The provincial government doesn’t really want it. The municipal government really doesn’t want to give it up. So if you listen only to the politicians, uploading control of the Toronto Transit Commission seems like a solution in search of a problem.
But if you rely on public transit to get around Toronto, or have paid much attention to the annual soap opera around the city’s budget, you know the TTC is a very big problem indeed. And it’s getting harder to overlook that its troubled management structure is a significant part of it.
Transit strategy is getting an airing during the municipal election campaign, but nobody has addressed this aspect of it head-on. Still, a pair of recent stories help shed light on the two broad problems that ensue from having the system remain a creature of the city.
First, there’s the funding model that leaves Toronto as the very rare major city reliant on property taxes to keep public transit running. Mayoral candidate George Smitherman has effectively acknowledged that this is unsustainable, promising somehow to secure $100-million in annual provincial funding. But that raises the question: Why would the province commit to permanent financing without some control over how it’s spent?
That sort of control has to this point been jealously guarded by municipal politicians, which brings us to the second problem – illustrated by the saga of setting up a long overdue electronic fare system.
The province expected the city to get on board with a new smart card being implemented (at provincial expense) by transit systems around the Greater Toronto Area – only to wind up in a turf war with TTC chair Adam Giambrone, who’s trying to push forward a competing and possibly incompatible “open payment” system. It’s just one example of how, at a time when governments should be striving for a seamless regional network for commuters, the TTC sits like a highly politicized and somewhat impoverished island within the GTA.
In recent years, an obvious solution has emerged. In 2006, the province created a new regional planning authority, Metrolinx. Last year, Metrolinx assumed control of GO Transit, the commuter system that links Toronto and its outlying cities. (The province also ousted municipal politicians from Metrolinx’s board, replacing them with business executives.) Why not bring the TTC at least partly under its watch as well?
Logistical headaches, identified by mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi during a meeting on Monday with The Globe and Mail’s editorial board, are part of it. Toronto’s transit infrastructure and ridership dwarf the rest of the region’s, which could lead to an odd dynamic. It could also involve a nasty fight with unions to prevent the TTC’s generous contracts from driving up costs throughout the region. And land-use planning would be an issue, because that rests under the city’s control.
But the lack of political will to overcome those hurdles, none of which seems insurmountable, has been the biggest obstacle.
That may change somewhat under Toronto’s next mayor. While David Miller has guarded the TTC like a crown jewel, a more right-leaning successor could be just as happy to get public transit off the city’s balance sheet in the struggle to get its finances in order.
The bigger question may be whether the province wants to take it. There’s the financial burden, obviously. But the political one is perhaps even more significant.
The TTC isn’t going to become a more user-friendly experience overnight. So when their streetcar doesn’t show up, or the entire subway system stops running with little explanation, or it just takes an hour to get from Point A to Point B, Torontonians will still curse the people who run it. Being cursed for enough things already, do Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals really want that on their shoulders?
Still, the TTC’s current management structure doesn’t pass an important policy test: If given a chance to do it over again, nobody would build it this way. Sooner or later, political consequences be damned, the politicians will have to take some corrective action.
Take your hands off of my transit!