There’s no map to show how a provincial decision to claw back more than $1 billion earmarked for transit will affect TTC riders, but city officials are warning the Ford government’s cancellation of a promised increase from gas tax revenues will set Toronto’s network on a path toward more crowded and less reliable service.
In their first budget since taking power last June, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives revealed last week they wouldn’t honour the former Liberal government’s pledge to increase the proceeds of provincial gas tax revenue transferred to municipalities, despite Premier Doug Ford’s party promising to do so during the 2018 campaign.
The news came one day after Ford unveiled the blueprint for his new $28.5-billion transit plan, which he said would deliver big benefits for the city’s riders.
Toronto received about $185 million last year from the gas tax, and uses much of the yearly proceeds to pay for TTC improvements — not for building new lines but for day-to-day maintenance and upgrades to the existing system.
The province’s clawback will cost the TTC $1.1 billion over the next decade, a big hit for an agency that was already facing a $33.5-billion backlog of capital work over 15 years, roughly two thirds of which is unfunded. Some $585 million of the expected increase had already been allocated to transit work.
Finance Minister Vic Fedeli defended the gas tax rollback on April 11, telling CBC Radio it would be more than offset by the government’s planned “historic investment” of $11.2 billion towards new lines in the GTA, and suggesting the city could find “efficiencies” in its budget to make up for the lost funding.
On Wednesday, council rejected that argument and voted unanimously to ask the province to reverse its decision.
Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York), said there was irony in the province cutting off gas tax funding even as it moves to take ownership of the TTC rail network.
“This province is cutting the budget for repairs, so there’s less money to actually make transit arrive on time,” he said.
“This is a vicious cycle by design. The province breaks the TTC by not funding the TTC, they then propose to upload the TTC to fix the system that they broke.”
Exactly which TTC projects will be impacted by the loss of gas tax revenue is uncertain, because each year the agency allocates the money to pressing elements of its 10-year capital plan, and priorities change year over year.
But here are some projects gas tax money had been allocated to in the TTC’s 10-year capital plan that will now be more difficult to fund as a result of the province’s decision. Paying for these projects could mean diverting money from other work, and would increase pressure on the TTC’s already strained capital works program.
Subway power upgrades
The TTC had allocated $163.3 million in gas tax revenue over 10 years for upgrading traction power on the subway system.
Increasing power capacity is critical to ensuring the agency has enough juice to run trains more frequently on Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina), part of a long-term plan to alleviate the crowding that often plagues the system during peak periods.
Currently, the agency schedules 25.5 trains per hour to run through its busiest station at Bloor-Yonge during the morning rush. By 2023, ridership is expected to grow so much that the TTC will have to operate at least 31 trains per hour to meet demand.
The TTC says the power upgrades will also help ensure that if one of its substations goes down, the system has enough electricity to operate trains at full speed. Without that redundancy, service would slow during a partial power outage, leading to more crowding.
The biggest single allocation of the gas tax funding was $200.2 million earmarked for Easier Access, the program to install features such as elevators and barrier-free entrances at subway stations to make them accessible.
Under provincial legislation, all stations on the network must be accessible by 2025, but as of last month the required improvements had only been made to 45 of the TTC’s 75 stops.
A recent report on accessibility laws tabled in the provincial legislature highlighted the importance of accessible transit for people with mobility challenges. “If you can’t leave your home, there will be no job, recreation, shopping or other opportunities. Better transportation requires money and leadership,” it said.
Rail yard upgrades
The trains that currently serve Line 1 primarily enter service each morning from Wilson Yard, on the western side of the line’s “U.” If there is a delay in getting trains out of Wilson because of a signal problem or other issue, it can mean the TTC is left without enough subways to meet morning rush-hour demand, resulting in longer waits and overcrowding on platforms during the busiest time of day.
A signal failure that delayed trains leaving Wilson Yard was a contributing factor to major service disruptions on Jan. 30, 2018 that led to so many people being stuck on platforms at Bloor-Yonge that the TTC considered taking the unprecedented step of evacuating the station.
The TTC had allocated $135.6 million in gas tax proceeds to upgrading its yards, work the agency says would include expanding capacity at its Davisville facility on the eastern side of the Line 1 “U.” The upgrade would allow the TTC to better balance the number of Line 1 trains going into service between the two yards, reducing the chance of service problems if there is a delay getting trains out of either one.
Subway car overhauls
Roughly $87.6 million was slated for subway overhauls, a program that will be crucial to keeping Line 2’s older T1-model subways running until the 2030s, which is when the TTC believes it will be able to purchase a new fleet.
If the repair program is undermined, it would increase the chances of breakdowns and service disruptions.
The T1 cars, which entered service more than 20 years ago, have already started to experience failures that have left riders fuming. In the summer of 2016, a rash of broken air conditioning units in the fleet led to sweltering conditions in the cars.
Buses are the workhorses of the TTC fleet, and last year accounted for more than half of the 520 million trips taken on the city’s transit network.
The agency had budgeted $176.3 million for repairs to keep the vehicles in good working order over their 13-year service life. The work includes replacing transmissions and brakes to ensure there are enough buses on the road to meet demand and not leave riders waiting long periods for overcrowded vehicles.
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr