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Union-Pearson Express fares seem fair, but ridership will tell the story

By: Matt Elliott Metro Published on Wed Dec 10 2014

After a prolonged and inexplicable period of secrecy, Metrolinx has finally unveiled a fare structure for the Union-Pearson Express.

The verdict? Not terrible.

Honestly, I was expecting worse. After all the mystery, I would have bet the plan was to charge all riders closer to $25 for a one-way trip from Union Station to Pearson International Airport. So today’s announcement that I’ll be able to use my Presto card to get from downtown to the airport for just $19 came as a pleasant surprise.

For me, a childless downtown-dweller who generally travels with my girlfriend, the price will work. Getting to Union from my house is a snap. And at $38 for the two of us, the train trip is guaranteed to be cheaper and faster than a cab.

But just because it works for me doesn’t mean it’ll work for everyone. Only the line's ridership numbers will ultimately determine whether the price is right.

Most of the other arguments I’ve seen on this issue seem irrelevant. It doesn’t really matter if the Pearson train is priced higher or lower than airport trains in other cities. It doesn't much matter if taking a cab to the airport is still cheaper for any one person, because a cab will always be cheaper for people in some areas. The same goes for the cost of alternative transit, like charter buses or the TTC’s Airport Rocket.

What matters is whether the Union-Pearson trains will run full at these fares. Because the only way we can maximize our investment in transit is to ensure the infrastructure is working at full capacity to take cars off the road.

At $19 (or $27.50 for non-Presto holders), I think it has a decent chance of doing just that. We’ll know pretty quickly whether that’s the case, presuming Metrolinx is forthcoming with ridership numbers.

Such positivity comes with a few caveats, of course. I’m concerned about the wide gulf between the fare charged to Presto users and non-Presto users. The Presto fare shouldn’t be something only locals take advantage of while clueless out-of-towners get stuck paying full freight.

Instead, travellers should be encouraged to sign up and get Presto cards at the airport, which they can then use to get around using TTC and GO — this should be an opportunity for Toronto to show off its transit bonafides. It'd be even better if people could then use Presto to access Toronto Bike Share or the island ferry.

More importantly, let’s not gloss over the more fundamental issue tied up in the tortured history of this publicly-funded, $455-million project. We can’t ignore that, in an era of limited resources where the GTA faces so many pressing transit needs for everyday riders, the first new higher order transit line to open in years will be a premium fare, limited-stop service to the airport. Was this really something we needed more than the Finch and Sheppard LRT lines, or even the downtown relief line?

That’s something to think about as you shell out your 19 bucks to go to Pearson next year. The fare might be fine, but what about our priorities?

This post was originally published at on 2014-12-10T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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