The TTC Board met today to consider its 2023 Operating and Capital budget. To nobody’s surprise, they were adopted as written in spite of numerous public deputations and a few attempts by the Board to tweak the recommendations.
For detailed background on the budgets, see:
- TTC 2023 Budget: A Bit More Subsidy, But …
- TTC 2023 Operating Budget
- TTC 2023-2037 Capital Plan & Budget
In the course of the meeting two fairly standard devices were used to limit debate, although one of them proved to be deeply out of order. I will come to that later in the article.
As is common for meetings where there are many pesky public deputations, the speaking time was limited to three minutes each. Questions were rarely asked for clarification or to draw out more information. Making a deputation at the TTC can be quite disheartening when almost nobody sitting around the table wants to hear you.
The Fare Increase
A thread running through many presentations, and indeed now part of the official line, is that transit is important for people who cannot afford to drive. This creates a political dynamic where transit is a service for the poor while roads are for everyone else. TTC has long benefited from strong “choice” ridership, but the shift to work-from-home has stripped a large population of riders who commute by choice out of their customer base.
Ironically, we are still building transit megaprojects for core-oriented commuting. That tap is very hard to turn off because of the many interests in construction and development. Buses in the poorer suburbs, not so much.
The proposed ten cent fare increase effective Monday, April 3, 2023 for single adult and youth fares was approved, as was a scheme to make about 50,000 more low income people eligible for the “Fair Pass”.
Several deputants as well as Board member Councillor Moise argued that the structure of the fare increase would hurt low income riders disproportionately because they are less likely to afford monthly passes for which there is no increase. This is certainly true for riders who do not travel enough to make a pass worth buying, or who cannot afford to lay out a month’s transit fare in a single payment. As to the Fair Pass, some members of the Board seemed unaware that there is a broad range of “low income” riders who are not poor enough to qualify for this pass.
The issue of fares as a social subsidy is a complicated one, along with the question of how much riders of any class should pay toward the cost of transit. There is supposed to be a Fare Policy Study coming to the TTC Board later in 2023, and this should be the context for a debate on all aspects of the issue. It should receive more than a perfunctory, dismissive debate for an already-decided fare increase.
The Evolution of Ridership
The chart below shows the change over time of each class of rider. The starting point is 2019 before the pandemic where each bar shows the count of Presto users grouped by weekly usage. Note that even then, over half of the users were “infrequent” or “occasional”, but they did not account for the much larger number of trips taken by “frequent” riders and passholders.
In the columns for 2022, the lightly coloured portions are the lost riders in each group. “Infrequent” and “occasional” have rebounded, but this is likely in part due to riders shifting down to a lower tier than their pre-covid levels. It is the “frequent” users and passholders whose numbers are down, and this represents far more rides than their proportion in the user count.
The effect is that ridership is down across the system, but mostly on the subway, followed by the streetcar network, because they both serve the core area where work-from-home has its greatest effect on transit usage. WFH has also affected work trips in the suburbs, but the proportion of such trips taken by transit among employees whose jobs could make the shift is lower. There are more non-choice (aka “captive”) riders there, primarily on buses which are the only option, than for core area trips.
Ridership in 2023 is projected at 393 million. This is about the same as in 1981.
Staff made an important point that there are two separate groups of riders who must be lured back to transit. One group is already travelling, but not by TTC. They have a reason to travel, but choose not to ride transit. The other group are those who no longer commute to work at least some of the time. Until (if ever) the commuting demand returns, those trips simply will not exist. This split shows up in the stronger recovery of weekend travel which is much less affected by the work-from-home shift.
How Will My Service Suffer?
One issue buried in the Operating Budget is the proposal to both reduce the service hours budget and increase the crowding standards so that less frequent service can be scheduled to handle current and future demand.
Peak period standards will fully revert to pre-pandemic levels, while off peak standards will be changed to increase crowding. In the case of surface modes, the off peak standard is well above a seated load, a target for crowding that was first set twenty years ago in the Ridership Growth Strategy on the basis that it would make transit more attractive.
Staff claim that they have the authority to change Service Standards on their own even though for two decades such changes came to the Board. The Standards are cited as “Board Approved” when staff defend actions taken under them.
The service budget is measured in vehicle hours because wages are the primary variable in operating costs. (Vehicle kilometres have an effect, but do not pick up the sometimes considerable time devoted to “recovery” and layovers when vehicles are not moving, but their operator is still paid. A detailed description of cost buildups and modelling is beyond this article.)
The table below has appeared in previous articles based on the budget report. It is somewhat misleading in that the November 2022 service was not at pre-covid levels as a reference point. This table disappeared in the staff presentation on January 9.
The service and riding levels projected for 2023 are shown in the next table. This shows the degree by which November 2022 fell below pre-covid service, but was still much better than the ridership level.
Overall, the TTC proposes to reduce service hours by 5%, but the amount on each route and time period will vary. There are some service improvements planned, and these will be offset by larger cuts.
At the same time, the new crowding standards will allow for service to be trimmed in the face of ridership growth in 2022 and that might appear in 2023.
TTC staff were asked about this effect, and stated that they would at most widen headways (the interval between vehicles) by 30% so that a bus that now shows up every 10 minutes would come every 13. There was no discussion of preservation of the “Ten Minute Network”, and this will probably fall victim to cutbacks.
Subway service might, at times, arrive every 10 minutes according to the budget. The currently widest headway for rapid transit is on the SRT on weekends when it runs every 6’45” (405 seconds). A 30% increase in that only gets us to 8’46” (526 seconds).
Reducing the rapid transit service hours from 90% of precovid to 75% (a 1/6 drop) will not be done uniformly because demand varies from route to route and by time of day. However, running trains less often will make the lightly-used periods less attractive to riders.
