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A man walks by a TTC streetcar with a printed sign 'We will get through this' on King Street West in Toronto during the morning rush hour, on March 16, 2020.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Canadian transit agencies are seeking immediate access to more than $1-billion in emergency federal funding and another $400-million a month to cover fare-box losses as long as the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate ridership.

The funding request to Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna was made late Monday by an umbrella organization that represents more than 100 Canadian transit operators, including the biggest in the country. The Canadian Urban Transit Association says that some of its members could face urgent liquidity issues.

“Systems across the country are coping with an unprecedented ridership drop that’s caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” CUTA president Marco D’Angelo said in an interview Tuesday. “We’re asking the federal government to find a way to help systems access funds to make sure that essential transit can keep running.”

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The latest on the coronavirus: Toronto cancels all public events through June 30; Quebec warns of equipment shortages

Canadian transit agencies, many of which rely heavily on the fare-box, are reporting ridership declines in excess of 70 per cent. In a number of cases they have stopped charging entirely – trying to keep riders away from staff for safety reasons, and therefore preventing them using the fare-box, or unwilling to make riders pay during a pandemic – thereby drying up their main revenue source.

A spokeswoman for Ms. McKenna noted that transit operating expenses are not normally eligible for federal infrastructure funding, but that the government is seeing how it can assist.

“During the current unprecedented health crisis, we continue to look at all options for helping Canadians weather this storm,” Chantalle Aubertin said in an e-mail.

“In our discussions with CUTA, we have been clear that there is currently no federal mechanism for funding municipal transit operating costs. However we are exploring ways we can help the public transit sector during this difficult time.”

She would not be more specific.

CUTA believes that $1.2-billion would be enough of an emergency fund to cover as much as 40 per cent of its member agencies running into severe financial trouble at the same time. And it hopes that such a fund could keep transit running until monies meant to cover ridership losses can begin to flow.

Transit agencies around the world are facing huge losses.

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In the United States, where New York City’s MTA was reporting weekly losses of US$125-million, the government on Friday passed a massive coronavirus relief bill that included US$25-billion for transit agencies. More than two weeks ago, before restrictions on public movement really began to bite in the United Kingdom, Transport for London was already estimating its losses at £500-million ($873-million).

No Canadian city has as many transit passengers as New York or London. But even though the losses are smaller, ridership at the country’s biggest transit agencies have plummeted.

In normal times, the Toronto Transit Commission, the country’s busiest transit agency, carries about 1.6 million riders on the average weekday. An agency spokesman said that ridership has stabilized about 70 or 80 per cent below normal levels.

Montreal saw ridership on its subway, normally about one million on a weekday, drop 70 per cent by the middle of March and then slide further. A spokeswoman for the STM said that it is now down 89 per cent.

In the Vancouver area, TransLink provided numbers showing that over the past week the declines in boarding had hovered around 80 per cent. The agency normally carries more than 1.4 million riders on a typical weekday.

Leaders of these city’s transit agencies were either unavailable Tuesday afternoon or said it was too soon to discuss their financial situation. But in its ask of the federal government, CUTA made clear the difficulty Canadian transit providers are facing.

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“Farebox and other revenues cannot be foregone without doing irreparable damage to Canada’s transportation networks,” the CUTA said.

“CUTA calls on the federal government to provide funding to replace 100 per cent of lost operating revenue estimated at $400-million per month. This support should be provided for the duration of the pandemic and until ridership regains its February, 2020, levels.”

The group is also seeking support to help cover the tab for additional cleaning and disinfecting products related to the pandemic, as well as the overtime costs of using them. These costs do not currently have a dollar figure attached to them.

Christopher Mio and Meghan Hoople found themselves jobless and wanting to help in the wake of COVID-19 isolation in Toronto. After flyering their neighbourhood with a free-of-charge offer, they received an outpouring of support and requests from people in need. The Globe and Mail

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