TTC board approves 10-cent fare increase

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The TTC board has unanimously approved a 10-cent fare increase for 2019, over the objections from transit users and advocates who urged members not to balance the transit agency’s budget on the backs of riders.

And while the price hike is expected to generate about $25.8 million for the TTC this year, Thursday’s board meeting was at times dominated by presentations from agency executives that warned the transit system is on shaky financial ground, both in the short and long term.

TTC Chair Jaye Robinson said she was “disappointed” about the fare hike, which was approved as part of the proposed 2019 operating budget that the agency first released last week.

Robinson, who council appointed TTC chair in December, told the Star earlier this month she wouldn’t back a fare hike this year. But after the vote she said she had concluded it was unavoidable because of increased costs, and because the city had made it clear it wouldn’t provide more money to eliminate the need for higher fares.

“The city has clearly stated there’s no additional funds,” she said. “That left us with no choice, because we don’t want to cut services. So today it came down to cutting services versus a 10-cent fare increase.”

“Many young people struggle to pay tuition, are straddled with student debt and precarious work or (are) unemployed. This is an additional cost that they simply cannot afford,” said Eli Aaron, a planning student at Ryerson University and a member of the Toronto Youth Cabinet.

Some saw irony in the fact that the debate about the fare hike came hours after a major subway delay that was caused by switch and signal problems left thousands of Line 1 riders packed on crowded platforms waiting for trains.

“The delays that people experienced this week really brought home the injustice of a fare hike,” Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of advocacy group TTCriders, told the board.

Student and senior fares using tickets or the Presto fare card are set to rise from $2.05 to $2.15, while adult fares will go from $3 to $3.10. The cost of a student or senior monthly pass will rise $5.70 to $122.45, and an adult pass will increase $4.90 to $151.15. Adult cash fares will remain at $3.25.

The increase will be effective April 1. Although it will increase revenue, it’s also expected to drive away some 700,000 potential riders.

The proposed $2.1-billion gross operating budget the board approved for the conventional system and Wheel Trans represents a 3.1-per-cent increase over last year’s spending. The subsidy the TTC is requesting from the city, which is considered the key measure of municipal funding for the transit system, is $22 million higher than in 2018, at $763 million.

TTC chief financial officer Dan Wright told the board that represents “one of the lowest increases that the TTC has requested in recent memory.” It’s less than half the average annual subsidy increase over the previous four years.

Not all of the increased spending will go toward improved service, with new items, such as the transition to the Presto fare card system and a new collective bargaining agreement, putting pressure on the budget.

But the TTC plans to increase service hours by two per cent by deploying more buses and subways this year. There is also $14.4 million in incremental costs for the well-received two-hour transfer policy.

Wright repeatedly warned the board the budget is precariously balanced. In order to offset rising costs, it proposes relying on roughly $24 million in “undetermined corporate reductions” to balance the budget. The reductions are effectively savings the TTC thinks it can find in areas such as lower accident claims and electricity costs, but can’t guarantee it will achieve.

The budget report said the strategy “incorporates considerable risk into the budget and increases the risk that the TTC will incur a deficit in 2019.”

Wright said that although he believed the savings are possible, the agency would be relying on “luck” and had little margin for error.

“Do I think we will run a deficit? I don’t know,” he said.

“Bottom line, we have no flexibility to absorb bad news. We need to figure out how to properly fund the TTC with long term funding that we can count on.”

The board also received a report on $33.5 billion in capital costs the TTC says is required over the next 15 years to keep the system in good repair and cope with anticipated growth in the number of riders.

Some $23.7 billion of the work, which doesn’t include the cost of building new lines, is not funded.

Wright said it would be “doable” for the TTC to secure money for the unfunded projects, which include capacity improvements on Line 1 and Line 2, buying new streetcars, replacing the bus fleet, and expanding Bloor-Yonge station. But he framed the consequences of not doing so in dire terms.

“Less frequent service, a decrease in reliability, more breakdowns, more delays, poor customer service, more customers abandoning the system,” he said.

Robinson said she hoped the provincial and federal governments would come forward with more funding for TTC infrastructure.

The Ontario PC government has proposed contributing $160 million to subway maintenance if it follows through with its plan to take ownership of the TTC subway. It’s an amount that falls far short of what the agency says it requires.

The TTC capital and operating budgets will go to council in March for final approval.

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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TTC plans to hire dozens of fare inspectors to deter people from skipping out on paying

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The TTC is planning to hire additional fare inspectors and deploy them more widely across the transit network, a move the agency says is necessary to crack down on riders who skip out on paying but which critics warn could lead to increased discrimination against users who are low-income or people of colour.

In a proposed 2019 budget that will be discussed at a TTC board meeting Thursday, the transit agency outlined plans to hire 45 additional fare inspectors and 22 more transit enforcement officers.

The new hires would bring the total number of TTC fare inspectors to 113, and the number of enforcement officers to 73.

Inspectors are tasked with ensuring riders pay the proper fare, while enforcement officers, who are designated special constables and have limited police powers, patrol the system for security purposes, sometimes assisting in fare disputes.

