A weekly newsletter about Toronto City Council by Matt Elliott

City Hall Watcher #2: TTC looks to raise fares, then figure out the rest later

Also: Housing NOW plan a prequel to Housing LATER plan; Toronto's shelters packed over very cold weekend

Follow-up from Issue #1: The Infrastructure & Environment Committee unanimously approved the staff report on the Richmond-Adelaide bike lanes last Thursday. If approved by council on Janury 30, they’ll become permanent.

TTC 2019: A fare hike, a risky budget

The TTC needs more money.

That’s not new information. It’s long been known that the TTC is North America’s least-funded major transit system, receiving operating subsidies well below other cities.

What is new information is the TTC’s strategy to deal with its lack of funds in the near-term. (The long-term, where they’re short about $33 billion in needed capital funds over the next 15 years, is a whole other story — more on that below.) The transit agency’s proposed operating budget for 2019 was released on Friday, and lays out two strategies to deal with its money problems.

TTC Strategy #1: Make Riders Pay More

TTC staff are recommending a fare hike. Again. This isn’t surprising. Mayor John Tory has been consistent since his 2014 election with his belief that transit fares should rise with inflation and service improvements. 

Here’s what the recommended adult fares look like for 2019:

If this gets approved by the TTC board this week and City Council is cool with it, all fare types except cash will go up on April 1, 2019.

It’s notable that even the recently-introduced Fair Pass — designed for low-income people — will also see an increase.

The monthly adult transit pass increase proposed works out to a 3.35% increase over current prices, which will almost certainly be larger than the residential property tax increase Tory and a majority of council will support during the coming city budget process.

With that in mind, I made a chart comparing the cumulative cost increases for The Pass Formerly Known As the Metropass and residential property tax increases since Tory took office:

This is an imperfect comparison — an increase to the property tax rate doesn’t mean anyone’s property taxes will go up by that amount, where an increase to the cost of a Metropass does. But it’s still an interesting metric to consider when thinking about council’s priorities.

If you’re of the opinion that transit fares should go up at about the same rate as residential property taxes, taxes for homeowners should go up by at least 2.75% this year so that property taxes match the Metropass’ total increase over the last five years. That would be larger than the increase Tory usually supports.

But if you’re of the opinion that the city should prioritize keeping transit affordable over keeping residential property taxes among the lowest in the GTA then, well, it might be hard to justify any kind of fare increase at all.

TTC Strategy #2: Whatever Man, We’ll Figure It Out Later

Holy hell, this part of the TTC’s 2019 operating budget is nothing short of astounding.

The big problem they start with: even with the fare increase bringing in $25.6 million, $102.1 million in discovered operational savings and an as-yet-unanswered request that council increase the annual transit operating subsidy by $25.3 million, the TTC is still facing a $24 million deficit.

So here’s their plan: they’ll deal with it later.

Seriously, they find the $24 million necessary to balance their budget by writing in an “Undetermined Corporate Reduction” of $24 million. It’s an IOU from the TTC to the TTC — in effect, hinging the entire budget on the hope that somebody, at some point over the next year, opens a random closet and finds a bunch of gold bricks or Renaissance art they can sell.

Even more amazing is that the very same budget document that makes this recommendation also warns that it is very risky:

This strategy places TTC at significant risk of running a deficit in 2019 but was necessary to avoid any reduction to service, limit the required City subsidy increase, and keep the recommended fare increase in line with inflation since the previous fare increase two years ago.

Significant risk! Of Running a deficit!

The coolheaded way to look at this is to acknowledge that, yes, $24 million is not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, and if the TTC does find itself in deficit later this year, Council would not have to look too hard to find the funds to cover the difference and avoid the short-term need to slash service.

The more alarmist take: even if this strategy works for 2019, it only creates a bigger hole for 2020. This is not a trick you can use again and again. The risk is compounded by the staff-recommended plan to use $15.4 million of the $22.3 million available in the TTC’s Stabilization Reserve Fund this year, taking a big chunk out of the TTC’s rainy day money.

Add that to the city’s other looming budget problems driven by stalled growth of the land transfer tax, and everything starts to look real dark real fast.

Oh, and Also: the TTC Needs $33.5 billion

I’ll let transit guru Steve Munro handle the heavy lifting of detailing the TTC’s Capital Budget documents, but the bottom line is pretty simple: after adding up a bunch of their maintenance and growth needs over the next 15 years, the TTC says it’ll all cost $33.5 billion. The figure includes the early and probably optimistic cost of the Scarborough subway extension, but no other costs related to transit expansion — so the Relief Line would only add to this megafigure.

