The Ontario government has confirmed plans to slash fares roughly in half on Toronto's struggling airport train, while being vague about how the new price levels were determined.
Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca unveiled the new fares Tuesday afternoon, saying they would be in place by March 9, in time for spring break.
"Our job now, going forward, is to drive up awareness, to make it more affordable for more people to try it," he said.
Under the new fare structure, approved Tuesday evening by the Metrolinx board, the Union Pearson Express will cost $12, or $9 with a Presto card. There will also be cheaper fares for people using only part of the line -- an attempt to make the service work for commuters -- a $25 deal for families and substantial discounts for seniors.
"It's still not a mass transit line and that's what we need," said Jess Bell, head of the advocacy group TTC Riders. "There's a lot of opportunity. They've taken a big step in the right direction, but they've got a little way to go."
The problems with the service were made abundantly clear shortly before Mr. Del Duca arrived for the announcement. As journalists waited for the event to begin, a mostly empty UPX train rolled out of the station with only 10 or 15 people on board.
The UPX was launched in June as a "premium" service, aimed at business travellers and priced at $27.50. Ridership rose haltingly in the first few months but then dropped in November and December, the last period for which the data is publicly available. With a rising public clamour, the government stepped in and made clear to Metrolinx that something had to change.
Mr. Del Duca was unwilling, though, to acknowledge that setting the fares high initially was an error. "Look, we're focussed on going forward," he told reporters.
"They won't admit it, but it's clearly a step back, a mistake," said Progressive Conservative MPP and opposition transportation critic Michael Harris. "It'll cost you and I, the taxpayers, a significant amount of money to pay for this."
A crucial question is whether the more affordable fares will spark sufficient interest to boost ridership enough to make up for the lower per-rider revenues. Metrolinx had projected three to five years before ridership would be high enough to pay day-to-day costs out of the fare-box. That timeline is now in question.
It's also not clear how the new fares were chosen. Metrolinx has kept secret the research it commissioned before launching the UPX on the possible ridership levels at different price-points.
Mr. Del Duca suggested Tuesday that some of that research was relevant to the new prices, and that work about the impact of these new fares on ridership was still underway.