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Toronto has ‘alarming’ lack of transit funding compared to other cities, report finds

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Toronto’s transit system is precariously funded, inefficiently governed and expensive to ride, but still attracts more passengers than comparable networks in other major North American cities, according to a new report.

The report, called Mixed Signals, was authored by non-profit transit advocacy group CodeRedTO and will be released at city hall Tuesday.

To compile the document the organization compared the fares, network design, budgets and governance structures of transit systems in Toronto and seven other metropolitan areas: Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, Washington, D.C., Vancouver, and Montreal.

It concluded that Toronto is “lagging behind other comparator cities in key ways,” particularly when it comes to funding, but still outperforms its rivals in some important areas.

CodeRedTO executive director Cameron MacLeod said he hoped the report would shine a light on the hard choices facing the provincial and municipal governments as they move to expand transit in the GTA after what he described as “30 years of underfunding and under-expansion.”

“We know that other cities approach having modern, effective transit in a very different way. And most cities have come to the conclusion that they have to have hard conversations and they have to figure out how to pay for it,” he said.

CodeRedTO decided to omit New York City from the study because its population is three times that of Toronto, and its subway network predates Toronto’s by decades.

The “most alarming finding,” according to the report, was the extent to which Toronto relies on fare revenue to pay for service.

In 2017, more than two-thirds of the TTC’s $1.8-billion operating budget came from fare revenue, “a level not seen in any other city in North America,” according to the report.

Most of the comparator cities rely on fare revenue for less than half their operating costs, with a government subsidy making up the majority of spending. The subsidy the TTC receives is notoriously low — in 2017 it was just 90 cents per rider, according to the report, compared to $4.75 US ($6.26) in Houston, $1.86 in Vancouver, and $4.56 in York Region.

MacLeod argued the TTC’s reliance on fare revenue instead of steady government subsidies can create a downward spiral that drives down the quality of service, and could be contributing to the trend of declining ridership on the network.

“Fewer riders on a route means that the buses are more empty, which means there’s less revenue to run those buses, so fewer buses run,” he said. “As that happens, people make the decision more and more to avoid transit.”

The report also found Toronto was an outlier in that most other cities have a dedicated revenue source to pay for transit.

Boston, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles all use proceeds of a sales tax to pay for transit, while Vancouver has instituted a parking tax and tolls.

Toronto city council voted last December to examine tolling municipal highways to fund transit projects, only to have the Ontario Liberal government of the day quash the move.

MacLeod said the lack of a steady source of funding makes it difficult to follow through on long-term transit plans. The report calls for Toronto to institute “new, predictable, sustainable revenue” to fund transit.

The report also raised concerns about the governance of Toronto’s transit network, which is split between the TTC, a city agency, and Metrolinx, a provincial Crown corporation.

While Metrolinx operates GO Transit service in Toronto and the surrounding area, and also owns the Presto fare card system being deployed on the TTC, neither the City of Toronto nor the TTC has representation on Metrolinx’s board. Instead, its unelected members are appointed on the recommendation of Ontario’s transportation minister.

MacLeod said the governance model effectively means there is a “locked door” between Metrolinx and the TTC that hampers efforts to co-ordinate transit in the region.

The report concluded “no other comparator city has a fare card fully controlled by another level of government with no local oversight.”

The report also flagged the high cost of transit passes in Toronto. At $146.25, the price of a monthly TTC pass is the equivalent of 45 cash fares. A monthly pass on Montreal’s STM is the equivalent of just 26.2 cash fares, and the cost of a pass for Vancouver’s TransLink is equal to 32.2 cash fares.

“We have this really big barrier to entry where somebody has to decide at the beginning of the month if they will need the TTC often enough, and they have to have $146 saved up and available,” MacLeod said.

He argued the TTC should institute a pay-as-you go system that would put a cap on the number of rides customers pay for each month — after a certain number of paid rides, trips for the rest of the month would be free. Presto already operates on a monthly cap system on GO Transit, but the TTC says it has no plans to implement such a policy for monthly passes.

Despite lagging behind other cities in important ways, the report concluded there are some things Toronto is doing well.

With about 535 million riders last year, the TTC has the highest ridership of all agencies CodeRedTO studied. Just under one quarter of commuters in the GTA take public transit to work, compared to 20.4 per cent in the Vancouver area, and just 5 per cent in Los Angeles.

“The whole point of this is that we need to keep going to ensure that our system stays strong,” MacLeod said.

“We’ve rested on our laurels a bit too much.”

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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