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The blackout, the TTC and egg salad sandwiches

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On Monday, my hour-long public transit commute turned into a three-hour tour due to a blackout.

I work in the west end of Toronto and live in the east. While my public transit voyage isn't brisk, it usually moves along without incident and I have a lot of time to read. When I arrived at Kipling station on late Monday afternoon, I saw black smoke billowing out of the hydro substation, which sits like a tangled mess of wires and steel about half-a-click away from the subway station.

It was hot, over 40 Celsius with the humidex, so rather than spend much time admiring the latest public infrastructure mishap, I ambled down to the darkened subway cavern. Not a Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) worker in sight. No one telling me that the subway was on the fritz. Sure, I could have deduced that there was a problem by the absence of light, trains and people, but it would have been helpful and rage-assuaging to have someone in TTC vestments tell me what was going on.

I walked back up to the bus bay and it was pandemonium. Finally, the first of many shuttle buses arrived and one TTC employee was left managing the surging mass of humanity. Hundreds pressing to get onto a vehicle that carries about 50 passengers.

Feeling like a salmon swimming up river, bouncing and jumping up dams and falls and obstacles, I made it on to the third bus.

Since all traffic lights were out, the bus inched along. Someone beside me noshed on an egg salad sandwich. Egg salad sandwiches are to cuisine what Rob Ford is to the Toronto mayoral race: foul and totally unnecessary. Why anyone would consume something that looks like sick and smells like corpse is beyond me. But I digress.

While containing my nausea, I turned my thoughts to the TTC and how it has been kneecapped since Mike Harris cut the provincial contribution in 1995. Today, TTC riders cover 70 percent of costs with their fares -- the highest user subsidy of public transit in North America. And the province no longer evenly shares the remaining 30 percent with Toronto.

The TTC needs money. Not simply from the city, which has done quite enough. It needs funding from the province and the feds. In fact, Torontonians should not elect any MPP or MP who does not, or whose party does not, commit to public transit funding. That the province has delayed, or more likely, cancelled, $4 billion in public transit cash is not just puzzling, it's breathtakingly idiotic.

Toronto is in the unenviable position of having the longest commute time compared to 19 big cities from around the world. And congested roads cost us, according to the OECD, $3.3 billion in lost productivity.

Indeed, my three-hour ride was due to a massive power failure (which some believe was the result of ageing electricity infrastructure) but many Torontonians spend hours commuting everyday because of patchy service and poorly distributed rapid transit.

There have been no significant enhancements to public transit (the Sheppard line is a questionable addition with miserably low ridership) in almost three decades while transit use continues to increase. On a typical weekday, 1.5 million people ride the TTC.

Following a few PR debacles, the TTC committed to improving customer service. A laudable and necessary goal, but unachievable without funding. You can't improve the morale of staff by issuing memos telling them to be nicer and to paste on a smile. You can't have staff and passengers feel good about their public transit system when subway cars look like the floors of movie theatres, covered in papers, soft drink sludge, bits of food and other detritus (as an aside, my recommendation for the TTC's Customer Service Advisory Panel: no food, beverages, or those blasted free newspapers permitted on any TTC vehicle. This type of ban is not uncommon on some urban public transit systems).

You can't leave passengers guessing what's happening when trains are delayed or buses don't arrive. You can't respond to emergencies like blackouts unless you have staff immediately present, keeping passengers informed, and telling them how the TTC is working to get everyone home.

Toronto is the biggest city in Canada. But it will never be a world-class city if we don't invest in public transit. Instead, it will be congested and polluted and that black smoking you see spiraling up to the sky will be from the exhaust of 2 million cars idling on Toronto's streets.

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