After Metrolinx's approval of the reincarnated Transit City plan last month, all that stands between Toronto and an $8.4-billion LRT network is a nod from the premier. By 2020, the TTC should be the proud operator of four new rail lines. But a big question lingers: who will pay to run them?
Throughout the epic transit wars that dominated City Hall these past few months, debate centered on what to do with the $8.4 billion the province has committed to expanding Toronto's system. But that money is just for building costs, and although there's now a plan to go with LRTs, there is no firm plan to pay to operate them.
"How the operating subsidy will be paid, what those operating costs are going to be, that is still being worked through," says TTC spokesperson Brad Ross.
While there's still plenty of time to sort it out (the first vehicle won't hit the rails for another six years) veteran transit watcher Steve Munro says it's remarkable that the operating side of the equation hasn't been part of the public conversation so far.
"Operating costs are the hidden piece of all the rapid transit expansion projects," he says. "You're making a major change in the level of service that you're providing and the amount of service you need to maintain. That money has to come from somewhere.
A tentative agreement between the two parties stipulates that provincial transit agency Metrolinx will own the lines and the commission will operate them. But TTC chair Karen Stintz, who led the charge in reviving Transit City, is confident that Metrolinx will fork over money for operations, and the new lines won't end up costing the city a dime.
"It is the expectation of the TTC that Metrolinx will cover the operational costs of the lines," Stintz writes in an email to NOW. "There will be no net impact on the TTC."
Metrolinx has made no such commitment however, or at least not publicly. According to a spokesperson, as of two weeks ago negotiations on the issue hadn't even begun.
"At this time, from our perspective, the operating costs are still subject for future discussion," says Vanessa Thomas. "So we are unable to make any presumption until those discussions have taken place."
If the province were to commit long-term to funding the LRT network's annual operating costs, it would be a significant adjustment to the current relationship between the commission and Queen's Park. The TTC hasn't received a sustained operating subsidy from the province since the 1990s, when the Ontario government paid 50 per cent of the costs. Premier Mike Harris ended that agreement when he downloaded the responsibility for transit to the city.
How much it would cost to run Transit City is not yet known, but ridership projections provide a rough indicator. Currently, each passenger that puts three bucks in the fare box costs the TTC roughly a dollar, and operating expenditures not covered by revenue are made up by a subsidy from the city, which this year totaled more than $400 million.
The Eglinton Crosstown alone will carry 53 million riders a year by 2021, and by then LRT routes on Sheppard Ave. East, Finch Ave. West, and the Scarborough RT will all be carrying millions of passengers. Although not all of these can be counted as "new" users (the LRT lines will absorb passengers who already take the bus or subway), the increased ridership will likely require an annual subsidy in the order of tens of millions of dollars.
The TTC has long sought a new funding agreement with the province, and this influx of riders on the LRT system could be the ticket the commission needs to compel Queen's Park back to the table. If so, the revival of Transit City will have delivered Toronto more than new rail lines; it will have once again made the province a partner in funding public transit operations in Ontario's largest city.
"Right now, the TTC subsidy of half a billion dollars a year comes purely from property taxpayers in the city of Toronto," says the TTC's Brad Ross. "The subsidy required, because our costs continue to go up each year, eventually is just not sustainable. At some point there needs to be a new arrangement with other levels of government."