More than $23 billion is unfunded.

Here’s the need broken down by type of transit, lumping together the TTC’s categories for subways and stations.

Yes, the unfunded amount for the subway lines and stations Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario PCs say they want to “upload” totals $16.2 billion. Good luck to ‘em. This surely aligns with their desire to eliminate the deficit and cut taxes.

Housing NOW-ish

The Executive Committee is set to meet Wednesday for their first significant meeting of the council term. The main event: a report on implementing the mayor’s Housing Now initiative.

The report lays out a plan for the development of 11 city-owned sites for use as rental housing, with 50% of units on each site being designated as affordable rental. By the city’s somewhat controversial definition, that means they’ll go for 80% of Toronto’s average market rent.

To see the sites on a map and follow their development progress, Mark J. Richardson has launched HousingNowTO.com — it’s a fantastic resource. Here’s the map of the sites:

Two things to watch going forward:

  1. This process could make for the basis for a good party game: GUESS THE NIMBY. Which site do you think will receive the most NIMBY pushback? How many times during the course of this process will we hear someone get up and begin by saying, “I am a huge supporter of affordable housing, BUT…”? Take a drink every time someone talks about the unique character of a neighbourhood. Slam a beer every time someone worries about the impact on parking.

  2. The report on Housing NOW concludes by telling us this is only a precursor to a larger 10-year Housing Plan to come later this year. Until it gets a better name, let’s call that plan HOUSING LATER.

More From Matt

This week at CBC Toronto, I’ve got an analysis piece about the ever-mysterious Scarborough Subway. If the Scarborough subway plan was a child it’d be in grade school by now. And yet we know almost nothing about it. Unknowns abound.

In Other News

City Hall Watcher #1: Richmond & Adelaide are bike lane superstars

Plus: naming and shaming on voter turnout, bring back the Ontario Place mega maze & more

Hello. Thanks for subscribing to City Hall Watcher. Let’s see what’s going on at City Hall this week.

Richmond & Adelaide: Superstar bike lanes more popular than most things in Toronto

This Thursday, the city’s new Infrastructure & Environment Committee will debate a report on the separated bike lane pilot project on Richmond and Adelaide. (Yes, it’s still a pilot project — a damn long one.)

Though the transportation bureaucrats can’t just come out and say it, the underlying message to councillors to clear: these bike lanes have been ridiculously successful and you would be nuts to do anything but vote to make them permanent.

Let’s look at the data.

At the busiest point — Spadina Avenue — the lanes carried 6,160 cyclists per day according to data collected in September 2018. They’re used by more people than seven of the subway/RT stations operated by the TTC, including two new stations — Highway 407 and Downsview Park — just constructed at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ridership has grown, and fast.

Before the bike lanes, about 400 cyclists dared to use Richmond or Adelaide between York/Simcoe and Bathurst during the busiest times of day. Now? More than ten times as many. (And much of this appears to be new ridership — newbies taking up cycling — as cyclist volumes on parallel Queen Street and King Street saw only modest declines over this period.)

Then there’s this blow-away amazing section:

Cyclists make up approximately one third of all vehicles entering the Downtown Core in the morning along Adelaide (32%) and leaving the Downtown Core in the afternoon along Richmond (30%). West of University Avenue, the cycle tracks on Richmond- Adelaide in the peak period direction, carry a higher volume of vehicles per lane than the motor vehicle lanes. 

Let me fire up the wonk-to-English translator for you: in morning and afternoon rush, the lane carrying cyclists is moving more people than any one of the nearby car lanes.

What about the traffic chaos that bike lanes are supposed to create, you might ask? Well, good news: the chaos didn’t happen.

City staff do note that the average car trip time has increased by about 91 seconds on Richmond Street, but that’s partially offset by — and pay close attention to this part— a 57 second decrease on Adelaide, meaning the net impact to the typical car commuter on a daily basis is about 30 seconds.

And the city found that most drivers like the lanes, finding it more comfortable to drive when cyclists have dedicated space as opposed to sharing the same roadway. Cyclists are glad for the separation too, because cars are hitting them less. Collisions involving cyclists are down 73 per cent since the lanes were installed. 

Of people surveyed by the city, 93 per cent want the bike lanes made permanent. I’m trying to think of other things in Toronto that could conceivably have a 93 per cent approval rating and I’m coming up empty. Sitting on patios the second it gets kind of warm? Standing in line for stuff? The bat flip?

