Commit to funding public transit operating costs, national coalition tells federal parties

A national coalition of transit and environmental organizations is calling on the federal parties to commit to funding the operating costs of public transit. 

The organizations include the David Suzuki Foundation, TTCRiders, Continuing Education Students’ Association of X University and the Toronto chapter of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.  

With less than a week to go before the federal election, the group has been handing out thousands of flyers to Toronto commuters about the need for federal funding for daily operating expenses. 

“It’s a way to bust traffic congestion. It’s going to help us with the economic recovery that we need, and of course it’s a key climate solution,” said Gideon Forman, a climate change and transportation policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation at Spadina Station on Tuesday morning. 

He said that the federal government has recently invested in “big capital projects” such as electric buses and light rail, but not funds for operations. 

“Those are great, but the buses don’t drive themselves. So we need that money for daily operating expenses, things like hiring more of our drivers, keeping the subway stations disinfected, and overall having a high level of maintenance in our facilities.”

Federal parties differ on transit, prof says

So far, none of the parties have focused on operating costs for public transit. 

“All of the party platforms on public transit are vague, because in part what they are offering at the moment is a vision,” said Shoshanna Saxe, an assistant professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto. 

Because the Liberal government has been in power for six years, they have provided the most detail, she said. In February 2021, the Liberal government pledged $14.5 billion for public transit, including a permanent public transit fund that would begin in 2026.

“That is, at a minimum, two elections from now, and I’d like to see more dedicated transport funding earlier,” she said. 

The TTC currently has a funding shortfall about more than $80 million for 2021 due to the loss of ridership during the pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

She added that the Conservatives platform is mainly concerned with specific “shovel-ready” projects, while the NDP was more concerned with electrification and the Green Party was much more focused on sustainable energy and zero-emissions vehicles than long-term funding for public transit.

Although operating costs for public transit don’t generally fall under federal jurisdiction, it intersects with other issues that concern the federal government, such as sustainability, health and well-being, freedom of movement and access to services, Saxe said.

“Ideally, we’d see the provinces really investing in this, taking responsibility for both what is their constitutional responsibility and also for the money needed through their ability to raise funds or taxes,” she said.

“In the absence of that in many provinces, people are looking for a way forward.”

TTC loss of ridership ‘unprecedented’

During the pandemic, the federal government stepped in to provide relief funding for public transit when ridership numbers cratered, Saxe said. However, it was meant to be emergency funding in a crisis, not long-term support. 

Stuart Green, a spokesperson for the Toronto Transit Commission, said that TTC ridership is still 40 to 45 per cent below pre-pandemic levels. The loss of ridership has meant that the TTC has had to rely on the relief funding from the federal and provincial governments to continue its operations.

The TTC currently has a $84.8-million funding shortfall and has received about $1.3 billion in relief from the federal and provincial governments in 2020 and 2021, according to Green and the TTC’s most recent financial update

“We don’t really have any intention of cutting service or raising fares to try and offset this. This is unprecedented ridership loss,” Green said. 

Metrolinx, the provincial agency that runs GO Transit, said in a statement that ridership is at 40 to 50 per cent on weekends and at 20 per cent on weekdays compared to pre-pandemic levels. The GO operating subsidy comes from the Ontario government, the agency said.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for MiWay, the Mississauga Transit system, said information about the impact of the pandemic on their operating budget was “currently under review as part of our budget process.”

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