With a 25% fall of ridership, the TTC faces a long, slow climb out of that hole, and in an environment where better service will be doled out as parsimoniously as possible. This is no recipe for recovery, especially of choice riders.
During the debate, a question arose about the source of ridership losses triggered by the budget. The CFO stated that the fare increase was too small to have much effect, but that the $3 million revenue loss was due to the budget overall. The only other budgetary factor that would affect ridership is the level of service.
The last time the TTC saw a precipitous decline was in the early 1990s recession when annual riding dropped from about 464 million in 1988 to 372 million in 1996, about 20%. Recovery from that took roughly a decade in part because of the anti-transit policies of governments of the day. The Ridership Growth Strategy was adopted in 2003, but the philosophy behind is lost in the 2023 austerity wave.
The TTC expects to implement the service changes in two waves. The first will be with the March schedule change and the second in April. What we will also likely see is little or no seasonal increases in fall 2023 except to rebalance service where need be. Any new services such as those in the proposed 2023 Service Plan will occur on a tradeoff basis with other routes.
Procedural Fun & Games
One member of the TTC Board, Councillor Moise, had a five-part motion recommending the following changes:
- Rescind the proposed fare increase.
- Restore service to 100% of the pre-covid level.
- Staff to prepare a briefing note for Council’s February 14 budget meeting with a detailed explanation of the proposed service changes including the ridership data to support them.
- Staff to prepare a briefing note for the budget meeting with an analysis of consulting and labour costs for the past 10 years.
- Staff to include in all future budgets a detailed explanation of proposed service changes as in item 3.
Chair John Burnside asked for a seconder of this motion, but no other member of the Board offered to second the motion for debate and a vote, not even as a courtesy. It appeared that the motion would die thanks to the Chair’s actions. A short while later, someone on TTC staff woke up to the fact that their own Procedural Bylaw states that, with few exceptions, motions do not require a seconder. In the excerpt below, emphasis has been added to highlight the salient portions.
Section 44 – Motions
A. A Member may make a Motion that:
1. Affects the Meeting’s procedures, as set out in this Procedures Bylaw; or
2. Takes action on the matter that is currently before the Board for debate.
K. Only Notices of Motion and Motions without Notice require seconding. No other Motions require seconding.
Neither the Chair, nor the Secretary, nor any member of the Board (many of whom should have known that seconders were not needed) spoke up. This was a clear attempt to sandbag a motion by the one Board member pesky enough to attempt to change a foregone outcome.
When the error was noticed, the Chair decided to take a vote, and Councillor Moise’s motions were all voted down, mostly with his as the only “aye” vote. This was no surprise for the points that would have changed the budget. However, Council (and the TTC Board) should understand the effect of their budget on service. This was not to be even though clauses 3 and 5 were voted on separately.
This tells us all we need to know about the “independence” of the TTC Board when even a report request gets voted down. The Board, some of whom count themselves as friends of transit riders, should be ashamed.
A Great Shell Game
The budget includes some new revenues, and equivalently some savings. Between them they fund the planned expenses for 2023.
A great deal of time was wasted by utterly misleading debate about which revenues paid for which service. Clearly, all of the money goes into one big pot.
During his press conference announcing transit funding, Mayor Tory focused on the new security and safety features, even though these only consumed a small part of the $53 million in new City subsidy and $16 million fare revenue. In her presentation to the Board, the CFO talked about the new City money paying for the cost of rapid transit expansion. Some Board members tried to have specific revenues earmarked to specific costs, a meaningless gesture. This is what passes for intelligent debate.
The real point here is that opening Lines 5 and 6, and closing line 3, will add substantially to TTC costs, just as past rapid transit lines have done. These costs will build in through 2023 and 2024 and represent considerable jumps in transit expenses just at a time when funding is very tight. One could equally argue that it is the service cuts that will pay for rapid transit if we are tracking who pays for what.
TTC Pays for Social Services Staff
Questions were asked about why two costs were being charged to the TTC budget rather than to the appropriate City department’s budget:
- The Streets-to-Homes workers
- Increased Fair Pass eligibility
This was not clearly explained by TTC staff, and it seems more a matter of convenience, possibly a way for City Departments to raid the TTC’s reserve piggy bank by inflating “transit” costs.
Moreover, the Fair Pass funding was described as a one-time contribution from the TTC budget. If it will revert to a City department in 2024, that will produce a jump in their budget demand that will crowd other spending. We could be seeing a shift of “social service” costs to the TTC.
The Capital Budget and State of Good Repair
The Board spent little time on the Capital Budget and 15-year plan, but did flag the growing Stage of Good Repair backlog as an item requiring close monitoring. The shortfall is small in 2023, but it grows quickly especially in the categories of vehicle procurement and overhaul primarily for the bus and subway fleets. In the same timeframe, substantial spending is planned for the capacity enhancements on Lines 1 and 2. These projects will compete for available funds.
The Board asked staff to report more often on the SOGR issue. An obvious place for such information is in a quarterly financial update, but this was dropped from the repertoire of standing reports in mid-2022. The Board is selective in the information they want to see.
Those of us with long memories will think back to the early 1990s when ongoing repairs were cut in response to that era of austerity. TTC management repeatedly said, in effect, “we can make do with the funding we receive”. Then came the Russell Hill subway crash and the discovery that SOGR is a vital part of TTC spending.
Whether the Board will simply wring its hands or engage in serious debate about where available funding goes remains to be seen. Their past hands-off approach to management and policy does not inspire confidence. One Board member expressed surprise at this problem as if the looming shortfall was news just this year even though it has been forecast since 2019 when the new format of Capital Plan was launched.
Asked how much higher SOGR spending should be, the CFO replied that at least 1.5 times the current funding is needed.