This morning a familiar scene played out: during morning rush hour one of our two subway lines closed indefinitely, unleashing chaos and paralysis on the city, affecting tens of thousands of working people in a city that won’t stop growing and can’t stop working.
Here is my attempt at a hopefully brief explainer about what’s wrong with the TTC and what’s needed to fix it. Hint: it’s money.
First a little history
The year was 1920…
and 500,000 people lived in Toronto.
TTC was founded in 1920 as it absorbed a bunch of private streetcar lines. First subway line, the beloved and beleaguered Line 1, was built in 1954. This was progressive for 1954! Man, what a good year.
Line 2, my personal favourite, was built in 1966. That was a good year too.
Here’s a nice photo from the most recent subway build:
The 70s and 80s were… not as good. This is largely because the population of Toronto didn’t grow. Hard to imagine right? Suburbs grew a lot, but not the core. So our very forward-thinking leaders figured no new subways were needed! This is because during those decades the subway (our two lines) was sufficient to meet the needs of Toronto’s not growing population.
During the 90s Toronto’s population exploded, but there was also a recession so the Harris government cut spending to pretty much everything including subways. In fact - and this is mind-blowing - the Eglinton West subway line was in the process of being excavated and the Harris government actually FILLED IT BACK IN.
Ok so some things did get built - Scarborough LRT and Sheppard Line. By now you are starting to realize that this is all pretty political. And yes, due to the population growth in the suburbs, politicians were courting favor by building transit to, you guessed it, the suburbs.
So we have a good subway, no we really do if we were living in the 80s. If we had more foresight about downtown density and about how having only two lines will be a problem if say something bad were to happen to one of those lines, we probably wouldn’t be where we are now. And where we are now is falling off the edge of the sidewalk waiting for a shuttle bus along with another 4-5 thousand people.
Dreaming of lines
If you feel like you’ve heard of plans for new subways being discussed ad nauseum for years, you’re not imagining things. Politicians have been planning subways for decades. In fact they are so good at planning them, they don’t have any time/money/energy left over to build them!
There have been so many studies and proposals and drawings and God knows what else in the last few decades it’s hard to keep track of them unless you’re a die hard transit nerd.
Since the 90s politicians started realizing that we needed more subways downtown. Unfortunately this need has not been more pressing than the needs of their egos: politicians scrapping their predecessors plans just to parade around their own plans. This is why Smart Track, Transit City, Relief Line and now Ontario Line are all starting to blur into one sad confusing dream.
The province needs to build the subway because the city doesn’t have that kind of money, billions, let’s call it subway money. Unfortunately provincial political will and commitment just doesn’t seem to be there. Case in point: Wynne committed to funding the Relief line but then she lost the election and Ford scrapped it.
The new Ontario Line seems nice and promising but it needs, you guessed it, lots of money. Where that money is going to come from is unclear. It’s hard not to get jaded seeing a new plan every four years that ends up going nowhere.
Who runs the circus
Now that we’re on the subject of money and how little of it there is, let’s see who’s responsible for running the show.
The TTC has a Board of Commissioners which has seven City Council members and four citizens. The mayor appoints the board and obviously influences it, I mean he doesn’t on paper, but of course he does! No other comparable city has a board fully appointment by the government.
Metrolinx, which oversees Presto, has a 14 person board appointed by the Premier (not legislature).
No other comparable city has a fare system controlled by another level of government.
And now to the money…
The TTC is North America’s second-most-used transit system and runs on the lowest level of subsidy than any other system in North America. So we shouldn’t at all be surprised that it breaks constantly and hasn’t been expanded in a significant way for decades. Chicago, most comparable to us, has tons of lines, most of them LRTs (which are cheaper to build and are great for neighborhoods that are dense but not too dense). Chicago, New York, Mexico City all receive more funding than us.
In 2017, according to calculations by the transit group CodeRedTO, the TTC got a subsidy of 90 cents for every rider. Transit agencies in New York, Vancouver, Ottawa, Edmonton and Mississauga received roughly twice that level of taxpayer support, Peel Region transit three times more, Durham Region four times more and York Region five times more.
To keep the show running the city raises fares because it doesn’t want to raise taxes. There is a massive backlog for maintenance and repairs, so fiscally thinking of building NEW stuff seems like a pipe dream.
I mean…we could… ok hear me out
We could raise taxes.
You know, taxes, that revenue stream we use to fund other really big useful things.
Another idea is that we all bust out our Photoshop skills, and keep “building” these really cool fantasy TTC maps like the one below!