Has the time come for the TTC to be absorbed by a GTA-wide transit authority controlled by the Ontario government? Well, at least one member of Toronto council's budget committee is certainly starting to think that way.
"If the TTC were not on the city's tax levy, we wouldn't have a budget crisis," Councillor Kyle Rae said this week after sitting though six hours of public deputations on a proposed city budget of more than $7 billion that goes to council at the end of the month.
"The TTC puts us into a deficit position, and we need to find a way of fixing that," the Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) politician maintained. "Either the province and the feds come through with a sizable portion of the fuel tax or the province should be taking over the TTC. It needs to be part of a real regional system. I think it may be time."
While Rae was encouraged by the fact that Monday's joint meeting of the policy and finance and budget advisory committees was considerably shorter and less tumultuous than the marathon sessions of past years, he couldn't ignore the fact that the level of municipal funding for public transit was the biggest bone of contention.
On the one hand, there was Gord Perks from the Toronto Environmental Alliance arguing in favour of an additional 1 per cent property tax increase on top of the 3 per cent Mayor David Miller has proposed as "reasonable" to avoid the 10-cent transit fare increase the budget committee is recommending.
"You find yourself between a rock and a hard place trying to choose poisons," Perks told the councillors, who will have to take money from other public programs if they want to avoid both a further tax hike and a boost in the cash price of bus and subway rides.
"Well, evidently, the easiest thing for council to do is to pass the poison along to the transit rider."
While "it only sounds like a dime," Perks noted that the proposed fare increase represents an added expense of between $150 and $200 annually for a family of four regular TTC passengers. In contrast, he said, an additional 1 per cent hike in property tax on an average Toronto home would ring in at about $25.
On the other hand there was Tasha Kheiriddin, Ontario director of the Regina-based Canadian Taxpayers Association, who maintained that Miller's proposed 3 per cent hike is "completely unwarranted."
Rae said he hasn't yet had the opportunity to discuss his ideas for a Greater Toronto Transit Authority with other councillors or the mayor. But he insisted that budget committee members are increasingly "troubled by what we're having to deal with at the TTC.
"I think the committee is starting to come to grips with the fact that the TTC is the piece that has been a problem year after year," Rae said. "There's always the questions of how to fund it, what to expect from other levels of government, then being disappointed and not being able to sustain the rest of the city because of the debt load on the TTC.'
But Councillor Joe Mihevc, deputy chair of the TTC, said he's not interested in turning T.O.'s transit system over to the province. "In my opinion, cities are the best governors for public transit, not provincial authorities. We're good at running things because we're close to the ground.' Mihevc figures the city will meet its budget challenges in the years ahead. "I think we can handle it, given the kind of gas tax money that is rolling out, with some prudent business decisions.'
However, Rae, a veteran of budget committees going back to his days on the pre-amalgamation Toronto council, Rae said even when Queen's Park and Ottawa do start talking about putting more money into the TTC's capital budget, the discussions inevitably turn to expanding the system.
"They want the money to be spent on new initiatives so they can put their fingerprints on them and say, 'This is because of us.' But we can't afford expansion right now. Before we start adding to the system, we need to improve the current state of repair."
And there's not enough money to even do that in the current financial circumstances.
"I don't know that the TTC needs to continue to be this parochial operation," Rae mused. "Service needs to be integrated to include GO Transit and other systems across the GTA. It should be seamless from Hamilton through Union Station to Durham region and up to Barrie. There shouldn't just be transit service from Toronto to Pearson Airport. It should continue through northern Peel region to Ancaster. There needs to be a parallel service to the waterfront transit line."
Only the Ontario government has the legislative and financial power to make that happen in a coordinated manner. A lot has changed since the TTC became the sole provider of public transportation services in Metro Toronto back in 1954, and Rae is convinced it's time "to start thinking about transit in a different context."