On May 12, the chief executive officer of the TTC updated the TTC board on their COVID-19 recovery plans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the TTC had a huge funding shortfall because of a drastically reduced passenger fare revenue. The stay-at-home orders do not seem to have been altogether kind to the TTC financial statements. If you, like me, are wondering about how the TTC will fix their funding shortfall, then you may have also figured out a troubling remedy: fare hikes.
The provincial and federal governments have provided relatively robust financial support for the TTC through the Safe Restart Agreement (SRA), which provides financial relief to the transit system among other priorities deemed essential to restart the economy. The initial agreement involved two phases of funding, but the Ontario government announced a third phase this past March, which began in April and will end in December. However, the set-up of the SRA means that $31.8 million of funding from phase two — which ended this past March — has not been carried over into phase 3. In combination with other factors, this leaves the TTC with an estimated budget shortfall of just over $126 million for 2021.
The last TTC fare hike in March 2020 was projected to generate over $31 million. Further fare hikes could provide a quick and easy way to reduce the budget shortfall. After all, what’s the big deal? The last hike was only an additional 10 cents per fare.
Unfortunately, fare hikes have a big impact on a student’s budget. When I first started my degree in 2013, a monthly student metro pass was $106 per month. With the price now at $128.15 per month, I am now spending $177.20 more in a school year, which is a noticeable increase on a tight budget. The impact of this increase is low right now; I rarely leave my home enough to necessitate transit expenses. But with U of T indicating a return to in-person classes in the fall, budgeting a metro pass is going to be unavoidable.
It is already tricky to be a student in Toronto and balance transit fees. Some cities in Ontario partner with local universities and build transit passes into student ancillary fees or offer drastically reduced fares, but such a plan does not currently exist for U of T students. Additionally, Toronto is generally an expensive city to live in, and transit fees add another financial burden on students wishing to pursue education here.
It’s also difficult to cover continually increasing expenses while job opportunities for students have been reduced due to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders. Furthermore, the Ontario Student Assistance Program funding has been negatively impacted for many students over the past few years. Students have fewer opportunities to earn a higher income, which is why I am hopeful that the SRA’s phase two funding rolls over into phase three and is further increased to cover the TTC’s shortfall. Otherwise, students and other regular commuters may have to foot the bill.
This is especially critical as we move out of a pandemic that has forced us to isolate ourselves from our city and communities. The possibility of increased fares impacts not only already strapped student budgets, but also our sense of connection to each other and to our built environments. After the isolation caused by lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, U of T students rightfully deserve reconnection with the city and its spaces. Further increasing the barriers to access downtown spaces reduces the amount of people that can utilize them, which after a year of imposed lockdowns is not entirely fair.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of physical connection and the availability of spaces for community gatherings. In Toronto, transit is vital for this. The government has a responsibility to assist in smoothly transitioning us back into ‘regular life’ after necessary, but damaging, lockdowns. If TTC funding is taken away before people can adjust financially to a post-pandemic world, there will be an undeniable risk of increased fares in the coming months.
I am sure I am not alone in dreaming about the day I can hop on the subway to meet my friends at the park. But I am also aware that some may face the uncomfortable reality of finding the money to indulge in such a privilege. After a difficult year, we should be striving to provide connection and community to everyone, especially those individuals who are in precarious economic situations.
Abigail Godden is a fifth-year environmental science and political science student at University College.