Toronto’s ever twisting transit saga has seen numerous shocks, but few are larger than the ever-growing possibility that the TTC will be partially or entirely taken over by the provincial government. The initial proposal seems to focus on taking over the TTC subway, while leaving the buses and streetcars under the City’s aegis. Given the structure of Ontario governance, it’s certainly within the powers of the province to do so—remember that the province abolished the entire City of Toronto in 1998—but that doesn’t mean that it’s the right move either for the government’s finances or for Toronto’s transit riders.
Firstly, it’s worth emphasizing that the greatest strength of the TTC is its strong coordination between the bus network and the subway. Most TTC subway riders outside downtown get to the subway by feeder bus, which is why the TTC has easily the highest suburban subway ridership in North America. Separating the buses and the subways into entirely separate agencies run by different levels of government is a recipe for shattering what makes the city’s network successful. Dividing the system is also likely to bring about buck-passing and other political squabbling between levels of government, which isn’t going to do much to make Toronto transit better.
That’s been the story of transit in New York City. Decades ago, the city handed over its subways to an agency at the state level of government. It was believed that the state’s greater financial resources would enable it to better fund the system. It was also thought that weakening political accountability would make it easier to do things like raise fares. Instead of bringing about transit's promised land, the state’s agencies presided over the subway’s decay into near total collapse. One of the constants of New York politics is the mayor blaming the governor (and vice versa) for the transit system’s state. New York City had additional issues that hopefully won’t be present in Toronto, but it certainly doesn’t seem like a model for emulation.
Right now, plans seem to suggest that operations will be retained by the TTC, while ownership and capital projects will be handled by the province—likely through public-private partnerships. They want to take control of projects like subway extensions and re-signalling, believing that private partnerships could do the job more cheaply. The trouble is, how do you separate operations from daily maintenance? And how do you separate daily maintenance from longer-term state-of-good repair? Will TTC operators who experience a maintenance problem have to contact a private contractor working for an agency of an entirely different level of government to get it fixed? What happens if the TTC is unhappy with the maintenance standards of the private company? Will the city have to beg Doug Ford to press the private contractor to change? Needless to say, that doesn’t sound like a process that will facilitate the quick response needed to keep trains running on time.
The impetus for all this is the belief that the TTC’s costs for things like construction are unreasonably high. That’s not untrue: Toronto’s transit capital construction costs are among the highest in the world. Paris is building its new Line 16 Metro line for about $97 million per kilometre. The Scarborough subway extension is forecast to cost about $577 million per kilometre, and it has far fewer stations, which are the most expensive part. Even if these figures are not perfectly comparable, it’s a striking difference.
The province’s proposed solution is to take over the subway and build using public-private partnerships. The problem is that, when they’ve been tried in Toronto, they haven’t had any better results at keeping costs low. The Crosstown LRT is budgeted at around $280 million per kilometre, and a third of it isn’t even underground and its capacity is considerably lower than a subway. That’s not even mentioning the recently highlighted cost overruns on the Crosstown project. Think of Paris, which has much lower construction costs than Toronto. Its subways are built by a public operator, as are those in Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, and Copenhagen, all of which build for a far lower cost per kilometre than Toronto. There are no simple, magical solutions to this problem. Privatization isn’t a panacea for construction costs. It's not so simple.
Fixing the problem will require more focused attention on emulating construction methods that have been proven overseas, and looking at ways to build that are less expensive. For example, there’s no need to dig expensive tunnels in many low-density suburban areas. Most of the Spadina-York extension runs under empty government-owned land—there’s no reason it couldn’t have been built elevated. Vancouver, London, and Copenhagen can all show that modern elevated rail is entirely compatible with successful developments.
Another claimed benefit for public-private partnerships is the greater reliability of costs. A private company bids a fixed price, and they’re supposed to cover cost overruns. Trouble is, as the Crosstown problems demonstrate, the private partners manage to find all kinds of ways to demand additional payments whenever problems arise. If things get really bad, they might just repeat what happened in London: the private consortia who were supposed to rebuild the Tube just abandoned the project when it looked like there were too many problems for it to be profitable, and they left the transit agency holding the bag.
In the long term, it seems like the province is interested in moving toward the transit operating model of London. Transport for London is an agency that plans and administers all of the transit in the region, but most of the actual operations are contracted out to various private operators—amusingly, many of which are actually public transit agencies in other cities, like Paris’ RATP, which profit in London to subsidize their own riders. It’s not at all clear that such a change would bring any real benefits to Toronto transit riders or to government budgets. TfL still receives generous government subsidy and benefits from revenue from London’s congestion charge toll on all drivers in Central London. Its construction costs and operating costs are generally higher than those in continental Europe, and its Tube fares are among the highest in the world.
The truth is, contrary to popular belief, the TTC’s operations are quite efficient, even by world standards. Its fare recovery of over 70% is easily the highest in North America (New York’s MTA is under 50%), and higher than most European cities, while charging a relatively reasonable citywide flat fare. It’s very unlikely that a private operator could do any better, especially after taking a profit.
There’s no question that Greater Toronto needs better coordination between transit agencies. Carving out a chunk of the TTC and uploading it to the province isn’t going to solve the problems. A better approach would be a German-style “traffic union.” It’s an organization that coordinates between all the different agencies in a region, setting a shared fare policy and distributing revenues, allowing riders to access information from a common source, and coordinating schedules. At the same time, operations can remain locally controlled so that when riders have a problem with the bus or trains, they don’t have to complain to a distant state or provincial government to get things fixed.