Tuesday, March 30, 2004

More on the Anniversary

No, I didn't make it down to the Ceremonial Anniversary Train Ride. I had been considering it, and was ready to go down wearing my ceremonial fedora (gotta keep with the nostalgia after all), which, according to Andrew Spicer's report, would have gone well with the historic advertising (damn! missed it). In the end, I decided I couldn't justify missing that much work.

I did, however, play hooky (well, "play flex-time") long enough to catch the pre-ride announcements and speeches. There were a lot of good political words about the TTC and what it means to Toronto. For their part, the TTC held it in their Hillcrest garage, where they could take Martin and McGuinty on a tour of where the TTC reconstructs buses to extend their lives well beyond what is generally considered the maximum age for a bus (about 18 years). Both Martin and McGuinty marvelled at this feat in their speeches, which is notable as it's one of the best examples of how the TTC has managed to do more with less (or, how little fat there is left to cut) — the other example is the 80% (81%?) fare recovery, meaning that 80% of operating expenses are paid for through fares. Most transit systems in North America are closer to 50 to 60%, if even that.

There were two disappointments in terms of the funding. One that has been discussed at large already is the amount of funding. One billion dollars is a nice, even, impressive-sounding number. But really, it's spread across five years (so say $200 million per year), and of that, one third is coming from the city who, theoretically, would already be spending the money. The consensus seems to be that, yes, the money's nice, but it's still not enough. A few typical capital costs (most taken from the TTC's Ridership Growth Summary (PDF; 2003)):

  • Typical cost for one standard low-floor bus: $500,000

  • Estimated cost of a streetcar (going by memory, and ignoring the fact that the TTC would need a new custom design): $2 million

  • Implementing smart card fare collection technology system-wide: $140 to $160 million

  • Extension of Spadina subway to York University/Steeles Avenue: $1.1 billion

  • Extension of Sheppard subway to Scarborough Town Centre: $1.7 billion

  • Mike Myers in a TTC uniform: priceless

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)
Also, the funding is for capital costs, not operating costs (staff and drivers, fuel, electricity, vehicle insurance, etc.). These are the costs of which 80% is covered through the farebox; the rest is covered by municipal subsidy. When you hear transit folk advocating for money from the gas tax, that's what it would go towards.

The other hidden controversy may or may not be significant. As noted in the Globe and Mail, the federal money may not be evenly distributed — it may start out this year at only $20 million, for example, with subsequent levels increasing. This would mean less help this year, when the City is in budget crisis mode. (The silver lining may be that, if it's at, say, $100 million by the end of year 5 and the agreement is renewed, it'd be harder to revert back to that $70 million five-year average.) The money may also come with strings attached; while the TTC's most urgent capital need is maintaining a state of good repair for its vehicles and infrastructure, the Feds may not find that need sexy enough, and may direct it to be spent on projects such as the above-noted smart card technology, which the TTC doesn't feel benefits them significantly enough (see discussion in the Ridership Growth Study, link above). CityTV's Adam Vaughan angrily tried to make a lot out of this during the post-announcement media question period, to which Miller and TTC Chair Howard Moscoe (surprise!) tried to calm him down and reassure him that the disagreements had been worked out. (Moscoe was surprisingly non-confrontational, although he did repeatedly stress the "this is only a down payment" issue.)

In all, the theme that was repeatedly pushed was, "This may not be perfect, but the money is still nothing to be sneezed at, and it is an historic arrangement in that all three levels of government are finally at the table." Variants of that line were repeated often as answers to media questions. I'd generally concur; it's certainly a nice change from the late 1990's, where there was a provincial government that was arguably hostile to Toronto and its transit issues, and a federal government that was hostile to the provincial government (and likely vice versa).

My major beef with the news conference? The CBC used their question to dog Martin on the sponsorship scandal. Regardless of your opinion on the issue, I don't think this was an appropriate time or place to bring that up.


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