The extra bodies would not only increase the TTC’s complement of officers, but allow the agency to start deploying fare inspectors on subways and buses. To date, inspectors have mostly patrolled streetcars, in part because since 2015 riders have been allowed to bypass vehicle operators and board at rear doors.

“The more inspectors we have, the more likely it is you’ll get caught and the more likely you are to pay a proper fare,” said agency spokesperson Stuart Green.

The estimated cost of the additional inspectors and enforcement officers, plus three new administrative and supervisory staff, is $4.5 million, according to the TTC.

Green said that cost is expected to be offset by additional fare revenue that increased enforcement activity would generate, adding ticket fines don’t directly benefit the transit agency because the money goes to the city, not the TTC.

However, not everyone is pleased with the TTC’s plan. Susan Bender of the Fair Fare Coalition advocacy group said she’s worried stepped up enforcement will mean “increased targeting and harassment of people from racialized communities and living on low income.”

In November, a young Black customer named Reece Maxwell-Crawford launched a lawsuit against the TTC alleging racial profiling and discrimination in relation to a Feb. 18, 2018 incident in which three transit officers violently pinned him to the ground outside a streetcar.

A TTC investigation into the incident found there was no evidence to support allegations of discrimination. The city ombudsman is reviewing the TTC’s investigation.

Bender also cited a separate incident in which three TTC officers were convicted in 2017 for participating in a scheme in which they falsified tickets to homeless people in order to skip out on work.

Bender argued the 10-cent fare increase the TTC is also proposing in the 2019 budget would already make it harder for low-income residents to use transit, and the $235 fine for fare evasion can be a huge financial burden. She said the transit agency should work to secure funding to improve service and lower fares instead of investing in more enforcement.

“I don’t think it should be a priority when we’re so critically underfunding our public transit system which so many people rely on. Fare enforcement and fare inspection which exacerbates the stress and lack of money that people have is not the way to go,” she said.

Butterfly Gopaul, a resident member of Jane Finch Action Against Poverty, said racialized community members already report feeling discriminated against by TTC officers. She said the agency investigation that found no evidence of discrimination in the Maxwell-Crawford case has further eroded trust.

“I think there’s a lot of fear, mistrust,” she said. “We see disproportionately racialized bodies, poorer communities being targeted across the city of Toronto.”

In response to those concerns, Green said fare inspectors are “professionals” who are “trained to inspect fare payment with all customers equally.”

According to the TTC, members of the transit enforcement unit must undergo training in mental health, diversity and inclusion.

Numbers provided by the TTC show the enforcement unit performed more than 3.5 million fare inspections in 2018, and wrote 14,030 tickets. They also issued 8,904 written warnings, and 32,139 verbal warnings.

Exactly how much revenue the TTC loses to fare evasion isn’t known. The agency has consistently cited figures that state it has a fare evasion rate of about 2 per cent, resulting in $20 million in forgone proceeds every year.

But that number was based on a 2011 internal audit that preceded major changes to fare operations such as all-door boarding on streetcars, allowing children 12 and younger to ride free, and the widespread adoption of the Presto card.

An internal TTC document dated February 2018 and obtained by the Star said those policy changes had “resulted in poor revenue control” on the system.

A study conducted in 2015 and 2016 determined the agency could be losing as much as $49 million a year to fare evasion. The TTC paid nearly $100,000 for the study but never made it public, and has since said its methodology was unsound. A copy was obtained by the Star.

Green said the agency is working to update its fare evasion estimates and will report to the TTC board in February.

“Evasion deprives the system of operating revenue that could be put toward service, which is why fare inspection is important regardless of the rate,” he said.

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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TTC plans to recommend a 10-cent fare increase in its 2019 budget

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The TTC plans to recommend a 10-cent fare increase in its 2019 budget, and will reveal the transit agency requires $33 billion over the next 15 years to meet its capital needs, the Star has learned.

The transit agency is expected to release its proposed budget Friday ahead of a board meeting scheduled for next Thursday.

A source with knowledge of the documents confirmed the TTC intends recommend increasing the price of fares by about 3 per cent, which would mean tokens and adult Presto fare card taps would rise by 10 cents, to $3.10.

The cost of an adult monthly pass on Presto is also expected to rise.

However, the agency doesn’t plan to recommend a change to cash fares, which are set at $3.25.

But speaking Thursday morning before any details of the budget had been made public, Mayor John Tory said that, since he first took office four years ago, he’s consistently said it’s reasonable for riders to expect fares to gradually go up.

“I said, at that time, that people should expect, because it’s a healthier way to proceed, that you will examine, each year, the prospect of an inflationary-type increase, because the TTC, itself, faces expanded costs,” he said.

He cited rising costs such as the new collective bargaining agreement the transit agency reached with workers in October, and the new two-hour transfer policy, which is expected to cost $20 million this year.

The board will have to approve the budget, including any fare increases, before sending it to council for final approval in March.

If approved, the fare increase would be the eighth to hit TTC riders since 2009. Fares were frozen in 2018, but the year before, they also went up 10 cents.

According to the source, the fare increase is expected to raise $25 million to $27 million a year for the agency, which last year had an approved net operating budget of more than $700 million.

The price hike would likely go into effect in April.

