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Toronto transit projects are funded, but who will pay to operate them?

After years of stalling, it seems like everyone is ready to build and fund transit projects these days. The bandwagon is rolling.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is on board. He recently confirmed the TTC will get $840 million this year for capital transit projects.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is in, with the province putting up the cash for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, amongst other things.

And Toronto Mayor John Tory is riding, too. In his boldest move since taking office, Tory backed a property tax levy to pay for building and repairing infrastructure last year.

All good news, really. But I can’t help but be a downer and ask: Once all this transit is built, modernized, fixed and expanded, who in the hell is going to pay to operate it?

It’s a question that has been on my mind following reports from our pals in Ottawa suggesting their local transit agency is in tough negotiations with provincial agency Metrolinx over the Presto fare card system. It seems Metrolinx seeks a hefty increase to the fee they charge Ottawa for every Presto transaction.

It’s discouraging news. Presto, a fare system forced on the TTC and other transit agencies by the province, could end up representing another big operating cost downloaded onto municipalities.

And in Toronto, at least, the municipal government doesn’t seem prepared to cover those downloaded costs through an increased transit operating subsidy. In the last budget, increases to the subsidy to fund enhanced service were shot down. Keeping residential property tax increases below inflation remains the priority.

The ongoing fare integration study by Metrolinx is another reason for cynicism. The study has floated a bunch of ideas that would only increase the cost of taking transit. They’ve looked at imposing higher fares for longer distance rides and charging a premium for riding the subway.

Anything that puts more burden on riders is bad news. By objective measure, the TTC is already the least subsidized transit system in North America. According to figures provided by the TTC, Toronto transit riders will receive a subsidy of just 89 cents per ride this year, compared to $1.11 in Montreal, $1.49 in New York and $1.86 in Chicago.

Fixing that imbalance is part of ensuring GTA transit is well-used. Each new transit project completed only adds to total transit operating costs.

But while the bandwagon for funding transit projects is full, the bandwagon for covering operating costs is sitting roadside with a busted wheel. The federal government seems content to limit their role to capital projects. The province has shown a real desire to stay out of direct operational funding. And city hall may just keep crying poor.

Who does that leave? Well, dear transit rider, there’s just you.

This post was originally published at on 2016-05-16T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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