A call for government action on urban transit in these challenging times

By Sheldon Phaneuf

Governments must intervene before it is too late

Urban transit has not escaped the devastating effects of the global pandemic. Service levels have been cut to public transit systems throughout Atlantic Canada. Although there are some systems that have restored service, many remain operating at significantly reduced levels.

Fredericton 50-60%

Moncton 70%

Saint John 70%

St. John’s 65-70%

Senior transit staff and municipal officials have been consistent with their messaging. “Service levels cannot be restored until ridership increases”. How can ridership increase if service is restricted?

There is a pivotal point at which the service cuts that were put in place in response to a temporary decrease in ridership begin to drive rider behaviour. Experts warn that public transit is on the verge of suffering long term consequences and refers to the phenomenon as a “death spiral”.

Ridership decreases. Revenues drop. Service is cut. Ridership further decreases because of a reduced service schedule…and the cycle continues.

If service cuts weren`t enough, the death spiral phenomenon is being further accelerated by passenger capacity restrictions, imposed by provincial health authorities in response to regional COVID-19 outbreaks. These restrictions are necessary to safeguard the health of passengers and transit workers, but the impact on transit systems already crippled by service cuts is overwhelming.

A small change in perspective leads to a significant change in point of view

We can no longer accept the argument from provincial and federal levels of government that urban transit is a “municipal problem”. The fate of public transit cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the cities in which they operate. That does not mean municipal level governments can stand by and watch their transit systems fade into obscurity. The myopic view of public transit is rooted in the ill-informed assumptions of our city councillors, even those who call themselves “transit friendly”.

As long as public transit continues to be viewed as a reviled but necessary line item on municipal budgets, nothing will change. We need a fundamental shift away from the belief that public transit is a drain on municipal finances. Our elected officials must first come to terms with the fact that public transit will never pay for itself. Then they need to recognize that a full-service public transit system is an integral part of the municipal service infrastructure of any successful city. Public transit is an essential service.

Finally, they should consider the fact that public transit is one of the very few municipal services that “self-subsidize”. Public transit offsets its cost by generating revenue for city coffers. Imagine if other municipal services (road maintenance, waste collection, administrative support services, etc.) brought in $40 for every $100 they cost the city to operate, as public transit does. (Source: CUTA Revenue Cost Ratio Data 2018). Ironically, although public transit is one of the few city services to generate revenue, its often the first to suffer service cuts.

Public transit drives regional economic and population growth strategies

In the fall of 2020, the province of New Brunswick declined to participate in a federal relief program for municipal transit after misunderstanding who it was for and what it covered. Provinces were initially supposed to match federal dollars, but loopholes in the program resulted in provincial governments not having to put up any matching dollars. The New Brunswick government decided to fund municipal transit losses under the Federal Safe Restart program, but these funds were exclusively for pandemic related losses and no money was offered to help restore public transit service cuts.

The Nova Scotia provincial government accepted $16 million dollars under the public transit aid program. Coincidently, Halifax Transit returned to 100% full service in September 2020.

Our provincial leaders must pull their heads out of the sand and recognize the important role that public transit plays in regional economic and population growth. Population growth in Atlantic Canada is under threat from an aging population, low birth rates, high rates of out migration and low rates of interprovincial migration. In 2017, the federal government launched the Atlantic Immigration Pilot (AIP) to promote immigration in Atlantic Canada. Initial results are promising. In 2019, Atlantic Canada broke previous immigration records and welcomed 18,000 newcomers. These newcomers are professionals, entrepreneurs, working class and students and are typically drawn to the larger urban centres to which they are accustomed and that provide services like an efficient and affordable public transit system.

Public transit requires operational funding from all levels of government

In February 2021, the federal government announced almost $15 billion for public transit over the next eight years. This funding announcement exposes a crucial lack of understanding for what public transit needs to survive. The current federal and provincial investment strategy falls short. It fails to address the immediate and ongoing need for operational funding. Elected officials at all levels of government need to adjust their focus and consider the “return on investment” achieved through operational funding of public transit. 