On the capital side of the budget, the agency is expected to publish a detailed accounting of its infrastructure needs over the next decade and a half.

Those needs add up to about $33 billion and take into account investments required to keep the system functioning and cope with anticipated ridership growth, but not costs associated with expanding the network by adding new lines. Only about one third of the $33 billion is funded, according to sources.

Major costs include buying additional streetcars, buses, and subways, building new garages, and upgrading electrical systems, a source familiar with the plan said.

The agency will also seek to increase the budget for its automatic train control (ATC) signalling system by more than $90 million, which it would do by reallocating money from other projects.

The ATC system is currently being installed on Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) to improve train capacity, and had previously been budgeted at about $562 million.

In July, TTC CEO, Rick Leary, announced he was putting the program under review over concerns it might not deliver the planned capacity improvements without requiring additional work.

The installation of ATC on Line 1 was supposed to be complete by the end of 2019, but that deadline will be missed. Leary is expected to provide an update on the state of the program to the board in April.

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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‘It’s like collecting baseball cards’: One TTC fan wants to memorialize all 464 Metropasses online

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When Nathan Ng looks at a Metropass, he sees possibilities.

For the past 38 years, the TTC-issued cards have allowed customers unlimited trips on Toronto’s transit system, and as a downtown dweller who’s never owned a car, Ng has taken full advantage.

The TTC is discontinuing Metropasses at the end of December, but over the course of nearly 18 years Nathan Ng has collected nearly 200 of the cards. He’s hoping to scan all 464 pass designs issued since May 1980 to preserve their legacy online.
The TTC is discontinuing Metropasses at the end of December, but over the course of nearly 18 years Nathan Ng has collected nearly 200 of the cards. He’s hoping to scan all 464 pass designs issued since May 1980 to preserve their legacy online.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

“It opens up the city,” Ng says. “If I want to take a bus one stop, I just hop on a bus, and I don’t think about it … Toronto is a big city full of different neighbourhoods, if you don’t have a car you’ve got to take the TTC.”

These are the final days of the Metropass. After Dec. 31, the TTC will no longer accept the passes, which are being phased out in favour of the Presto smartcard.

According to a spokesperson for the agency, since the first Metropass was issued in May 1980, the TTC has sold more than 78 million of them.

With the help of other transit enthusiasts and their collections, he’s embarked on a project to scan every single Metropass the TTC has issued and post them on the internet to create an online gallery. The effort will require scanning 464 cards.

Ng is coy about how far along in the project he is, but says he’s located the card for almost every month since May 1980, except for a three-year gap in the mid-1990s.

“It’s like collecting baseball cards or something, where you’re like, ‘Oh I need January 1996. Does anybody have January 1996?’ ” he says.

Ng says what fascinates him the most is the evolution of the Metropass design over time, from early paper cards that required users to insert a separate TTC photo ID, to the sleeker plastic versions of today that operate with a magnetic strip.

His favourite are the older ones. “You like what you like when you were younger. So I kind of have a nostalgia for the past style,” he says.

He is less partial to the 2016 set of passes, which the TTC initially thought would be its last before delays to the Presto program pushed the date of the transition back. To commemorate the occasion, the TTC designed that year’s passes as a kind of puzzle with overlapping images that, when laid out together, form a cohesive picture.

Ng is coy about how far along in the project he is, but says he's located the card for almost every month since May 1980, except for a three-year gap in the mid-1990s.
Ng is coy about how far along in the project he is, but says he’s located the card for almost every month since May 1980, except for a three-year gap in the mid-1990s.  (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

“I thought the concept was great, but the actual execution was not as exciting as I’d hoped,” Ng says.

Ng is unequivocal about which pass he considers the TTC’s ugliest: October 2005, a garish orange-red number with gold embossing that he says has a certain “hideous glory.”

While some Metropass aficionados have framed their passes or even made them into art, for the moment Ng keeps them in a simple pouch envelope in his home.

He says more than anything he considers them a memento of travelling on the TTC, a pastime he looks on fondly. He even rides the system for fun sometimes.

Although he acknowledges frequent problems such as service delays can make the system frustrating, he sees the TTC as a “flawed gem,” and says he’s never regretted not owning a car.

“I’ve never had to change a tire, fill up a tank of gas, pay for parking, get a speeding ticket. All the hassles of a car, I’ve avoided.”

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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New TTC chair Jaye Robinson says Toronto needs a permanent ‘seat at the table’ if province takes over the subway

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The new chair of the TTC says she’s “gravely concerned” with the province’s plans to take ownership of the subway network, arguing it’s critical the city retain control over its transit destiny.

In an interview Friday, Jaye Robinson, who was appointed by council on Dec. 13 to lead the transit agency’s board, spoke about the course she plans to chart for the TTC over the coming four-year term, including her desire to increase service and seek out another potential manufacturer for new streetcars.

The biggest looming challenge, she said, is the Ontario Progressive Conservative government’s push to upload the subway system to the province.

Robinson said that while there remains a lot of uncertainty about the proposal, what she’s heard so far is troubling.

She noted the TTC’s subway, bus and streetcar lines are heavily integrated. “So to pluck one piece of the system out, I don’t think is going to serve anyone well,” she said.

