New sub­way costs city $24 a trip

York sub­way ex­ten­sion will lose money with ev­ery sin­gle rider

Bayview Post - - News - JOHN SEWELL

It’s time to talk about spend­ing pub­lic money ra­tio­nally.

The sub­way ex­ten­sion to York Univer­sity and be­yond is now open, from Shep­pard West to Vaughan Metropoli­tan Cen­tre, although the view from that lat­ter sta­tion of a few build­ings in a field of park­ing is hardly the cen­tre of a me­trop­o­lis. (From the High­way 407 sta­tion one can­not spot a sin­gle build­ing of sub­stance.)

Con­struct­ing the ex­ten­sion cost $3.2 bil­lion of which Toronto con­trib­uted $900 mil­lion and York Re­gion $600 mil­lion. Oper­at­ing it will cost $25 mil­lion a year, which will be paid by the TTC, that is, by Toronto tax­pay­ers. There are 1.2 mil­lion new rid­ers ex­pected on the ex­ten­sion next year, a tiny ad­di­tion to the more than 525 mil­lion rid­ers us­ing the rest of the sys­tem.

Do the math: at an an­nual deficit of $25 mil­lion, the sub­sidy per new rider is about $24. The sub­sidy for other TTC rid­ers is $1.08. For ev­ery per­son who parks a car at the 407 sta­tion and gets on the sub­way then later re­turns on the sub­way, that’s a pay­ment of al­most $50.

Any politi­cian who stood out­side a sub­way sta­tion and started hand­ing out $20 bills of pub­lic money would be called reck­less. Worse, you would run out of money quickly. Yet that’s what we seem to be do­ing with this sub­way ex­ten­sion. It’s not a ra­tio­nal way to spend pub­lic money, par­tic­u­larly money ear­marked for tran­sit when there are so many other tran­sit needs.

Com­pare for in­stance the changes made to the traf­fic pat­terns down­town on King Street West be­tween Bathurst Street and Jarvis Street to en­sure street­cars pro­ceed more quickly. Im­ple­men­ta­tion of those changes cost less than a $100,000 with lim­ited on­go­ing costs. Be­cause of the re­duc­tion in travel times, rid­er­ship has in­creased by about 1,000 a day, and most are prob­a­bly new rid­ers. It’s a cost-ef­fec­tive change. (Yes, there’s been a tran­si­tional im­pact on restau­rant business that likely could have been avoided if im­ple­men­ta­tion oc­curred dur­ing the sum­mer.)

Another ir­ra­tional ex­am­ple: there are a lot of home­less peo­ple in Toronto, maybe in the or­der of 5,000 a night. The city runs some shel­ters and con­tracts with many in­sti­tu­tions — churches, so­cial agen­cies and so forth — for other space, pay­ing about $65 a night per per­son.

Just add that up: for a month, that’s about $2,000 per per­son, which is sig­nif­i­cantly more than the cost of rent­ing a bach­e­lor apart­ment. Giv­ing a home­less per­son a per­ma­nent place to live has been shown to sub­stan­tially im­prove that per­son’s health and well-be­ing. Pro­vid­ing so­cial sup­ports such as reg­u­lar vis­i­ta­tions with ad­vice on food, health and ac­tiv­i­ties would prob­a­bly in­volve an added cost of $500 a month, but even then the pub­lic cost would be less than sup­port­ing home­less­ness.

By re­al­lo­cat­ing fund­ing to per­ma­nent hous­ing and sup­port, pub­lic money would be saved and the home­less could be given a new start in a per­ma­nent place.

Why does our political sys­tem agree to these ex­pen­sive sub­way deals but not act to con­tain home­less­ness by ar­rang­ing per­ma­nent hous­ing? I think the al­lure of spend­ing bil­lions on a big project is just too en­tic­ing for many politi­cians to turn down, par­tic­u­larly if other gov­ern­ments say they are putting money into it as well. It’s one of the traps with cost-shared pro­grams: if other gov­ern­ments say they are putting money in, you play the game and don’t have to take all the blame.

Get­ting the home­less into per­ma­nent hous­ing isn’t nearly as at­trac­tive as a big con­struc­tion project. First, it is al­ways one per­son at a time and they don’t come with the same photo ops; se­cond, at the end of the day, there’s not much to show for the changes that have been made, just fewer peo­ple not sleep­ing on grates on the side­walk.

Strange how ir­ra­tionally pub­lic money is spent. Later this month, Toronto City Coun­cil will ap­prove an $11 bil­lion bud­get, but these larger is­sues won’t find a place in the de­bate. We live with the short­com­ings of the way pub­lic business is done, at least for now. Post City Mag­a­zines’ colum­nist John Sewell is a for­mer mayor of Toronto and the au­thor of a num­ber of ur­ban plan­ning books, in­clud­ing The Shape of the Suburbs.

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