The TTC could soon get hundreds of new vehicles, if Karen Stintz has her way.
No, not the sleek streetcars that have already started test runs on Toronto's streets. The TTC chair wants the commission to look into taking over the struggling Bixi cycle-share program, and operating its bike fleet as part of the public transit system.
While Bixi Toronto is popular and has logged more than 1.3 million rides since it launched in May 2011, it's also awash in debt and losing money. Were the TTC to take it on, the commission might have to subsidize it, something Stintz believes would be in the public interest.
"Every single transportation system is subsidized, whether it's air, rail, car, pedestrian, shipping, TTC, public transit, or bike program," Stintz said in an interview Monday. "And so, I think the question is not whether it should be subsidized. It needs to be subsidized because it's public transit. The question is can we build a better Bixi program by integrating it into the TTC, and is the city willing to pay for it."
Possible ways she envisions Bixi could be linked with public transit include bringing the bike program under the Presto fare card regime, which is expected to roll out across the TTC by 2016. That would allow Bixi users to pay for their bike rental with the same card they use to ride the subway.
She also wants to explore the possibility of expanding Bixi "along the spine of the subway system" as a compliment to the existing transit network.
She plans to table the proposal at the commission's May 24 board meeting.
Councillor John Parker, who sits on the TTC board, says he will back it.
"I think it makes perfect sense," he said, hailing Bixi as "a noble experiment" and an asset to the city.
"There's a natural synergy there between the service that Bixi provides and the work that the TTC does. And if we can find a way of integrating the two, that seems to me the right way to go forward."
Stintz's suggestion comes as city staff are already seeking ways to keep Bixi Toronto afloat.
Last month, Mayor Rob Ford's executive committee considered a report on restructuring the city's relationship with the floundering company.
According to a confidential attachment to the report that was accidentally distributed to media last week, staff recommended three options to the committee: allow Bixi to default on the loan and then take the company over; take it over before it defaults; or allow the program to die.
It is unclear what the committee decided, but city manager for cycling infrastructure Daniel Egan said Monday that "we're looking at all our options," including having a city division annex Bixi.
Egan says the Stintz's proposition is worth exploring, but stresses that it doesn't really matter who operates the program.
Bixi's annual operating shortfall in 2012 was only $118,879, a gap that its advocates say could easily be bridged if the program signed up new users. Bixi Toronto's parent company believes that demand for the bike-share service is high, and if 2,000 bikes were added to its fleet of 1,000 and more stations set up outside the downtown core, it could turn a profit.
The real challenge, says Egan, would be finding the money for such an expansion, as well as repaying the $3.9 million outstanding in Bixi's $4.5 million start-up loan.
"The fundamental question is... not who operates the program but who funds it," says Egan.
"Unless the TTC can provide capital funding it doesn't really solve [the problem.]"
Staff will report back to the executive committee in July on a restructured relationship with Bixi.
It's not known what they will recommend, but any efforts to save Bixi will likely face opposition from Ford, who said on Monday that he thinks the program should be allowed to die.
"It's not working," said Ford, speaking after a Blue and White Day rally at Scotia Plaza to mark the Toronto Maple Leafs' first home playoff game in nine years.
"It should just be dissolved. It's not working. The program's been a failure."
According to the confidentail staff report, because the city guaranteed Bixi's start-up loan, allowing the company to fail would cost the city between $2.8 and $3.2 million. Taking it over as is would cost up to $4.9 million.