Earlier this month, council voted to enter into talks with the province about the upload proposal, after receiving legal advice that the city has no legislative power to block the province’s plan.

Robinson said should an upload take place, the city needs to continue to have a say in subway planning in order to ensure the Relief Line is built before any other new projects. Critics of the upload plan worry that Queen’s Park would prioritize projects like a Line 1 extension to Richmond Hill instead.

“We need a seat at the table, not just now but forever,” Robinson said.

“The number one concern for me is influencing the future of transit in Toronto.”

Robinson’s Ward 15, Don Valley West is bounded on the west by the Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) subway, and she said she’s heard clearly from constituents it’s already overcrowded.

Taking pressure off Line 1 by building the Relief Line, which would cost at least $6.8 billion, “has to be prioritized, or it’s going to cripple the city,” Robinson said.

A three-term councillor, Robinson said she rides the subway to work every day and is proud she doesn’t know the location of her allotted parking space at city hall.

Robinson’s political views lean centre-right, and she was a steady ally of Mayor John Tory last term, serving as a member of his hand-picked executive committee.

Tory recommended Robinson for the TTC role, which is something of a promotion for the councillor. She also had a high-profile job last term when she served as chair of the public works committee.

The councillor sided with the mayor on significant transit-related decisions at council meetings over the past four years, including voting to support the King St. pilot project, as well as to advance Tory’s SmartTrack plan and the contentious Scarborough subway extension.

In February, she voted with the majority of councillors to increase the TTC budget by $2 million to alleviate subway overcrowding.

The year before she sided with the mayor to help vote down a motion to spend $1.2 million to improve subway power and signal reliability.

She said Friday she couldn’t specifically remember what her reasoning was for opposing the spending, but asserted she’s committed to improving the subway signalling system.

Headed into the 2019 budget process, city staff, with the mayor’s blessing, have asked all agencies and departments to prepare spending plans that keep expenditures at 2018 levels. Council will finalize the budget in March.

Robinson said she wants to expand TTC service, but conceded “that would be tough to do” unless the transit agency gets more money.

The TTC already receives a lower per rider subsidy than other comparable transit agencies. This year the city provided an operating subsidy of about $578.8 million, while fare revenue made up the remainder of the TTC’s $1.8-billion operating budget.

“They are strapped for cash, there’s no question there,” Robinson said.

The cost of riding transit rose every year between 2011 and 2017, before the board implemented a freeze in 2018. The new chair said she hopes to avoid fare increases in 2019.

“I would hate to see the cost on transit riders go up, because they’re doing the city a favour by riding the system, quite frankly. It takes pressure off the roadways,” she said.

The TTC board will likely have to decide as early as next year on the thorny question of whether to pick up an option in the agency’s contract with Bombardier to buy additional streetcars from the company.

TTC staff say that in order to meet growing demand the agency could need another 60 vehicles on top of the 204 it’s already ordered, and despite the Quebec-based manufacturer’s well-publicized struggles to produce the first batch of cars on time, finding another supplier could take years longer and carry additional risks.

Although Bombardier has improved its rate of production recently, Robinson said she’s open to looking for another manufacturer.

“I think certainly we should look at alternatives and options down the road because it’s been far from ideal,” she said of the $1-billion Bombardier deal.

On the frequently glitchy Presto fare card program, Robinson vowed to “push harder” on Metrolinx, the provincial agency that owns Presto, to improve reliability.

The TTC board’s first meeting is scheduled for Jan. 10.

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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Bombardier speeding up TTC streetcar production, but has mountain to climb to meet 2019 commitments

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Bombardier is on course to meet its revised year-end delivery target for the new TTC streetcars, or at least come close. But the company is facing an enormous challenge to keep the troubled $1-billion order on track over the next 12 months.

According to the TTC, as of this week Bombardier had supplied a cumulative total of 118 streetcars to Toronto since deliveries began, which is close to the 121 the Quebec-based company had planned by the end of this year based on a revised schedule it gave the transit agency in the spring.

Bombardier has come close to meeting its revised target of delivering 121 streetcars by the end of the year.
Bombardier has come close to meeting its revised target of delivering 121 streetcars by the end of the year.  (Lucas Oleniuk / Toronto Star File)

With more than a week left in the year, TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said the agency is “optimistic” the company “will meet or come very close to the 121 number.”

“We are working hard with Bombardier to have them meet that target,” he said.

But in order to supply the full 204-vehicle order by the end of 2019 as the TTC contract stipulates, Bombardier will likely now have to deliver at least 83 of the cars next year. To date, the most it has delivered in a calendar year is the 61 supplied so far in 2018.

Under a schedule agreed to by the TTC and Bombardier in 2012, the company was supposed to spread out the delivery relatively evenly over five years, supplying between 30 and 39 of the cars annually between 2014 and 2018, and just 20 in 2019 — the final year of the deal. It was to have delivered about 184 vehicles by now.

But as production problems mounted, Bombardier was unable to reach the targets in the early years of the contract. It has revised the schedule at least six times and back-loaded the order, significantly increasing its commitment for 2019.

