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Cities should team up to make transit a federal election issue

Their recommendations are solid, but the numbers are the most telling part of Amalgamated Transit Union’s new report on the future of the TTC.

Beginning on page 32, the ATU lays out several detailed budget scenarios for the coming years that all point to the same conclusion: the TTC needs money.

For instance, to retain service and keep fares at current levels, the TTC’s operating subsidy will need to increase from a budgeted $428 million in 2014 to a projected $546 million in 2018. In other words, the TTC needs to come up with $118 million in new annual funding just to maintain the already strained status quo.

But what if we wanted to do something crazy like improve service, as was recommended by the TTC this summer? To do that without raising fares, the subsidy would need to be at least $627 million by 2018. With fare increases of five cents per year, the requirement drops to $533.1 million. Raise fares even more over the next four years — five cents in 2015, ten cents in 2016, ten cents in 2017 and five cents in 2018 — and service could be improved with a subsidy that increases to just $479.9 million.

The only workable budget strategies outlined in the report that don’t require increased government funding are those that jack up fares without improving service. With ridership continuing to grow and congestion dragging down Toronto’s economy, that shouldn’t be an option. Anyone who suggests otherwise should be forced to spend a day riding the 504 King streetcar.

So it becomes a question of money, and where to get it. Depending on the size of fare hikes, Toronto needs to find between $51.9 million and $118 million in sustainable annual operating funding to meet its needs.

Funding this kind of increase through property taxes isn’t ideal. It would be the equivalent of an increase somewhere between two and 4.5 per cent, something we’re unlikely to see from this mayor and council, especially with the Scarborough subway tax already on the books.

Which means, with few other revenue options, Toronto is again left at the mercy of our old pals at Queen's Park and Parliament Hill.

Even though the endless grousing from mayoral candidates about the need for the other levels of government to better fund Toronto grew tiring, it’s hard to ignore that those levels of government receive the lion’s share of tax revenue generated by the city. It isn’t crazy for the municipal government to ask for more of that money to be returned for services people in the city actually use.

With the federal election looming, ATU is right to say TTC and city hall should set their sights on Ottawa. The provincial government, for all its many faults, has at least copped to the fact they have a role to play in transit issues. The feds have been far more reluctant to even acknowledge they have anything to do with transit funding, aside from swooping in with a cheque for a subway funding photo-op every now and again.

An election is as good an opportunity as any to try to change that.

But Toronto can’t and shouldn’t do it on its own. A unilateral strategy to appeal to the federal parties will only stoke divisions and give opportunistic politicians an opening to bash the Centre Of The Universe.

Instead, we need to collaborate with other cities to make transit funding a national issue. After four years with a mayor who mostly eschewed working with groups like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the (unfortunately named) Large Urban Mayors’ Caucus of Ontario, incomimg mayor John Tory really needs to bring Toronto back to the table. Toronto's issues with transit funding are not unique.

Politicians in Ottawa shouldn’t get away with talking about improving the economy without addressing one of the major urban Canada's major economic drags.

Standing together, Canadian cities should make the case that mobility is an economic issue. In doing so, we could finally get what's really needed to improve transit in a meaningful way. It starts with stable funding.

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