare discounts.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A very good piece running in today’s TVO Newsletter:

    Where the parties stand: On regional transit
    What does GO have on the go, and how do we make fares fair? TVO.org talks to transit experts and looks at what the parties have to say

    Written by Justin Chandler
    May 2, 2022

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  8. Steve: As usual your arguments are impeccable.

    As a transit “fan” I once was going to court at Bayview and Major Mac. I thought that maybe I might go by transit – which if the service is OK, is really my preferred choice. I thought it would give me a chance to experience the much promoted Viva service on Yonge and I looked forward to my TTC and Viva rides. However, when I looked into the service from Yonge over to Bayview I found that the frequency mid day (after court) would be once an hour. Of course I drove (and got paid mileage by my employer.) If the transit fare had been a dollar – or free – it would not have affected the decision to drive.

    Ontario needs investment in local transit – including the TTC. It does not need vast sums squandered on a gimmick that provides vast subsidies to some (your Barrie example) and attracts very few new riders.

    This announcement has solidified my intention to vote NDP in the coming election. The decision is now made – it is a certainty.

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  9. I’m not sure why you think transit fares are not high enough.

    Steve: I have never said that. My arguments can be boiled down into a few points. First, you don’t cut fares across the board, especially to long-distance travellers. Second, what people are buying is service, the ability to get from A to B and back again. Any platform that ignores this, especially outside of Toronto, is missing a basic problem with transit’s attractiveness as an alternative to driving. Third, there are some inequities caused by zone boundaries in the fare structure, but these can be repaired without gerrymandering the zone map. Last, if there is a social benefit for transit, define what this is and be prepared to pay for it.

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  10. Why are there fare collectors that look disshelved hassling riders by asking them for $5?

    I paid my fare. Why do I need to give them $5? They are always on Line 2 and walking through the cars, approaching everyone for $5?

    Is $8.25 the new TTC fare? The TTC isn’t doing anything to stop these fare collectors from harassing riders.

    Steve: These do not sound like real fare collectors, but panhandlers with a new scam. If this happens again, be sure to report the time, location and subway car number to the TTC. There will be a video record that they can retrieve.

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  11. We can’t lower fares because there’s not enough capacity.

    And we can’t increase frequencies, because there’s not enough demand.

    The cost of delivering this promise is relatively minor compared to recent expenditures.

    Why not just do it. Ultimately free fares would be the highest social benefit.

    Besides – the Liberals have almost as poor record as quickly following through with transit promises as the NDP.

    At a bare minimum, free transit would solve the homeless problem.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Does this mean that if the Liberals win, then I can make the 1100 km Ontario Northland train journey with $1 only? Of course NOT. Because if the Liberals win, then they will once again cancel this much needed train service that Premier Doug Ford restored. I think that Premier Ford will need more than just one term to undo the damage caused by 15 years of Liberal cuts and scandals.

    Steve: Dare I point out that Doug Ford has not restored the Northlander, only made a promise and spent a lot of money on a demo run or two. As for undoing damage, the state of affairs after four year of Ford is bad enough, let alone eight.

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  13. @Samantha:

    The best preventative measure would be to sit in the last subway carriage. There you find a TTC employee operating the doors.

    I find that when TTC employees get involved as witnesses, they take it more seriously than a random complaint of panhandlers impersonating peace officers demanding money from riders, which is by itself a criminal offence.

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  14. Steve, what fare do you advocate? The TTC and even more so, GO Transit do not come anywhere near close to recovering their costs through the farebox. I see that Toronto’s current farebox recovery ratio is 68%. Source: Wikipedia.

    This means that full cost recovery would require a TTC adult fare of about $4.70.

    You are against $1.00 fares and I presume against $4.70 TTC fares. But what fare are you for, and why?

    Steve: First off, it is incorrect to say that I am against $1 fares, just $1 fares for a trip between any two points in the province. The idea that we would subsidize someone thousands of dollars per year to commute from Barrie or Niagara Falls or Kitchener is totally absurd especially when there are other urgent calls on funding all manner of services, not just transit. That said, I am well aware that we already subsidize motorists for their commutes, but I’m not sure that effectively making transit free is the right response.

