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TTC eyes ridership boost to cover shortfall

The TTC unveils new subway cars at Downsview station in Toronto on Oct. 14, 2010.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto Transit Commission is relying on more riders - and especially more riders taking transit on the fly, instead of buying more economical monthly passes - to boost revenue enough to cover the system's $11-million shortfall this year.

But it's also cancelling or postponing some programs aimed at improving the transit system's customer-service record, which the city vowed to improve after dirty stations, confusing closings and sleeping, texting operators became the focus of rider consternation over the past 12 months.

General manager Gary Webster said the cuts don't indicate any decrease in the TTC's renewed customer-service commitment; it's just that some more ambitious programs need to be postponed in light of budgetary belt-tightening.

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The cash-strapped TTC was left to fill an $11-million hole after a series of changes to its proposed operating budget brought forward last month: A 10-cent fare increase was shelved within 24 hours of its proposal; $7-million in proposed bus-route cuts was reduced to $4-million (and many of the people who rely on those off-peak, less busy bus routes insist even these cuts go too far).

Ironically, the bulk of that hole is to be made up by increased ridership thanks to the cancelled fare increase: While the TTC had planned for a slight drop, if fares stay the same they're projecting about 487 million riders - four million more than they'd planned for in January.

Add to that a trend of more Torontonians taking transit on a more impromptu basis, buying cash or token fares instead of the relatively cheaper monthly passes, and the TTC is projecting a $7-million increase in fare revenue over what it was expecting just a month ago.

The rest of the cash is coming from a combination of reduced overtime, delaying hiring to fill vacancies and a pullback on two of the initiatives put forward by the panel convened to review the TTC's customer service and recommend improvements.

While the TTC had planned to hire 17 new supervisors and increase the frequency of its recertification process to give bus drivers better customer-service training, both of those are out of the budget for this year, saving $1-million each.

Mr. Webster said that leaves about $3.4-million in this year's budget dedicated to customer-service improvements, including $1.1-million for cleaning staff and $1.8-million for new station managers.

"The vast majority of the customer-service plan is being put in place," Mr. Webster said. "We've always wanted to go from a recertification every five years to three years. … On the other hand it's quite expensive, so we're going to defer that until next year."

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These cuts, Mr. Webster said, will allow the transit commission to continue planned improvements to service on its busiest bus routes, although officials plan to reassess in June to determine whether they can afford that extra $3-million.

If the TTC can identify efficiencies in a coming program review, TTC chair Karen Stintz said, it might be able to reallocate staff to meet previous targets.

But Spacing Toronto publisher Matthew Blackett, one of the members of the TTC's customer-service review panel, argued the transit commission's priorities seem out of whack.

"The new mayor has put a new tagline in all his e-mails that says the major focus of the new government, the new city council, is customer service," he said. "It just rings a little hollow, what they're actually trying to accomplish."

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