TTC board pushes for bigger express bus network, but where will the money come from?

The TTC board endorsed a plan Thursday to expand express bus routes over the next decade, but would also look at premium express service that it operates at a loss. Critics are concerned about where the funding will come from.

The TTC would also look at cutting the expensive 'premium express' service

Premium Fare Express Buses are popular with riders who commute to the downtown core, but are costly to run. The TTC would look at eliminating them and expanding express service elsewhere. (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC News)

The TTC is pushing ahead with a plan to beef up express bus routes throughout the city, but so far the expansion is unfunded and could also mean the end of the line for unprofitable premium express bus service. 

The TTC board voted unanimously to give the green light the Express Bus Network plan, which recommends 12 new express bus routes and improved service on eight others over the next decade.

But the price tag for the ambitious plan includes the $34 million capital cost for new buses and the $13 million annual operating cost that is not budgeted for. In fact, the TTC's budget for 2018 is frozen. 

"It doesn't look like it's subject to funding availability," said Jessica Bell of the advocacy group TTCRiders. "So how's that going to work if there's less money, but we want more service?"

Jessica Bell, a transit rider advocate with the group TTCRiders, said the TTC's express bus expansion should happen immediately and not take almost a decade to roll out. (Grant Linton/CBC News)

The plan is not all about expanding express service. It also looks at phasing out five express routes that the TTC takes a big loss to run. 

They're called Downtown Premium Fare Express routes — which cost approximately 1,700 customers a double fare to ride. But that fare revenue falls short of the actual operating cost, so the TTC kicks in $1.5 million every year.

Bell suggested that, as with the Union-Pearson Express, the TTC could make the fare cheaper to attract more riders "so low income and moderate income people could afford fast transit and see what happens to ridership then," said Bell.

But TTC staff said the problem with the premier fare express bus routes is they serve a limited number of stops and have longer travel times.

"The difference with say the 143 Beaches Express is it takes some people into town and that's good, but then it pretty much 'deadheads' back empty," TTC CEO Andy Byford said.

Meanwhile, the 195 Jane Rocket express route has more than 88 boardings per service hour, making it the best performer of all express routes in terms of customers served.

Having to go back to the beginning of the route with no passengers to pick up more means the Downtown Premium Express routes have a very high cost per service hour of about $167.00. That's more than two times the system average. 

TTC CEO Andy Byford said the Premium Fare Express bus routes are safe, for now. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

"That means that these buses are very poorly utilized," said TTC Deputy CEO Chris Upfold, who added in terms of value the premium express routes were the five worst performing routes in the entire network.

 TTC Vice-Chair Alan Heisey questioned why the premium express routes are not cut immediately.

"Given there are huge demands for capacity in the system elsewhere and this is the highest subsidy level, are we considering closing these lines down?" Heisey asked.

"That would have to be a decision by the board, but it's clear we use about 20 buses to run these five and we could use these 20 buses in some other way," said Upfold.

Janelle Sooklal says the TTC's Premium Express Fare bus is worth the extra fare because it cuts her commute in half. Some TTC riders say they'll consider driving if the service is cut. (Philip Lee-Shanok, CBC News)

Riders waiting for the Premium Express bus say they would miss the service.

"From where I am on Wynford Drive it gets me to work in 15 minutes," said Janelle Sooklal.  "It's convenient because you just sit on the bus and go. With the subway you have to get off and change."

Paul Ianni rides the express bus in from the Beach and says cutting the route is a bad idea.

"If  they do that they should know that a lot of people are going to drive in. If they want more cars on the road that's exactly what they should do," he said.

Byford said the express plan only calls for a re-evaluation of the premium express routes. 

"We are not recommending that we eliminate them now. We are recommending that we review their viability," said Byford, adding staff have been asked to come back with a report on the five Downtown Premium Fare Express routes in 2021.


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.