Despite declining ridership resulting in less money at the fare box, the Toronto Transit Commission says it posted a budget surplus for 2017 thanks to lower employee benefit costs and fewer than expected Wheel-Trans trips.
In its monthly Chief Executive Officer's Report submitted to the TTC board, Wheel-Trans and the system-wide operating budgets had a combined year-end subsidy surplus of $72.8 million.
The TTC operated at $57.2 million under budget and the Wheel-Trans surplus came in at $15.6 million due to lower than expected demand. Even with expanded criteria to qualify for Wheel-Trans service, the transit system for people with disabilities made 4.19 million trips compared to the 4.72 million rides budgeted for in 2017.
"We budgeted for the change in legislation allowing people with cognitive disabilities to use the Wheel-Trans system," said TTC spokesperson Brad Ross. "However, not as many people as anticipated have signed up, but we needed to budget for that, just in case."
In 2017, each Wheel-Trans ride cost the agency $30.79
To those who use Wheel-Trans, news of surplus was unexpected.
"Yeah, it surprises me because transit riders who can't use the regular TTC are often told how expensive we are," therapist and accessibility activist Terri-Lynn Langdon told CBC Toronto.
She points out that the TTC is behind on implementing its promised to be fully accessible by 2025, in line with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
"If Wheel-Trans has this surplus, which is great, it looks like they have more money. They absolutely need to put those funds to making the TTC accessible," Langdon said. "They should not be doing anything else with those funds except improving access to transit."
But Ross defended the TTC's accessibility plan, which anticipates that the public transit system will be need to be fully accessible as the population ages.
"We're a ways away yet with just over half our stations accessible today. They will all be by 2025," Ross said.
As for where the extra money goes, the city's rules say the TTC can't roll it into this year's operating expenses, Ross explained.
"What happens to that surplus is it goes back to the city and then 75 per cent of it gets allocated to the TTC's capital budget going forward."
Another source of savings almost equal to the Wheel-Trans surplus is a $15 million decrease in Employee Benefits — mainly health-care expenses,
"One of the biggest drivers, frankly, is our benefits costs are lower than anticipated because of the action we have taken around fraud. And specifically the ongoing investigation around benefits fraud," Ross said.
In July 2015, Toronto police laid criminal charges against the owner of Healthy Fit, a company that provided TTC employees with health care products and services.
Hundreds of TTC employees filed claims and got reimbursements for no product or service, or inflated the amount of the claim.
"Almost 200 people have been fired as a result of this; we've taken it very seriously." Ross said. "We have a zero tolerance for anyone who defrauds our benefits plan."
Ross says reductions of $10.2 million for benefits have been incorporated into the 2018 operating budgets approved by the TTC Board on Nov. 28, 2017.