Coronavirus a recipe for another decade of transit inaction

Big-ticket projects that depend on government spending will have to take a back seat to public health and financial recovery as the effects of COVID-19 are felt



Times have changed. We are beginning a journey through world-wide health and financial crises that will profoundly affect the evolution of many public services, including transit.

In the short term, the thousands who keep the city moving will continue to go to work. Many people will need transit to reach health care jobs or carry out simple tasks like grocery shopping. Transit remains vital to the city.

When the crisis passes, transit activists, politicians, planners, and local communities will resume haggling about plans for the future. But transit advocacy will take a back seat to public health and economic recovery.

Every ask – better service, reduced fares, expanded rapid transit – will be viewed through the “do we need it now?” lens. We will hear even more about how tax increases must be avoided so that hard-hit ratepayers can make ends meet.

Tax revenue that depends on manufacturing and sales, both goods and services, will fall. Tax revenue that depends on the wealth sloshing through the real estate market will also be hit. Money that stops circulating, or just evaporates in the financial markets, does not pay taxes.

As a result, big-ticket projects that depend so much on government spending may go begging for loose change in the months and years to come.

We have seen this before.

The early-1990s recession cost the TTC one-fifth of its ridership, and suddenly projects intended to relieve subway congestion fell off of the table.

Overall, service took years to recover, and ridership from 1990 was not attained again until 2007. One big factor was the cutback in provincial support that has never returned to past levels.

The 2008 stock market crash did not interrupt ridership growth in Toronto, but it did bring provincial cutbacks in planned transit spending. The Transit City LRT plan was a casualty (compounded by Mayor Rob Ford.)

Everything else will be up for grabs including, I fear, the long-awaited Ontario Line. Anyone who believes that Premier Doug Ford’s transit agenda will proceed as planned has not read much local history. 

Even with a strong economy, it was on shaky financial ground, and Ford asked for a 40 per cent federal contribution. Now, even the provincial cupboard could be bare.

TTC ridership grew for many years up to 2016, and this was cause for celebration. But something was missed in the hoopla – the rate of growth fell year by year because the transit system was running out of places to put more riders.

Now the TTC struggles just to stay even and counts on a fare enforcement program to bring in more revenue. More paid rides, maybe. More riders, not so certain.

The coronavirus crisis is a recipe for another decade of inaction. Governments will struggle to keep a few pet projects happening. GO Transit’s network expansion plans might well be replaced by more road building. Counterproductive though that may be, it buys votes in areas where cars dominate for personal travel.

History shows us that service on surface routes will be particularly hard hit. The watchword will be “efficiency.”

We could be lucky. The health crisis could pass by summer. The stock market could rediscover its lost wealth. But those are projections we cannot count on. It will take time to rebound if the economic effects are severe.

Will we give up on building a better Toronto in the name of recapturing the economic boom that supported the city for decades?

Hard debates and decisions face everyone who cares about our shared future.

This column is part of a weekly review by Steve Munro of issues affecting Toronto’s transit system and its riders. It appears Mondays online and Thursdays in print.

@nowtoronto

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