Funding of public transit plays a vital role in supporting the social welfare network and provides mobility to our seniors, our low-income workers, and our students. Subsidizing efficient and affordable public transit systems will help drive a national strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Ongoing operational investment in public transit fuels regional economic and population growth. When our elected officials look through this lens, they will see what advocates of public transit see…and finally begin to understand the social, environmental, and economic benefits of investing in urban transit.

Sheldon Phaneuf is a bus operator at Codiac Transpo in Moncton, and a member of ATU Local 1290

A Vision for Public Transportation in the Maritimes

We can get there from here – it just takes co-operation

By David Coon

The old saying in downeast Maine that says, “You can’t get there from here,” nearly became reality for people needing to travel between northern and southern New Brunswick last month, unless they could drive. 

The federal Crown corporation that provided passenger rail service between Campbellton, Moncton and Halifax stopped its trains from venturing east of Quebec last year.  Next, PEI-based Maritime Bus came close to taking its buses off the road as the pandemic ate into its ridership.  An 11th hour decision by Premier Higgs to provide a $750,000 grant kept the bus links between Fredericton and Edmundston, Moncton and Campbellton, and Fredericton and Moncton, for now.

In the extreme southwest of the province, the Higgs government has been funding the tiny summer tourist ferry between Campobello Island and Deer Island to provide service through the winter. This enables Campobello residents to avoid the long trip through the hot zone that America has become, while providing a link to the island for mainlanders who can no longer cross into the U.S.  Service is spotty since it was never designed for the wind and seas that winter brings.

How has our public transportation network become so fragmented and brittle?  Like Grand Manan and Deer Island, Campobello was once linked by ferry to the mainland. Commuter trains linked Fredericton and Saint John. Daily rail service linked North with South. Bus service was available just about wherever you lived.

The need for public transportation services is growing with an aging population, the rising cost of vehicle ownership and insurance, increasing numbers of immigrants, the regionalization of public services, and the imperative of cutting transportation-related carbon pollution.

With public transportation services in disarray, it’s as if there is no one in charge – which there isn’t.  In fact, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure has no mandate to oversee the coordination of public transportation services. No civil servant has that turf. New Brunswick has only ever had a highway strategy. There has never been an integrated transportation strategy. 

This partly explains why New Brunswick hasn’t touched a dime of the $120 million in federal funding for public transportation projects allocated to the province as part of the ten-year $673 million infrastructure agreement that was signed with Ottawa in 2018.

There was no one to provide advice on how the transportation funding might be tailored to meet New Brunswick’s needs.  A ten-year public transportation strategy written for government, on the initiative of the Economic and Social Inclusion Corporation, could have provided guidance, but it was gathering dust on a shelf.  The infrastructure agreement with Ottawa got inked with $120 million for public transportation restricted for use by city transit services alone.

The Premier wants us to become more self-sufficient, but if you can’t afford to own a vehicle or are unable to drive one, that self-sufficiency becomes an impossible goal.  Just as deep cuts to our carbon footprint are impossible without shifting driving time to commuting time on a bus or train. 

To achieve our social, economic and environmental goals we must become more self-sufficient in public transportation.  How do we build a public transportation network that meets our needs, and what revenue will fund the necessary public investments?

This is a job for a public institution that crosses provincial borders.  I propose the creation of a Maritime Transportation Authority, a regional Crown corporation, that can quarterback the development of a public transportation network that enables us to travel where we need to go, when we need to go, throughout the Maritimes. 

I envision a seamless system of regional passenger rail, motor coach, and local transit services that are a mix of private, public and community enterprises.  We already have PEI-based Maritime Bus delivering some bus services, which could be expanded.  There are community-based transit services in some areas, ferry services in others, but no rail.  It is time for a Maritime rail service to be knitted into the mix. One ticket should get you where you want to go, from door to door.  Carbon tax revenues can help support operational costs.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising to spend nearly $15 billion on public transportation over the next eight years.  Let us seize that opportunity for the Maritimes, together, to increase the well-being of our citizens and propel us toward a greener economy by breathing life into a serviceable public transportation network that we can count on to get us there from here.


David Coon is leader of the New Brunswick Green Party and the MLA for Fredericton South. He is shown here addressing TAA’s annual general meeting in 2017.