    More generally, I am tired of people misrepresenting my position, and this undermines my respect for their (and your) comments in general. You may want to paint me as someone who criticizes without making proposals, a tactic I would expect more from the brains trust at Metrolinx.

    For one thing, we would need a lot more transit and that has both capital and operating cost implications. What might happen if a future “Mike Harris” government were to slash public support for transit, a cutback that, by the way, the Liberals did not fully restore when they had the chance?

    My position has been clearly stated on many occasions: We should not gerrymander a zone fare system as the Board of Trade proposes, and which would be in line with Metrolinx’ utter belief that only “their” tariff is the right one. For local travel, the concept of the two-hour fare (or some time period over which we can debate) should be combined with fare capping. I really don’t give a damn how many “boundaries” someone crosses in their journey.

    Longer trips will be challenging, and they will become even harder to price if we had a decent regional and provincial bus network that was not focused on Union Station. There has to be a fare increment somewhere, but I am not entirely sure where that should be. It is not my job to cook up the definitive model, and I doubt one could be constructed that serves the many competing demands for a new fare system.

    There is clearly a move to make transit cheaper for everyone, although that runs headlong into those who say that concession fares like seniors should be scrapped. A $1 flat fare obviously avoids the need to debate who “deserves” a discounted fare.

    Too much of the debate focuses on the dollar value of the fare as opposed to what that fare buys, or whether there is a 1:1 relationship between a “fare” and a trip such as various forms of timed fares, passes or capped cost.

    Meanwhile, there is the little matter of service, and not just on the Dufferin or Finch bus routes, but across the province where transit’s modal share is pitifully low. A $1 fare won’t fix the infrequent or absent service, and it won’t provide auto drivers with an alternative to the last mile problem of getting to packed GO Transit parking lots.

    There are important discussions to be had about the future of transit, but what we get is simplistic nonsense.

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  15. I could see a reduction of most fares by some amount, let’s say 50%, for a fixed period to get transit ridership back up where needed, but a flat fare of $1.00 in the province is dumb. When, if, Metrolinx starts the Northlander service to Timmons back would you be able to ride from Timmons to London on GO and GO Northlander for a buck?

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  16. “First off, it is incorrect to say that I am against $1 fares, just $1 fares for a trip between any two points in the province.”

    Steve, I see now that part of my comment was poorly worded, and for that I apologize. Yes, it is possible to think of scenarios, such as a short-distance shuttle, for which a $1 fare is appropriate. That was not what I was referring to. What I was referring to was your opposition to the province’s recent $1 fare proposal, which was indeed for a trip between any two points in the province.

    Steve: For clarity, it was not a provincial proposal, but an election promise of the Liberal Party.

    It is OK to say, “I don’t know the answer, but I do know that this is not it.”

    As for me, I am against a two-tier transportation system for exactly the same reasons that I am against a two-tier health-care system and a two-tier education system. Whenever such a system exists, those who are rich and powerful inevitably use their political clout to make sure that their upper tier works just fine. And at the same time, the rich work to cut their own taxes by defunding the lower tier used by ordinary people. This can be seen in the USA’s health-care system.

    This two-tier principle can be seen at work last winter after the snowstorms. The City of Toronto moved heaven and earth to ensure that wealthy car drivers were not inconvenienced. The automobile infrastructure was cleared of snow right away. As for sidewalks and TTC stops, not so much. Us lowly peasants had to struggle with snow and ice for weeks. My own TTC stop was not cleared for over two weeks, and even then to a very poor standard that prevented disabled persons from using this TTC stop.

    Since this is the inevitable result of a two-tier transportation system, the solution is obvious: End the two-tier system, in the same way that a two-tier health-care system was ended in Ontario. I advocate the Dutch model of infrastructure-driven progressive mode shift to walking, cycling and public transit. An excellent example of this is the City of Utrecht which has an extensive downtown car-free zone.

    This car-free zone is being steadily expanded.

    This is, of course, not just in one city but in the entire country. Utrecht is part of the great Randstad metropolitan area of 8.4 million people. If they can do it, we can too.

    In terms of fare policies, the Dutch provide excellent service, but public transit fares are expensive. As in Toronto TTC levels of expensive. For example, a one-hour public transit pass in Amsterdam costs €3.20.

