Toronto

TTC plots a return to normal service in 2021 despite unsettled budget questions and lack of riders

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is planning an ambitious return to normal service levels while also freezing fares next year, despite a lack of confirmed funding to prop up the struggling service as the pandemic wears on.

Transit service not anticipating return to normal ridership levels until 2022 or 2023

While overall ridership is currently at about 32 per cent of normal levels, buses in some areas of the city, like this one at Jane and Finch, have remained crowded during the pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is planning an ambitious return to normal service levels while also freezing fares next year despite a lack of confirmed funding to prop up the struggling service as the pandemic wears on.

The TTC released its 2021 operating budget Thursday afternoon, forecasting significant ongoing losses due to COVID-19.

The financial impact of the pandemic is expected to cost the TTC $796.4 million in 2021. 

Overall, the service says it will need $1.586 billion in funding to operate next year, when it plans to maintain almost the same level of service it offered in 2020.

TTC Chair Jaye Robinson called the process "our most difficult budget year in recent memory, maybe forever...

"We're facing dire issues and I think the recovery period will be quite lengthy," Robinson added.

The budget also lays out a bleak forecast for ridership even beyond the next fiscal year. 

The report estimates that current ridership levels — about 32 per cent compared to normal — will hold relatively steady for the first half of 2021, before eventually bumping up to 49 per cent of pre-pandemic levels by the fourth quarter of the year.

It anticipates that a return to normal ridership levels may not occur until 2023.

The 2021 budget is slated to go to the TTC board for approval on Dec. 21.

Tory optimistic that more emergency funding on the way

The provincial government earlier this week announced details about the second round of funding to be distributed via the Safe Restart Agreement, a joint initiative between the federal and provincial governments to help municipalities financially recover from the pandemic.

Mayor John Tory described the latest round of support as "extraordinary emergency funding in an extraordinary amount."

The TTC estimates that the new funding will deliver $776 million for the service, which is expected to entirely offset the losses incurred during 2020.

No funding has been confirmed for the TTC 2021 budget year, but Mayor John Tory said 'we know we’ll get some assistance.' (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

However, there is not yet any confirmed funding for the 2021 fiscal year. The TTC says it "continues to engage" the provincial and federal governments to secure more support to arrive after April 1, 2021.

Tory acknowledged that a "hole" in next year's funding plan does exist, but he expressed confidence that another bailout will arrive. Those funds could prevent the service from reducing service levels in order to make up ongoing revenue losses.

"What we're not going to do is we're not going to penalize the people who need the TTC to get to work," Tory said during a Thursday news conference. "And so we're just going to have to find a way to make ends meet."

Robinson said the TTC's ability to adapt and redirect its resources during the pandemic will also help the service navigate what is expected to be another difficult year.

For example, the service has been retraining subway and streetcar operators to drive buses, which have remained in higher demand during the pandemic.

"I can't say that was happening years ago," Robinson said of the service's new ability to adapt on the fly.

Major funding changes needed to stabilize service, advocates say

Transit advocates have applauded the service for freezing fares in 2021, but they say more significant changes are needed to keep the service functioning properly long-term.

Vincent Puhakka, a spokesperson with the advocacy group TTCRiders, reiterated a long-running demand for a more reliable and permanent funding structure from higher levels of government.

The TTC relies on the fare box for about two-thirds of its revenue, which makes it one of North America's least subsidized public transit operations.

"We're happy fare increases haven't taken place, but further increases must be completely out of the question as we recover from this pandemic," Puhakka said.

TTCRiders organized a Thursday news conference featuring frontline workers who have relied on public transit during the pandemic. Personal support worker Malinda Francis said the service should not be satisfied by merely freezing fares.

"The thing that we need on the frontlines, especially on the TTC, is an increase in bus services, especially in the outlet areas, such as the Jane bus and the Finch areas," said Francis, who has been using the TTC to travel between her patients' homes.

"It is possible," she said. "If we need to have 100 more buses on TTC lines, then that should be our goal."

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