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Toronto Could the private sector ease Toronto’s transit woes?

Toronto mayor John Tory attends a press conference outside Joyce Public School on Jan 19 2015, where he announced an upcoming TTC fare hike.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Like so many North Americans who travel in Asia, John Tory was wowed by the urban transportation systems he saw there. And as mayor of Toronto, he has the power to push for bringing some of their ideas to Toronto, including a look at the private operation of transit.

The Toronto Transit Commission has long avoided private operation and Mr. Tory is well aware the idea will be controversial. But he argues that it needs to be considered, that Toronto would be irresponsible to believe it can't learn from other places.

"They can't be all wrong in what they've done and got all the transit built that they've got built," the mayor said in an interview this week.

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"We probably can no longer, and should not, close our minds to the possibility that either alongside the public sector, or in some cases instead of the public sector, that you would look at having somebody else run some of these things."

Some of what Mr. Tory saw on his trip, such as maximizing real-estate opportunities around transit stations, has been floated before in Toronto and is not likely to ruffle feathers. The mayor's hope of improving the convenience of the Presto fare card, and perhaps reducing its costs to the TTC, would be welcome to many riders.

More likely to spark push-back is his willingness to consider private involvement in transit. One thought he broached was about expanding transit-building contracts to include long-term operational responsibility. He mused also about private firms providing small-bus service, perhaps in suburban areas.

Councillor Gord Perks argued that the mayor "learned the wrong lesson" on his Asian trip.

"He should have learned that transit is a function of density and how easy it is to drive," he said. "The reason the transit systems succeed in the cities the mayor visited is because they have extraordinary population densities and very low automobile ownership. They don't succeed because of the ownership model."

Private-sector involvement in transit operations is not, in itself, unusual. London's fleet of iconic red buses is actually run by a variety of private firms. Hong Kong's MTR is listed on the stock exchange, with the government as majority shareholder. The regional transit agency Metrolinx contracts with Bombardier to staff its GO trains.

Critics of private transit operations note, though, that many day-to-day costs are fixed, making salaries one of the few substantial things companies can whittle away to pad a profit margin. And Bob Kinnear, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, warned that privatizing would have a broader cost if it pushes down transit wages.

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"You would have 10,000 good-paying jobs turn into 10,000 low-income jobs," he argued. "If you look at the economics of this city long-term … there's a direct correlation [between] the well being of a city and the level of income that those residents receive within that city."

Councillor and TTC chair Josh Colle said he was keen to look at anything to get infrastructure built, but was "not sold" on the merits of private operation at the agency.

"I think the role where we are the best, and should be the best, is operations," he said.

"At the end of the day, I don't think any user actually cares who operates it as long as it's operated to a high standard. But the one thing that you do want to ensure, to meet those high standards, is a level of co-ordination and kind of seamless operation … and so I think you do definitely get that by having one organization do it."

Mr. Tory stressed that he was "not interested in considering anything that hurts the TTC" and wants only that various ideas be explored. "There may be 100 reasons why we shouldn't go down the road, but I'd at least ask the question," he said.

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