Campaigning New Democratic Party leader Andrea Horwarth stirred a debate when she said in a radio interview that the Liberals plan to privatize the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne roundly denied any such intention. Instead there has been talk by the Liberals of a public-private partnership in their infrastructure expansion plan. The idea is to hand over maintenance of all the new light rail transit projects currently under construction or scheduled to be built in the future to a private multinational consortium for 30 years.
Nevertheless, would it be so terrible to consider putting some competitiveness into our public transit service? When David Quarmby, a transport planner with Transport for London, England was in Toronto last month, he also threw out the idea of privatizing the public transit system. It seems to be working in London where the buses are being run by private companies and have been for decades.
It is true that thanks to the early momentum that Mayor Rob Ford had we do not have to worry anymore about striking TTC workers holding the city for ransom. Ford had the TTC declared a vital service and therefore put a stop to strikes. But, if we care to admit it, part of the malaise that is so characteristic of the TTC service has to do with there being no competition.
Given the demands of a budget that is for the most part funded by user fees, the TTC is doing the best it can. All the same, parceling out sectors of the service by contracting out to private companies could raise standards.
This city suffers $16 million each day in lost productivity due to the inefficiency of our transportation system, and in no small part due to traffic overcapacity on our roadways. If mass transit were more attractive, there would certainly be fewer cars on the roads.
Yet, there is little in the way of our current public transportation model, overcrowded as it is during rush hour and with its many daily delays for one reason or another, that make more people want to leave their cars and choose trains and buses instead. This is despite the fact that it costs thousands of dollars more per year to own and operate a motor vehicle compared to the bargain rates for using buses and subways. A single fare of three dollars can take a rider from one end of this vast city to another.
It is not as if contracting out or even privatizing public transportation is not working elsewhere. London, England, is not the only example. York Region currently contracts out a number of routes to the TTC, and many smaller Canadian cities function with only privately operated bus companies that have agreements with the municipalities.
Here in Toronto, the idea of contracting out buses has met with resistance because the public has a strong sense of ownership of the service.
If, however, proven management were brought into the picture with the goal being upgraded frequency, especially in currently underserved areas, which would mean an increase in the number of buses to serve the public, then why would we not want to see this consideration on the table?
Given the inability of the current public transit system to meet ridership demand, compared to the gold standard service it was 40 years ago, it might just be time to allow for that.
Or whoever forms the next government will have to commit to significantly increasing funding for day-to-day operations, which is not likely, since the province already has a deficit to fight.
This discussion would not raise a ripple in the rural regions of Ontario where private transportation companies function, but it says a lot about the differing cultures that exist between the urban and rural regions that politicians would rush to heatedly deny that the question of privation was even on the table.
Interestingly, while we might expect left of centre parties to avoid any such talk, not wanting to ruffle the feathers of union supporters, not even the conservatives are daring to raise it as an issue. Is it any wonder we remain figuratively and literally struck in traffic?