Bombardier spokesperson Jade St-Jean said the company is confident it will meet the contract target.

“We are fully committed to the overall delivery of 204 cars by the end of 2019,” she said.

“We are proud of our 2018 delivery rate. We produced 2.5 times the number of streetcars compared to 2017 and we also increased our delivery rate every quarter.”

St-Jean said the company has invested $20 million in its light-rail program since 2016 in order to increase production. This year it began producing TTC vehicles at its plant outside of Kingston, Ont., to complement production at Thunder Bay, Ont.

The first car from Kingston was supposed to arrive by September, but instead was shipped this month. St-Jean said the delay was the result of some “minor adjustments” that are to be expected whenever a new production line is opened.

Although Bombardier has increased its production rate, the cars it has supplied so far have not been problem-free. They continue to fall below reliability targets, in part because of issues with their doors and communications systems.

Under the terms of the contract, the vehicles are supposed to each travel 35,000 kilometres without experiencing a problem serious enough to take them out of service. But according to the most recent TTC CEO’s report, the cars’ mean distance between failure is less than half that, at about 12,500 km.

St-Jean said the reliability problems are minor, and Bombardier plans to resolve them by the first quarter of next year.

“The streetcars are safe and reliable,” she said.

In July, the company revealed it would have to recall 67 of the new cars to fix a serious welding defect. Three of the vehicles have already been shipped to Bombardier’s facility in La Pocatière, Que., to undergo the repairs. The remainder are scheduled to be fixed by 2022.

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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Two stations on new York subway extension among the least used on the TTC network

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One year after the six-stop Spadina subway extension opened, some of its stations are bustling, but two are among the least used on the entire TTC network.

The $3.2-billion extension of the TTC’s Line 1 went into service on Dec. 17, 2017. The extension, which has two stops in Vaughan in York Region, took the subway outside Toronto’s borders for the first time.

The Highway 407 station on the TTC’s Line 1 is one of the least-used subway stations on the network. The average daily usage of the TTC’s 75 stations is just over 34,000.
The Highway 407 station on the TTC’s Line 1 is one of the least-used subway stations on the network. The average daily usage of the TTC’s 75 stations is just over 34,000.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

Numbers collected by the TTC between October and November show the best performing station on the extension is York University, which has about 34,100 combined boardings and disembarkings every day.

That’s followed by Finch West, with 17,700, and Pioneer Village, which also serves the York campus, with 17,300. Vaughan Metropolitan Centre station at the end of the line has a daily usage of 14,800.

But two of the extension’s new stops have performed much worse. Highway 407 station is used by just 3,400 people a day, and Downsview Park by just 2,500.

Highway 407 and Downsview Park are both near the very bottom of the list, and are less-well used than most stops on the lower-capacity Scarborough RT.

TTC spokesperson Susan Sperling said that the agency is “pleased” with extension’s numbers however, because they already represent 94 per cent of the stations’ projected “mature state” ridership.

“Based on past experience with Line 4 (Sheppard), we expected that we would achieve 75 per cent of our projection in the first year, with projections fully realized approximately two to three years after opening,” she said.

Transit blogger Steve Munro said it’s no surprise York University is a major transit destination and the two stations that serve the campus are well trafficked. There are fewer obvious trip generators around the less busy stops, however.

Highway 407 station, which sits in a field to the southeast of an intersection between two provincial highways, “is only ever going to be an interchange station for bus service,” Munro predicted.

The stop is currently served by connections to GO Transit and York Region Transit bus routes. But in a decision that has angered students, next month GO will stop running buses directly to York campus, and will reroute them to Highway 407 station instead. That’s expected to boost the use of the TTC stop.

The immediate area around Downsview Park station is a federally owned urban park and is relatively underdeveloped, although there have long been plans to bring more employment and residential uses to the area.

Toronto’s secondary plan for Downsview suggests that there could eventually be 42,000 more residents and jobs near the stop, but they’ve yet to materialize.

According to Munro, it might have been wise to omit Downsview Park station from the extension, at least initially. The TTC could have left space for the stop and built it later once sufficient development occurred around the site.

The transit agency took that approach with North York Centre station, an “infill” stop that was completed in 1987, 13 years after the Yonge subway extension was built.

“The advantage basically being, you don’t have to actually build the station until there’s something there to serve,” Munro said.

Although Downsview Park and Highway 407 stations see few riders, those who do use the stops are grateful they were built.

Toronto’s subway system just grew. Check out this timeline of the TTC’s growth since 1954.

Standing on the near empty southbound platform at Highway 407 Friday afternoon, Sherry Marksman, 45, said the extension has dramatically reduced the time it takes her to commute between her packing job at a warehouse north of Highway 401 and her home in the St. Clair neighbourhood of Toronto.

Before it opened?

“Oh my goodness, chaos,” she said. She used to have to transfer between a bus and the subway at Sheppard West station, a trip that took 90 minutes. Now it takes about 25.

“Right now it’s 3:36 p.m. I guarantee you I’ll be home by about five to four, I’ll be in my house,” she said.

