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Two years ago, a group called TTCriders gave the Toronto Transit Commission an award: North America’s most underfunded transit system. The dubious prize was a publicity stunt, but the data behind it was real.

The TTC is the continent’s second-most-used public-transit system and it runs, as best it can, on a lower level of government subsidy than North America’s other public-transit systems. Just 30 per cent of operating costs come from taxpayers, compared to 50 per cent or more in nearly every other major city.

In 2017, according to calculations by the transit group CodeRedTO, the TTC got a subsidy of 90 cents for every rider. Transit agencies in New York, Vancouver, Ottawa, Edmonton and Mississauga received roughly twice that level of taxpayer support, Peel Region transit three times more, Durham Region four times more and York Region five times more.

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As the Doug Ford government negotiates plans for rejigging transit in the Greater Toronto Area, including a proposal to “upload” the Toronto subway to the province, don’t get distracted by fights over the shape of the TTC’s org chart. Keep your eyes on the prize. Follow what matters: the money.

If uploading the subway leaves the TTC with more money for transit and more autonomy to build the right transit, then it should be cheered.

The likelihood of cheering? Low. It’s more likely the Ford government will end up redirecting transit dollars to its political priorities and away from the most pressing needs of the TTC and its users. There’s a long history of this.

Public transit in Toronto has suffered from decades of too little money combined with too much political interference. Any time more of the former is available, it comes with an extra helping of the latter. It’s a tragic combination.

In the 1970s, the TTC wanted to extend the streetcar network into Scarborough, but Ontario had other ideas. The provincially owned Urban Transportation Development Corporation had designed a light-rail mass-transit system, and it needed a customer. Ontario forced the TTC to become the guinea pig, which is how the Scarborough RT came to be.

In the mid-1990s, the newly elected Mike Harris government killed the previous provincial government’s transit plan, while keeping its least logical element – the Sheppard subway. But the route simply isn’t dense enough to justify the high cost of a subway and Sheppard remains to this day a relatively low-ridership line.

In the early 2000s, Toronto crafted a plan to increase transit, built around light rail, or LRT. An LRT is ideal for neighbourhoods where the density of people and jobs is more than can be handled by buses, but too low for a subway. As part of the plan, the always troublesome Scarborough RT would be replaced by an LRT.

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But politics once again caused a derailment. The then-mayor, Rob Ford, opposed any transit that wasn’t buried. He demanded the Scarborough LRT, which the province had agreed to pay for, be replaced by a more costly subway.

The Liberal provincial government of the day, fearful of losing local support, agreed. A planned seven-stop LRT was ditched. Enter a subway line – with just one stop. It was yet another case of politics forcing the TTC to adopt the wrong transit choices, serving fewer people, more expensively.

And the show goes on: Premier Ford’s government wants to add two more stations to the still unbuilt, still overpriced Scarborough subway.

Even uploading schemes are nothing new. For example, the previous Liberal provincial government forced the TTC to adopt the province’s Presto electronic fare card, thereby handing fare collection to the province.

But in 2012, Ontario’s auditor-general said that Presto would “be among the more expensive fare-card systems in the world,” and could cost more than $700-million. By last fall, the provincial agency Metrolinx said Presto costs had reached $1.2-billion. A TTC report last year found that collecting fares through Presto will be more expensive than the old system of tokens and tickets.

Impossible? No, predictable.

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The Ford government’s desire to push high-cost transit into low-density areas, while simultaneously cutting spending, means this latest round of provincial “help” is unlikely to end well. The TTC needs more money and autonomy, and less politics. History suggests that it, and Torontonians, are once again about to get the opposite.

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