After a year that saw the TTC come under scrutiny for its treatment of Black transit riders, agency CEO Rick Leary pledged his organization will do more to combat racial bias in 2020, while also defending new fare policies that critics claim will be discriminatory.
In a year-end interview in his office on the seventh floor of TTC headquarters at Yonge Street and Davisville Avenue, Leary acknowledged the agency has more to do to ensure all riders are treated equally.
“We can do better,” he said.
“When there’s an element of society that feels uncomfortable taking transit, everybody agrees, that’s a sin.”
Leary, who was appointed the head of Canada’s largest transit agency in July 2018, is nearing the end of his first full calendar year on the job.
He said the TTC had much to be proud of in 2019, including what he described as significant improvements in service. As an example he cited continued reductions in the number of “short turns” on bus and streetcar routes.
“I think people are seeing on the streets that there is a noticeable difference in the last few years with the quality of service,” he said.
In regards to his comments about fighting racial bias, they follow a July ombudsman’s report that found serious flaws in the organization’s investigation into a February 2018 incident in which fare inspectors forcibly detained a Black teen on a streetcar platform, as well as a 2019 Star investigation that raised concerns Black riders are disproportionately issued warnings and tickets for alleged fare evasion.
The ombudsman’s report found the TTC failed to adequately investigate the conduct of the three inspectors in the 2018 streetcar incident, including not sufficiently examining whether unconscious racial bias played a role in their treatment of the Black passenger.
Leary told the Star he took some comfort in the fact the report from Toronto Ombudsman Susan Opler “talked about unconscious bias” at the TTC rather than deliberate discrimination.
“Never once did they say this was a racist organization,” Leary said.
Following the report, the agency announced it would implement a system-wide anti-racism strategy aimed at preventing racial profiling. Leary said in the year-end interview the TTC has since instituted internal anti-bias training, and is reviewing its hiring practices to ensure it has a more diverse workforce.
Some critics believe there’s a disconnect between the TTC’s public commitment to eliminating bias and its decision to increase fares by 10 cents next year while also hiring dozens more fare inspectors.
Residents who spoke at the TTC’s Dec. 16 board meeting argued the fare hike will make it harder for low-income riders from marginalized communities to take transit, and increasing fare enforcement could lead to the “criminalization” of racial minorities.
In his interview with the Star, Leary defended the policies, arguing that combating fare evasion is crucial to ensuring the TTC has enough money to operate. He said a well-funded public transit system helps create a more equitable society for residents of all backgrounds.
“People know that there’s a need for more and greater public transit, because that alone provides access to jobs, that alone provides access for people to go to doctor’s appointments, go to school, see their friends, go shopping,” Leary said.
“That comes with a cost.”
Roughly two-thirds of the TTC’s $2.1 billion annual operating budget comes from fare revenue. A February report from Toronto’s auditor general estimated the agency lost more than $60 million to fare evasion last year.
According to Leary, the highlight of the year for the TTC was its release in January of a landmark report about the transit network’s long-term capital needs.
It estimated the TTC would require an eye-watering $33.5 billion worth of capital investment over 15 years just to keep the system functional and meet ridership growth, and about $24 billion of that had no funding source. (Both numbers have since increased as estimates were revised).
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He lamented that public conversations about transit tend to focus disproportionately on new lines at the expense of the existing network.
“It’s not just about expansion and ribbon-cuttings. It’s about maintaining what you already have,” he said.
The CEO said he sees a connection between the budget report and Mayor John Tory’s surprise decision in early December to champion a property tax increase to raise $6.6 billion for housing and TTC capital work. The tax hike was approved by council in mid-December.
Leary said the report had for the first time enabled a discussion on “what the true financial needs are for the organization.” In part as a result of the tax increase, he predicted the TTC would be “in pretty good shape for the next couple of years,” although its longer-term requirements remain unfunded.
Leary said he couldn’t be sure whether the budget report played a role in the Ontario Progressive Conservative government’s decision in October to drop plans to take ownership of the TTC subway network. The document made clear that “uploading” the subway would have made Queen’s Park responsible for billions of dollars worth of capital investment.
“All I know is it educated them on the state of the TTC and the needs of the TTC,” he said.
Leary conceded the politically charged upload discussions occupied much of his time over the past year, but he was happy with the province’s ultimate decision to not break up ownership of the existing TTC network. (Instead, the province passed legislation allowing it to control all new transit expansion projects in Toronto.)
In addition to being an eventful year on the job, 2019 was significant for Leary on a personal level. In what the CEO described as a “touching” ceremony in Scarborough on Aug. 13, the 55-year-old Boston native took the oath of Canadian citizenship.
The coming year will likely be defined by a few major issues for the TTC, including its closely watched plan to implement exclusive bus lanes on up to five busy routes, and a decision about whether it will purchase 60 additional streetcars from Bombardier. The vehicles are required to meet projected ridership demand by about 2022, and are estimated to cost about $420 million.
After earlier production delays that badly damaged the company’s reputation among Toronto transit users, Bombardier is close to delivering the last of the 204 new streetcars in the existing $1-billion order by the end of 2019, as scheduled.
Despite the earlier problems, Leary predicted Torontonians wouldn’t object to the TTC placing another expensive streetcar order with the company.
“(Bombardier) had some bumps along the way at the beginning, but they delivered,” he said.