Downsview Park station and Highway 407 station are underused stations even on a Saturday afternoon, not long before Christmas.
Downsview Park station and Highway 407 station are underused stations even on a Saturday afternoon, not long before Christmas.  (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

The six cavernous stops each cost between $125 million and $404 million to build (subway tunnels are included in some of the costs). They’ve been praised for their architectural ambition, but also criticized for supposedly being overbuilt.

At a speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade last month, Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek depicted the stations as an example of government waste, saying they looked like they had been built to resemble “Taj Mahals, as opposed to being functional as they were required.”

“To me, to our government, that’s a serious problem,” said Yurek, the Ontario PC MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London. The extension was opened under the previous Liberal government.

The entire extension went well over budget. It was initially supposed to end near York University and cost only $1.5 billion, but delays and the decision to extend it to Vaughan centre dramatically increased the cost. The project was paid for by the City of Toronto, York Region, and the provincial and federal governments.

When the extension opened the TTC estimated it would cost the agency $25 million a year to operate. The TTC predicted the new stops would attract 1.2 million net new customers to the network each year, a fraction of the more than 530 million who used the transit agency in 2017.

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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Council agrees to talks with province about TTC subway upload

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Councillors have voted to enter into discussions with Premier Doug Ford’s government about the province’s plan to take ownership of the TTC subway system, even though they registered their opposition to the plan.

At a meeting Thursday, council voted 24 to 1 to approve recommendations in a report from City Manager Chris Murray to start talks with the province on a potential “upload” of the subway to Queen’s Park.

But they also voted 23 to 2 to in favour of an amendment from Mayor John Tory to “reaffirm (council’s) support for keeping ownership of the Toronto Transit Commission in the City of Toronto.”

Council passed a similar motion in May, after the Ontario PCs floated the upload in their election platform.

In a speech to council, Tory expressed skepticism about the upload, saying the Ontario PCs have never fleshed out the plan in detail and suggesting the proposal was “a solution in search of a problem.”

The PCs say the city has a poor track record of building new lines, and the province is better positioned financially to create an efficient regional transit network.

But city staff were unable to answer questions raised by councillors Thursday about what the plan would mean for TTC service or the city’s ability to co-ordinate transit with land use planning.

I think, in the end, the best way to protect the transit system … is to go to the table and get answers to the questions,” said Tory.

Staunch opponents of the upload agreed it was best to talk with Queen’s Park, given the legislative authority the province has over the city.

“As the largest city in this country, as the economic engine of this province and country, our ability to own and operate the transit system is central to our success,” said Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 10 Spadina-Fort York). He said he saw “zero benefit” to Ford’s government taking over the subway.

“I believe we should use absolutely every tool that we have, every tool at our disposal, to fight this. And that includes, based on our legislative framework, being at the table.”

The recommendations approved by council authorize the city manager to enter into an agreement with the province under which the city would share information about the subway system that could help facilitate the upload.

Staff are expected to report back to council early next year with an update.

In a letter to Tory last month, Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek said he wanted the city’s written commitment by no later than Thursday that it would participate in the information-sharing agreement.

The minister said the goal of the exercise is to assess the value of the subway assets, the maintenance backlog, and the operating costs of the network.

A confidential legal opinion attached to the city report warned council effectively has no legal power to prevent the upload.

The legal opinion, which was obtained by the Star, said Queen’s Park could unilaterally take ownership of the network without compensating the city financially, and even leave the municipality on the hook for the billions of dollars of debt it has accrued funding the system.

Although the city manager’s recommendations passed with almost unanimous support, some councillors vowed fierce pushback if the province actually takes concrete steps to upload the subway. Yurek has said the Ontario PC’s could introduce enabling legislation early next year.

Councillor Krystin Wong-Tam (Ward 13 Toronto Centre) called the subway the “heart and the spine” of Toronto and argued it has to remain integrated with the bus and streetcar network in order to provide quality service. She urged council to block Ford’s plans.

“I think we’re about to get into the biggest fight in this term if (Ford) is successful in taking this away from us” she said.

In a statement released Thursday evening, Yurek said he was pleased with council’s decision.

“Our government was elected to get the people of Ontario moving and we are working towards that goal,” he said. Yurek claimed that the city “is not good at planning or building subways.”

He promised to carry out talks with the city “in good faith.”

In another significant transit decision Thursday, council voted 19 to 3 to extend the King St. streetcar pilot project until July 31, 2019. City transportation staff said they needed more time to collect and report on data from the pilot, which was set to expire on December 31. Their final report is expected by March, after which council will decide whether to make the project permanent.

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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‘Rock star’ Brad Ross leaves the TTC proud, personable

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It was a blackout a decade ago that Brad Ross says inadvertently led him to invite the potential wrath of 1.7 million transit users down on him every day.

Ross was less than a year into his job as director of corporate communications at the TTC, when on the evening of Jan. 15, 2009, a malfunctioning sprinkler flooded a city transformer and knocked out power to 250,000 residents and much of the west end.

Subway service was suspended on a portion of the Bloor-Danforth line, and Ross dutifully did interviews with local media to alert riders of the disruption.

