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The problem with the TTC: funding, or a one-track mind?


Under the Christmas tree this year, almost no one unwrapped a TTC-themed toy, such as a model train or bus. They barely exist. Meanwhile, other transit systems, such as the one in London, England, trade on their iconic status and send tourists home with buckets of stylish, branded souvenirs.

True, selling toys and T-shirts won’t build new subways. But the city’s former budget chief, David Soknacki, thinks the transit agency’s failure to market itself reveals a bigger problem. The Toronto Transit Commission is, in his words, “the ultimate military hierarchy,” an outmoded, monolithic, top-down organization too resistant to new ideas. And new ideas — on how to operate and finance the system — are needed, he says, if Toronto is going to succeed.

The Tory-leaning Mr. Soknacki, who chose not to run to retain his Scarborough seat in last month’s election, now feels freer to speak about ideas he tried to push while he was on the inside of Mayor David Miller’s NDP-led government.

Speaking to Dr. Gridlock, he outlined his vision of a drastic dismantling of the TTC that would see it carved into parts co-ordinated by an overarching regional body, in an effort to encourage innovation.

In London, management of the tube, bus and commuter-rail systems is separate, but co-ordinated under one umbrella called Transport for London. Toronto, with the province’s new Greater Toronto Transportation Authority as the umbrella, could do something similar, Mr. Soknacki suggested.

Smaller organizations — one for the subway, one for the buses, one for the streetcars, for example — would be nimbler and better able to change quickly to keep customers happy, he argued. With clear mandates, they would be easier to hold accountable if service were bad or ridership declined, he suggested.

Baby TTCs, he added, might also be better at coming up with new ideas to help pay for the billions in expansion the network needs to cope with the explosive population growth expected over the next few decades.

While he doesn’t argue that public transit will never escape the need for subsidies, he says the city needs new ways of getting private-sector money involved, including so-called public-private partnerships, in use in Europe.

For instance, Mr. Soknacki suggested, instead of building a subway station for $50-million, why not persuade a developer to do it, in exchange for rent payments from the TTC and the right to build high-density condos on the site? Or give developers the right to higher densities along a proposed subway route, on the condition that they pitch in?

The city simply cannot take on the billions in debt required to expand public transit, he argued. As it does, other needs, including new libraries and recreation centres, risk getting squeezed out.

His suggestions meet with a chilly reception at city hall, Mr. Soknacki said. “As soon as people hear change, they man the ideological battlements.”

But he insisted he isn’t on an ideological crusade: “There is no left and right in public transit.”

Asked about his former budget chief’s musings, the mayor dismissed any notion that the TTC needs to be broken into bits. “That would destroy public transit in Toronto,” Mr. Miller said in an interview.

“The TTC’s challenge is not efficiency,” he said, pointing to the transit agency’s ranking as the most efficient in North America. “The challenge is lack of funding. It’s not complicated.”

He did acknowledge that the TTC could learn to be nimbler and open to new ideas, including improving its marketing and looking at ways to get more revenue from development above and around subway stations.

But to expand Toronto’s transit network, the city needs lots of money. And no amount of tinkering with the TTC’s structure will magically produce the required billions, the mayor said: “It is a waste of time and energy to try to reinvent the TTC.”

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