Toronto’s transit system is a result of real life decision making. With the demand for the service completely outstripping the supply, the TTC doesn’t appear broken. In fact, proponents of the current system point to its efficient use of public funds and low subsidy as achievements. Its expansion is slow, pragmatic and ultimately insufficient. This begs the question: Is the goal to grow a little corn, or to create a field of dreams?
A perfect example of the conventional attitude toward public transportation is the lack of modernization in the TTC. The system cannot find the money to finance a change in its fare system to switch to a pay-per-distance system that would permanently enhance its revenues. It’s irrelevant that a passenger can travel from Etobicoke to Scarborough for only three dollars. The problem is that if the system wanted to charge four, it’s not possible.
Progress for the TTC usually hits a brick wall known as fiscal responsibility. It’s simply unaffordable to have a modern and expansive city transportation system. Specifically, the problem lies in the accounting. While the cost of transportation improvements are financed by the public purse, the benefits come from disparate sources and are impossible to track.
This is where faith comes in. The city must let go of the idea that the TTC is meant to fund itself in the traditional accounting sense.
John Ralston Saul wrote in his 1992 bestseller Voltaire’s Bastards, “Some functions are not meant to be profitable. They exist to lay the groundwork for the profitable functions of others,” speaking of transportation specifically. Saul’s critique was pointed at the North American way of thinking about public service. Because the benefits of enhanced mobility for society don’t make the balance sheet, transportation systems remain underdeveloped.
There are voices in the wind hinting that this is the right time to modernize and expand the transit system: Build it already. Debating about specific lines, light rail versus underground and the annoyance of streetcars simply reflects the traditional ad hoc approach in the name of fiscal responsibility. Build a system that will be relevant in fifty years and forget about its cost.
The benefits surround you. Being within the reach of the TTC reduces the need to have a car, putting money into pockets. Expanding the transportation system increases property values, therefore increasing municipal tax revenues.
The immeasurable demands faith. In time, cleaner air will increase overall life expectancy in the city. At some point, a young man riding in from the suburbs will read a book that will inspire him, simply because he didn’t have to drive to work. Make princes, not workers.
“You’re going to go bankrupt, Ray. Do you understand? You’re going to lose the farm!” That’s Ray’s brother-in-law yelling. As annoying as he is, he raises a good point. Where is the money going to come from?
The Premiere of Ontario is the prime target to get the project rolling since the province used to subsidize the TTC before Mike Harris’ “common sense” revolution. But why should the entire province bear the burden of Toronto’s transit system?
The answer lies in Ontario’s uncertain job picture. Unlike other provinces, Ontario lacks natural resources to carry it through dramatic global economic shifts, such as the one happening now. The latest job growth figures confirm Ontario’s poor prospects. A federal or provincial stimulus injection is inevitable.
The fact remains that manufacturing in Ontario will continue to diminish indefinitely. A struggling American economy means low production for Ontario’s auto sector. It isn’t clear how the province will replace these jobs. In the meantime, the city of Toronto is an asylum for those out of options. The city provides a wealth of employment opportunity, when something is better than nothing.
In trying to stimulate Ontario’s economic prospects, spending on infrastructure is a safe bet. A commitment to improving Toronto’s transit is the vision that will save the entire province. Toronto is already the hub for the displaced. Enhancing transit saves everyone time and money, which will be poured back into Ontario’s economy through the mysterious mechanism of free markets. New businesses will emerge.
Transportation and unemployment are perceived as independent problems. Yet, intensifying transit provides employment in the short run and facilitates organic job growth in the long run. Bringing people together isn’t just a nice thought; it has positive economic consequences. Ontario doesn’t need to know where future jobs will come from. It simply needs to build a path that faces forward. And believe.
Photo: Adam Bunch
Umar Saeed is an accomplished professional in finance and accounting. On his website (www.umarsaeed.ca), where this post originally appeared, he writes essays to explain the elaborate connections between people and money, without making your head hurt. You can follow him on Twitter @UmarSaeedCA. Or you can read the rest of his posts at The Little Red Umbrella here.