But then he logged onto Twitter, which until then he’d mostly used to post messages about the Toronto Maple Leafs, to spread the news. And something happened:

“I started to get questions, and it started to get retweets, and it started to really pick up. That’s when the light kind of went on for me,” he said.

That real-time engagement with TTC customers that social media offers soon came to seem imperative for Ross, 55, who for the past 10 years has been the face, voice and online personality of the public transit system many Torontonians love to hate.

Read more:

Longtime spokesperson Brad Ross leaving TTC for city hall job

He’ll end his time at the TTC on Friday, and next month start a job as the City of Toronto’s chief communications officer.

In his time at the transit agency, he’s had to defend unpopular policies, talk customers through a transit strike, and even faced serious harassment, but has also earned praise for what many see as his direct, transparent and personable approach.

“I think he’s a rock star,” said Amanda Galbraith, a principal at Navigator communications firm and a former director of communications for Mayor John Tory.

Galbraith described Ross as straightforward and knowledgeable, but said his greatest talent could be his ability to relate to customers.

“You want to like the people you’re hearing from, even if you’re hearing bad news (about) TTC closures or shutdowns. If it’s someone that’s relatable, that is liked, that you know, that you see, it’s sort of easier to take.”

As a member of the TTC executive, Ross oversees about 50 staff members. Still, nearly every day he takes time to answer questions posed to him online by members of the public, whether they’re asking about misfiring Presto fare card readers or why their bus was late.

Sometimes he simply says “Hi!” when one of his 30,000 Twitter followers messages to say they saw him on the subway, which he rides to work every day from his home in East York.

He said while “people are not shy about letting us know how we’re doing,” the vast majority of customers are polite — if a little fed up.

“When people yell, or virtually yell anyway, they’re frustrated, right? I get it,” he said. “I’ve ridden the system all my life. So I know how frustrating it can be waiting for a vehicle.”

Ross grew up in North York and Scarborough and initially wanted to be a radio DJ before he got into communications. His Indochino suits conceal about 15 tattoos, the first of which he got when he was in his late 40s. The text beneath a grinning skull on his left forearm proclaims any spokesperson’s favourite stock phrase: “No Comment.”

On one wall of his office at the TTC’s Yonge St. headquarters hangs a black leather jacket; on another a bus station map the transit agency removed after customers complained it looked too phallic. Ross says he kept it as a conversation piece.

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Ross’s personality and sense of humour are evident scrolling through his Twitter timeline. But what’s as notable is how often he admits to customers the TTC got something wrong, be it inadequate service or his recent admission the agency should be paying artists whose work is posted in subway trains.

“Brad’s abiding achievement at the TTC was to encourage us to own bad news,” said former TTC CEO Andy Byford, who was Ross’s boss between 2012 and 2017 and who considers him a friend.

“So many big corporations try to ride out a controversial issue by pulling up the drawbridge and hoping it goes away, but Brad insisted that such a strategy was flawed and that it was far better to get out and tackle it.”

From the start, Ross had no shortage of bad news to talk about. Three weeks after he joined the TTC, transit workers went on an unexpected strike. Employees took vehicles out of service at midnight on Saturday, April 26, 2008, hours after union members voted down a contract settlement their leadership had reached with TTC management. Torontonians woke up the next day without a working transit system.

“I believe that strike, because we inconvenienced so many people, it turned people against the TTC,” Ross said.

“That really was the beginning of what became two years of a really bad news cycle for the TTC.”

The controversies culminated in an incident Ross said remains the biggest regret of his TTC career.

On Jan. 9, 2010, a passenger snapped a photo of a subway collector asleep inside a station booth and posted it to on social media. The image of the “TTC sleeper” garnered widespread media attention and was broadly disseminated online, with web users competing to create satirical doctored versions.

The employee, a 29-year TTC veteran named George Robitaille who had once saved a disabled customer’s life, later said he had a health issue that explained his sleeping on the job. He died of a stroke 10 months later.

Ross said management was initially unaware Robitaille was sick, but he regrets not publicly standing up for the collector when the public and media piled on.

“I wish I could have it back,” he said. “Did we ask the right questions? Did we push back enough?”

Ross says his very public role has recently exacted a toll on him and his family. Since the summer of 2016, he has been the target of what appears to be an online harassment campaign that became so serious he contacted the TTC’s special constables and the Toronto police.

He also began receiving late night calls to his cellphone (he gives his number out on TTC press releases). The first time he answered, he said, someone “clearly disturbed” was on the other end. He no longer picks up.

He now takes precautions that include leaving his office by a different route each day, and removing his agency name tag when in public. He’s installed a security system at his home.

Ross and his wife both have two adult children from previous relationships — three daughters and a son. At times his family has been drawn into the harassment.

“If it were just about me that would be fine. When disgusting things are said about my family, and pictures of my family are used, that is a line that gets crossed and I need to deal with it,” Ross said.

When the harassment began, it made him rethink whether he needed to be so public in his work, but those doubts soon passed.

“I just thought, either I’m going to do this or I’m not going to do this,” he said.

Among Ross’s few detractors are the leaders of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, which represents the majority of TTC workers. Secretary-Treasurer Kevin Morton said that during Ross’s tenure the TTC has misled the public about the depth of the problems on issues such as Presto fare card system and the delayed Bombardier streetcar order.