And here’s the kicker: in the context of a city that spends more than $13 billion every year, these lanes cost almost nothing. An estimated $780,000 for the installation of the two sections. Street sweeping and snow clearing will cost $197,600 per year. The city will also incur another $315,000 one-time cost if councillors opt to move the Adelaide Street bike lane to the north side of the street, which staff are recommending to improve connectivity.

Compare the money the city spent and will spend on these bike lanes with the $2.3 billion the city will fork out over the next ten years rehabilitating the Gardiner Expressway, or the planned $1.4 billion the city expects to spend fixing local and major roadways, and the lesson is clear: it’s hard to beat the return on investment cities can get from bike infrastructure done right.

Voter Turnout 2018: Downtown turnout was low, and also some naming and shaming

Map by Sean Marshall. Read his post here.

Sean “Municipal Map Mastermind” Marshall has a great post about voter turnout in last October’s Toronto election. It’s worth looking at.

The thing that jumps out at me: look at that low turnout in Ward 10. A lot of condo dwellers seem to have neglected to vote, which could be chalked up in a cranky-old-man way to younger demographics not being as politically aware. But also? This election was not one where downtown or youth issues got a whole lot of attention. It’s not difficult to understand why some of these voters wouldn’t be very inspired to head to the ballot box. 

It also suggests that candidates could do a better job of canvassing and organizing in this area. A lesson for 2022?

For nerdy types: the poll-by-poll data released by the city is a treasure trove of interesting details. The most democratically-dedicated polling location appears to be the Scarlett Heights Retirement Residence, where all 42 registered voters plus another 52 late additions cast ballots — a 100% turnout rate. Role models.

Some of the less engaged polling locations: 

  • Downtown’s Ice Condos II, where an ice-cold 58 of 446 eligible electors cast a ballot

  • The Residences of Yorkville, where 31 of 237 eligible-to-vote voted 

  • Hart House, where just 215 of 1,658 voted

  • York University - New Student Centre where, of 1,604 eligible voters, just 170 turned out



All these meetings start at 9:30 a.m. and will be streamed on the city’s YouTube channel


This has been the first issue of City Hall Watcher. I skipped the origin story and got right to the main saga. 

You can send in questions or tips to graphicmatt@gmail.com. Or just reply to this message in your Inbox. I’m happy to run with ideas or answer any burning queries you have. You can also try requesting specific charts. I’ll do my best.

This newsletter will be free for the next two issues, including a special MUNICIPAL BUDGET LAUNCH SPECTACULAR on January 28. Following that groundbreaking issue, continuing to subscribe to City Hall Watcher will cost you just five bucks a month, or fifty dollars a year. That’s a bargain and a discount!

I will be offering free subscriptions to journalism school students, other people just getting started covering Toronto City Hall and municipal issue advocates who are not able to afford a subscription. More details on this to come.

See you next week.

Coming soon: City Hall Watcher by Matt Elliott

It's a weekly newsletter about Toronto!

Toronto’s municipal government in nerdy detail. With charts.

Hey, I’m Matt. You might know me as GraphicMatt on Twitter. I’m the guy with the hair. This is my newsletter.

I’m an award-winning journalist. I’ve covered the stuff Toronto City Council does for eight years. I was the first person to start fact-checking Mayor Rob Ford’s claim to have saved Toronto $1 billion. I track council votes so you know what your city councillor is up to. My work appeared in Metro for six straight years. I currently contribute City Hall analysis to CBC Toronto. Now I also have a newsletter.

A newsletter called “City Hall Watcher”

City Hall Watcher will come your inbox (and the web) every Monday, right around 5 p.m. It will include deep dives into the reports on council’s agenda, providing much-needed context for whatever the hell it is politicians in this city are trying to do.

You’ll learn about evolving transit plans. You’ll stay informed about the city’s budget process. You’ll see so many charts you might literally email me and ask me to, please, stop sending you charts. You’ll be sick of the charts. But the charts will continue.

For a long time, I’ve wanted an outlet like this. There are so many important stories coming out of our city hall — policy stories and data stories and stories about numbers. I’m hoping this will be a good place for ‘em.

Free to start — then just five bucks a month

You can sign up for City Hall Watcher for free right now, on this very page. Your free subscription will get you access to the newsletter through the end of the month.

Starting in February, the newsletter will cost $5 a month — with a discount for signing up for a full year. I’ll provide more detail about that in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, you can sign up with no future obligation and get a taste of the kind of stuff I’m hoping to do.

So sign up. Do it. It’ll be fun.

The first issue will be released Monday, January 14.

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