TTC says it’s losing about $18 million a week in fares, will need bailout over COVID-19 ridership crash

TTC says it’s losing about $18 million a week in fares, will need bailout over COVID-19 ridership crash
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The TTC will likely require at least tens of millions of dollars in financial assistance to cope with what the agency describes as an unprecedented ridership drop caused by the COVID-19 pandemic , and the organization will be facing critical decisions about how to rebuild even after the worst of the emergency is over.

According to the latest figures from the TTC, as of last Friday ridership on the country’s busiest transit system was down about 70 to 72 per cent systemwide compared to earlier in March before the crisis fully took hold.

According to TTC CEO Rick Leary, the pandemic has done unparalleled damage to transit use in the city.

“No one remembers historically (anything) ever having an impact like that,” he said in an interview.

The steepest decline has been in subway ridership, which is down about 80 per cent. Streetcar use has declined by 76 per cent, and bus use by 62 per cent. Trips on the agency’s Wheel-Trans service for customers with mobility issues have fallen 75 per cent.

At this rate, the TTC estimates it’s losing about $18 million in fares each week. During a normal week it would collect about $25 million.

Even with the dramatic drop, the TTC is still moving close to 500,000 people per day. Although last week the agency attempted to maintain service at something approaching normal levels, it is now operating about 80 per cent of regular service in response to lower demand and also because of lower staffing levels.

Leary acknowledged the crisis will likely cost the TTC tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. The agency had expected to collect about $1.3 billion in fare revenue this year, which would account for roughly two-thirds of its $2-billion operating budget. The bulk of the other third was to be made up by a subsidy from the city.

How the TTC will make up the shortfall is one of the many tough unanswered questions facing the city.

Don Peat, a spokesperson for Mayor John Tory, said the mayor is “is focused on making sure the TTC and all aspects of the City government will recover from the pandemic.”

Peat said Tory is “on the phone daily with federal and provincial officials” to discuss the economic response to the pandemic and “when this is over the mayor will be working to make sure the transit service we have built remains strong.”

Transit agencies outside Toronto are also hurting.

According to the Canadian Urban Transit Association, the country’s ten largest agencies are carrying nearly 80 per cent fewer riders per day since before the outbreak, and some systems have reported declines of almost 90 per cent.

The association said the plummeting ridership represents collective financial losses of about $280 million per month for the country’s transit agencies.

“It is a critical challenge to the bottom line of systems nationwide because operations must continue. And continue with enough frequency to allow safe social distancing,” said Marco D’Angelo, CEO of CUTA, in a news release.

The association said it had asked the federal government for financial support for transit agencies and “discussions continue.”

A spokesperson for the federal government couldn’t immediately respond to questions on the issue Wednesday.

The $17-billion COVID response plan Premier Doug Ford’s government unveiled Wednesday didn’t include a bailout for transit operators.

But in a written statement Christina Salituro, spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, said the Ontario government is “closely monitoring” the ridership situation and is “prepared to support our transit partners.”

“That said, we are still in the early days of responding to this pandemic,” Salituro said.

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Even after the immediate crisis is over and restrictions on public life designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are lifted, the TTC could struggle with ridership shortfalls.

According to Perks, that caused a vicious cycle in which transit became less reliable, leading to fewer people riding, which in turn was used to justify further service cuts.

‘We all are worried’: TTC drivers describe anxiety and acceptance amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The result was steep ridership declines. In 1990 the TTC carried 459 million people. By 1996, that had dropped almost 20 per cent, to 372 million, and the agency didn’t achieve 1990 passenger levels again until 2007, largely thanks to sustained ridership growth strategies that added service in order to make transit more attractive and bring riders back.

“If we make the mistake of the 1990s and cut service in response to (COVID-19), we will go into what’s called a transit death spiral,” Perks said.

Shelagh Pizey-Allen, director of transit advocacy group TTCriders, agreed that leaders will have to resist cutting service and hiking fares even if ridership stays low in the immediate wake of the COVID crisis.

“We are worried that there will be a push toward more austerity but we can’t accept big service cuts to the TTC,” she said.

“We know that there is demand for better transit across the city.”

Leary said the city is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of three decades ago, in part because “people have a better understanding of the importance of public transit today.”

Although there are still many unknowns about how the pandemic will play out, Leary said he hopes to return TTC service levels to pre-crisis levels once the emergency has passed.

“It is speculative, but I’m going to say yeah, I want to provide what we were providing,” he said.
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