“He is a product of his environment, and his environment right now is to mislead and not tell the public the truth about Presto and the new streetcars,” Morton said.

Ross rejects the assertion. “There isn’t a public agency that I can think of that is as open and transparent and under as much public scrutiny as the TTC,” he said.

Ross said the initiative he’s most proud of is changing the way the TTC talks about suicides on the subway system. Instead of cloaking such incidents in technical language about “injuries at track level” or “priority ones” (the internal TTC code for a suicide), Ross will bluntly tell the public when someone has ended their life on the TTC.

His frankness about such a sensitive topic has surprised some transit users, but Ross said he believes speaking honestly about suicide humanizes the deceased and raises awareness about mental health issues.

Ross said there was no one reason he decided to leave the TTC now, but admitted he won’t miss the 5 a.m. calls from transit staff alerting him that subway service is down and he has to tell the public.

When the job at city hall opened up, he said, he saw an opportunity to take “what I’ve been doing here and see what I can apply down there to make the city more accessible to people.”

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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Council powerless to stop provincial takeover of TTC subway system, confidential city report says

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Premier Doug Ford’s government has the legal authority to unilaterally take over the TTC subway system without offering the city as much as a cent in compensation, according to a confidential council report.

The four-page document written by the city’s legal department and obtained by the Star is a confidential attachment to a public report released Monday on the province’s plan to take ownership of the subway network. The confidential legal opinion provides advice to councillors ahead of a key council vote on the proposal expected Thursday.

The legal opinion lays out in stark terms how few options the municipal government likely has to prevent the province from taking control of the subway on terms dictated almost entirely by Queen’s Park.

“The province can by legislation take over ownership of subway assets, including real property and other assets, and can do so without compensation to the City of Toronto or the TTC if the legislation expressly provides that no compensation shall be payable,” the report reads.

While generally no entity in Ontario can take property from another without providing some kind of compensation, according to city staff the provincial government has the jurisdiction to legislate property rights in the province and “it could enact legislation that explicitly removes the city and/or the TTC’s right to compensation for subway lands, fixed assets, and chattels.”

The province could also pass a law that would compensate the city for its subway assets at a level below market value or “otherwise in an amount considered to be inadequate by the city,” the report states.

Legal staff speculate that by assuming responsibility for subway maintenance or other costs currently paid by the city as part of the upload, the Progressive Conservative government could argue it had provided fair compensation for Toronto’s rail assets.

The report warns that the province could even leave Toronto saddled with the debt the city has accrued in the course of funding the subway network it has owned for decades. That’s because debt issued by the city to finance subway capital costs are general obligation debentures, and are “not secured by the subway asset.”

“Accordingly, the transfer of the asset does not affect the debt,” the report says.

City legal staff say that by law the province could even completely dissolve the TTC.

Only the federal government could put a check on provincial authority over the subway system, according to the opinion.

Under the Constitution Act, the federal government could theoretically claim jurisdiction over the subway system by declaring it to be a public work for “the general advantage of Canada.”

Historically, the federal government has most frequently used this power to assume control over railways.

“The Toronto subway system could be seen to be analogous to a railway due to its importance in keeping the country’s largest economic region running,” the report states.

However, the city would have no ability to compel Ottawa to step in, and the Canadian government assuming jurisdiction of the subway would likely subject it to federal regulations, a change that would have uncertain implications for the transit system.

At its meeting Thursday, council is expected to vote on whether to authorize city manager Chris Murray to begin talks with the Ford government about the upload, including entering into an information-sharing agreement to provide details about the subway that could help facilitate a provincial takeover.

Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek wants written commitment from Mayor John Tory by Thursday that the city will participate in the information-sharing arrangement.

In the public report released Monday, Murray recommended the city engage with the province in order to better understand its goals and “ensure the province understands the city’s key interests and objectives.”

Tory has said he will support engaging with the province, arguing that with Queen’s Park wielding so much legislative power, the only chance the city has to preserve its interests is to have a voice at the table.

He has said he wants more information about what the province is planning but that any upload scheme must be beneficial for the city, transit riders and TTC workers.

Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto—St. Paul’s), who opposes the upload, wouldn’t comment on the confidential report. But he said the city likely has little choice but to engage with the province.

He argued that doesn’t mean the city should “capitulate” to any provincial plan that would disadvantage Toronto residents and transit users.

“I support in principle being at the table to discuss transit with the province given that they have an enormous amount of power over us, and we can’t deny that reality,” he said.

“I don’t believe the city should go to the table and just say, ‘hey, how can we help you screw us?’”

The Ontario PCs have argued that the upload would be beneficial for the region’s transit system because the province is best equipped to efficiently finance new lines and create a seamless network across municipal boundaries. The party says that while Queen’s Park would take ownership of the subway, the TTC would be responsible for operations and the city would still collect fare revenue.

Transit advocates, the TTC’s largest union and some councillors vigorously oppose the proposal, warning the PCs would privatize work on the subway, sell off its assets, and extend lines to the party’s political base in the GTA suburbs at the expense of building the badly needed Relief Line.

With files from David Rider.

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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