    Of course, the Dutch have an excellent social welfare system that takes care of lower-income people.

    Steve: By definition, such a system is directed only to those who require it, not to everyone in the country. If we need to give some people cheaper transit (or any other service) this can be done without giving it away almost free to everyone.

    FARE POLICY

    The Dutch demonstrate that it is possible to achieve the necessary transportation mode shift without fare policy being a part of that. I am not saying that price is irrelevant; for many people it is very relevant. What I am saying is that for the majority of people, service is most important. They will take the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of safely going from A to B.

    Even the numbers in the Liberal Party’s policy announcement support this. The total numbers look big and impressive. But as a percentage mode shift, the percentage is rather small.

    I predict that “buck a ride” will not be a game-changer or really make much of a difference in Toronto. We need the Dutch model of infrastructure-driven mode shift to build the city that we need for the future.

    In summary: Infrastructure is destiny, price is not.

    Steve: I would reword that to “service is destiny, price is not”. You can have lots of infrastructure but without service, it does not achieve its goal, and is little more than a welfare project for the construction industry.

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  17. So perhaps, “Buck a ride, but only inside” (TO boundaries)? Yup, some awkwording there, and enjoy the Star cartoon today.

    That cartoon being about 500 times better than their editorial supporting the buck a ride, though yup, it is good to have a different reality proposed vs. what the old stat from Vancouver 25 years ago said was a $2700 per vehicle annual subsidy, c. 7x what transit was given.

    Matt Elliott’s piece was far better, as yup, lots of evils in the dougtails as it were. (Maybe it should be dougfails?)

    So far nobody seems to be tackling the multi-billlion $$$ boondougles of the transit projects though we’d likely all agree we’d like to have large spendings as well as strong commitment to doing transit.

    Sort of nice that the gas prices are up a batch, again. Burning money eh? Car-based thought and policies will not solve urban housing, climate/energy, work, health, etc. problems.

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  18. It is absolutely frustrating to me that the Liberals thought this was the way to go win over voters and transit policy wonks alike.

    Instead of building a platform based on:

    • Improving levels of service, access, and convenience on all modes;
    • Installing intelligent traffic signals with proper transit priority,
    • Providing dedicated lanes for transit vehicles and bikes in the short term; and
    • Creating a framework where Ontario, with every major pavement resurfacing, starts eliminating Stroads and prioritizing transit, cycling, and walking (the latter two especially as a last mile solution)…

    We instead get buck-a-ride, something only asked for with a sigh when checking a Presto card balance. Will it be paid for with a magical subsidy pulled out of thin air that will cover the difference in lost revenue to the transit agencies, perhaps with fairy dust that will cover the necessary costs of running and maintenance for the extra service needed to make that happen? Or will this be like buck-a-beer, where transit agencies can choose to opt-in? Hell, I’m sure the YRT will be first to sign up; with how little service they run anymore, they’ll be lucky to find someone desperate enough to wait half an hour at a fancy Rapidway station. I’m sure a hydrogen powered, autonomous, deep-bore tunneled Swanway to Kirby station will provide more service.

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  19. I don’t mind unhoused people sleeping in the trains during a frostbite night, but the few panhandlers who go in your face to ask for money is getting annoying and maybe threatening to some.

    Many of them don’t pay the fares yet expect the working class to give them money. This is what the TTC should stop rather than sending armed cops on homeless people taking a nap.

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  20. So this is the Liberal transit plan. Reduce all the fares to $1 without first expanding the capacity to deal with the massive ridership increases. At $1 for all fares, the cost of fare collection and fare enforcement might be higher than the fares that would be collected. In other words, the Liberal plan is that they have no plan and this is why I will NOT be voting Liberal under any circumstances.

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  21. Many excellent points made here. Not sustainable, it does nothing to address capacity issues, it has urban residents subsidize suburbanites. But what it also does is threaten to hobble transit forever. What government is going to say “Oh, fares are going back up to what they were before plus some extra to make up for the fact that we missed a few fare increases.” Sure, some SOB like Ford or Harris would love to screw Toronto like that, but think of the howls from suburbanites who would face a fare rising from $1 to $15. These are the same people who throw a fit at the idea of having to pay for parking at their subsidized by Toronto GO stations.

