TTC budget 'not sustainable,' says CEO Andy Byford
CEO says transit agency facing "painful" choices in coming years without stable sources of funding.
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As part of what Andy Byford has called the “most protracted, toughest budget” process of his four-year tenure, the TTC CEO will go before the city’s budget committee on Monday to outline the transit agency’s 2017 financial plans.
According to the preliminary budget for the TTC, the outlook for next year is this: passengers will pay higher fares for transit service that is the same or slightly worse than this year, even as the city invests more to cover the agency’s growing costs.
And though the plan before the committee would push the TTC’s annual operating budget to almost $2 billion in 2017, the funding strategies employed to get it there will do little to ensure the transit system’s long-term stability.
According to TTC chair Josh Colle, the agency has done “a stellar job of trying to contain costs” but it’s clear Toronto needs “more dependable, reliable funding” for public transit.
Council is expected to vote on the budget for all city departments in February.
Here’s a look at some of the big questions the TTC is facing headed into next year.
Has the TTC met Mayor John Tory and city council’s request to cut its net operating budget by 2.6 per cent?
No. Although this summer Tory threatened to call in a task force to comb the TTC’s books for savings, officials at the transit agency and in mayor’s office privately conceded months ago that the TTC wouldn’t be able to meet the 2.6-per-cent target without politically unpalatable service cuts.
That’s because reducing its operating budget would have required the TTC to absorb more than $200 million in additional costs it’s facing next year, including mandatory expenditures, labour outlays written into the agency’s collective agreement, and the opening of the Spadina subway extension in late 2017.
To reduce its financial pressure the transit agency found about $137 million in savings and new revenue next year, including savings on items like overtime and employee health benefits, and a 10-cent fare increase that will raise an estimated $28.7 million.
In addition, the TTC employed one-time “bridging” strategies like exhausting a $14.4-million reserve fund, saving on the delayed implementation of the Presto system, and a $5-million unallocated cut the source of which has yet to be identified.
In an interview, Byford said that the agency had “preformed a minor miracle” to reduce its shortfall, but warned that the one-time strategies “are not sustainable.”
“We have turned over every stone. Just about all discretionary spending has been eliminated. We’re scraping the barrel,” he said.
Is the TTC budget balanced?
Not yet. Even with the savings and additional revenue, the TTC still has a projected shortfall of $77.4 million, revised from an earlier estimate of $61 million. That accounts for most of the city’s 2017 budget gap, the most recent estimate for which is $91 million.
Last week, Tory and council backed a suite a revenue tools that could cover the gap. But Councillor Gord Perks, a frequent critic of the mayor, cautioned that with other departments also making demands new revenue streams, “the mayor is a very long road away to be able to square and balance this budget.”
“If I’m a TTC rider I should be aware that my service is still at risk.”
Is the city investing more in the TTC?
Yes. If approved, the preliminary budget would increase the size of the operating budget for the TTC and Wheel-Trans by 5 per cent, bringing it to $1.95 billion. More than half of that would be paid for through fares.
The operating subsidy the city gives the TTC would also increase. Instead of the 2.6-per-cent cut requested by the mayor and council, it would jump by 12.7 per cent, from $610.3 million to $687.7 million.
Measured in terms of subsidy per rider, the city’s contribution to TTC conventional service would rise substantially, from 90 cents per customer to roughly $1 per customer.
That’s largely because the TTC is expecting the current trend of sluggish ridership growth to continue, and plans to carry only 544 million riders next year. That’s a nominal increase to the 540 million trips expected in 2016.
Although at $1 the TTC’s per-rider subsidy would be the highest it’s been since at least 2010, it would still be lower than that of many other transit agencies.
“At the end of the day we’re still a long way from where transit riders and where the TTC needs to be,” said Jessica Bell, executive director of advocacy group TTCriders.
How will service change next year?
The preliminary budget doesn’t include any funding for increased service, but doesn’t propose significant service reductions either.
That doesn’t mean service won’t suffer. A dozen bus routes will have service reduced early next year, a change the TTC attributes to needing to redeploy buses on streetcar lines because of delays to the Bombardier streetcar order.
Bell argued that the TTC should be adding service, especially because a quarter of bus and streetcar routes are regularly operating above crowding standards.
“We’ve still got overcrowding, we’ve still got major delays . . . We’ve still got a lot of really poor service, especially in the outer suburbs,” she said. Transit users “will be paying too much for service that isn’t good enough in 2017.”
Byford rejected the idea that riders are being asked to pay more for worse transit. He noted that the agency is rolling out the “state-of-the-art” Presto fare card system, has purchased new buses and streetcars, and will open the Spadina subway extension next year.
“I get the frustration if they feel that the day-to-day service might not have changed,” he said, “but progressively the TTC is being completely modernized.”
Is anything in the TTC budget unfunded?
There are $5.8 million worth of “new and enhanced” services that the TTC board approved but that city staff omitted from the preliminary budget.
The unfunded items include a controversial plan for random drug testing of employees, track safety and subway reliability programs, and retraining subway fare collectors to become “customer service agents” as the TTC switches to the Presto system.
Colle, the TTC chair, said none of the programs are “frivolous” and he hoped they will be added back into the budget before the final vote.
What is the outlook for 2018?
The city is already projecting a $284.7-million shortfall for the TTC in 2018, largely attributable to the full-year cost of operating the Spadina subway extension, the TTC’s station renovation program, and rising labour costs.
The TTC board has approved a fare freeze for 2018, but that is non-binding.
Byford says that in future years the TTC will realize “mouth-watering” savings through initiatives like eliminating the guard position on its subways and transferring some Wheel-Trans customers to the conventional system.
Some of those measures will take years to bear fruit however, and Byford admits the agency will again be forced to “make tough choices” in 2018. “It will be painful,” he predicted.
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