    Suburbanites are already a major force against useful transit expansion in the region. Most of those that live out in the 905 and beyond have cars. As long as they can get to their baseball games on the cheap or to a downtown office for next to nothing, they won’t want their taxes going up to pay for expansion of local transit in their regions. They’ll demand greater frequency. They’ll want 15-minute service on Lakeshore and all-day service to Kitchener and high-speed trains to London. Why not? It’ll only cost them a buck. Getting real transit built where it makes sense will be harder than ever.

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  22. Our democracy has a fatal flaw. The people only vote for candidates that promise them ice cream every day. Both del Duca and Ford know this.

    A buck a ride is a dollar too much in my view. Public transit today is not what we grew up with in the 70s. It is controlled by people who do not deserve to be in public service. Go Transit was completely dissolved years ago not only in fact but in spirit. Heartbreaking.

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  23. CBC said today that the Liberals and the NDP are fighting for second place and that Ford looks set to win a second term.

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  24. Roger said;

    “CBC said today that the Liberals and the NDP are fighting for second place and that Ford looks set to win a second term.”

    Except if enough Liberal and NDP get elected to deny Ford his majority then he will be forced to deal with the opposition and get a deal made to get their support. Same as Trudeau had to do. Minority governments are the only way to get something for the average person.

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  25. Do the Liberals have a chance to win in Ontario? It’s a very expensive promise with a drop in revenue if they do.

    Steve: They might, but the Tories are throwing money around too such as cancelling auto license renewal fees.

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  26. This almost has the hallmarks of Del Duca being able to promise anything without having to worry about delivering on any of it since he’s already pretty sure he isn’t going to win. On the other hand, if he does get in, he’s going to be immediately confronted with the issue of either following through on buck a ride or breaking one of his major campaign promises right out of the get go.

    The 2003 Dalton McGuinty fallback for the latter is not available so saying “the conservatives claimed the budget was balanced but when we opened the books it was awful and there was a $6 billion deficit, so we’re going to break a bunch of promises right off the top…” isn’t going to work because nobody is under the illusion the books are remotely balanced this time around.

    Between buck a ride and the license plate rebate cheques, I don’t think I’ve ever seen vote-buying ahead of an election as flagrant and blatant as this one.

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  27. For the 15 years that the Liberal leader Stephen Del Duca was part of the McGuinty-Wynne government including when Del Duca was the Minister of Transportation, transit fares repeatedly and constantly increased. Now Del Duca says that he will slash all fares to only $1 province wide. Del Duca is simply not credible and he must be judged on his track record and not on his empty promises that he will never keep.

    Steve: Equally important, this is a simplistic “fix” that does not address the basic question of how much service operates and how reliable it is.

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  28. Churchill once said that politicians have an incredible talent of being able to explain away why their election promises can not be kept.

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  29. I think there’s a misunderstanding about the nature of the campaign promise here. “Buck a Ride” isn’t a transit policy. It’s a policy for bringing some sort of relief against rising gas prices. Everyone is complaining about high gas prices. Conservatives everywhere are responding by temporarily subsidizing gas or other ways to make driving cheaper (e.g. no license fees). The left doesn’t like this because they think fossil fuel subsidies are bad for the environment. Recently, the left came up with alternate proposals of offering free transit to deal with high gas prices. Free transit results in a lot of people abusing the system, so the Liberals have adopted a nominal price of $1. ”Buck a ride” for Metrolinx seems unfair, but I imagine the reality is that ridership on Metrolinx has collapsed to the point that they’re essentially running on a 100% subsidy anyways right now, so the cost doesn’t really matter to the government. Plus the people in the suburbs are the swing voters and are the ones most complaining about high gas prices, so giving them a “buck a ride” too makes sense politically. I doubt many suburban commuters will actually take up the offer since they all have cars. Then again, a lot of people who moved out of the city during the pandemic might be starting to feel regret once they realize they have 3 hour commutes. Of course, like “buck a beer,” the final price might not actually be a buck when it’s finally implemented.

    Steve: And on top of all of this, both the tax reduction and $1 fare are time limited and will not make a permanent difference.

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