Atlantic Transport News – January 2021

Happy New Year! Welcome to the January edition of Atlantic Transport News!

Here’s a look at what you’ll find in this edition:

MOTORCOACH SERVICE IN NEW BRUNSWICK UNDER THREAT

Thousands of New Brunswickers are about to lose their only remaining public transportation link. With the provincial government unwilling to extend a helping hand to assist it through the COVID-19 crisis, Maritime Bus has announced indefinite closure of its services between Moncton and Campbellton and Fredericton and Edmundston, effective January 15.

Company founder Mike Cassidy, who came to the rescue after Acadian Lines abandoned its service in the Maritimes in 2012, has been providing line-haul motorcoach service ever since. However, he says, his passion for “public transit on provincial highways” has to be balanced with available financial resources. In April 2020 as the first wave of the pandemic took hold, Maritime Bus carried just 650 passengers – a dramatic plunge from 14,500 in the same month of 2019. The three provincial governments provided a one-time grant at that point to help offset the company’s losses, and indicated a willingness to negotiate an ongoing agreement for the duration of the crisis. The tentative deal to help cover the May to December was concluded with officials of all three provinces, but New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs refused to endorse it, citing his government’s policy of not subsidizing for-profit companies.

“Unfortunately, one province didn’t want to play in the same sandbox as the other two,” Mr. Cassidy said in a CBC interview. “The only way to reduce my operating costs is to travel less kilometres in the province of New Brunswick.”

The Higgs government decision ignores the reality that Maritime Bus lost over $3 million in 2020, and has continued to provide an essential public service on all its existing routes throughout the pandemic – albeit at a reduced level. Transport Action Atlantic has urged the Province to reconsider this regressive policy, which will leave residents of the North Shore and the Upper Valley without any public transportation options.

New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon also called on the premier to come to the rescue and keep the bus routes operational. He said the service loss will, among other things, deprive residents in the affected areas of vital access to healthcare services, adding that the buses are essential for people who cannot afford a car or are unable to drive.

For his part, Mike Cassidy says he’s committed to maintaining passenger and parcel service throughout the three Maritime provinces, noting that his company has a proven record over eight years, with no public funding except for the one-time contribution from the three provincial governments last spring.

“I want to take the high road by staying in business and keeping a base of bus service for our region until we are back to the new normal of people travelling again sometime this year when certain stakeholders and political decision makers are in a better place and a better frame of mind to make impactful social community decisions,” he said, adding that “it goes without saying Maritime Bus optimistically hopes public bus transportation will be a key strategic component in future community connectivity discussions.” 

ATLANTIC BUBBLE STAYS DEFLATED AMID NEW TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS

Don’t expect to see the Atlantic Bubble return anytime soon. That’s the clear message emerging from provincial premiers and health authorities in the aftermath of a relatively subdued and travel-restricted holiday season across the region. But all the precautions and restrictions were clearly not sufficient to keep the pandemic’s second wave contained. New Brunswick in particular recorded a dramatic upsurge in COVID-19 infections in the first week of the new year, prompting a return to the more restrictive “orange level” throughout the province effective at midnight on January 5.

While per-capita case counts remained low in comparison to Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, the region’s leaders were taking no chances. Nova Scotia, which had continued to allow other Atlantic Canadians to enter without self-isolating after the other three provinces had suspended the bubble in November, imposed restrictions at the border with New Brunswick on January 8. Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey announced that his province would remain outside the bubble at least into February. And, New Brunswick announced that owning property or having family members in the province would no longer entitle non-residents to visit under the latest travel restrictions. All provinces were actively discouraging “non-essential” travel, but there appeared to be a variety of interpretations as to what that actually meant. One obvious complication is the relatively high number of residents who travel outside the region to find employment.

As of noon on January 10, the total reported active case count in the region stood at 212, over 80 percent of which were in New Brunswick.

Alerts continue to be issued about possible COVID exposure aboard flights into Atlantic Canada, while travel companies and some airlines appear to be flouting the advice of political leaders and public health officials by actively promoting offers to lure people onto planes and into resorts.  Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc was clearly not amused, telling Brunswick News in a recent interview that he views the practice as “absurd”. The minister added that the Government of Canada won’t be interested in helping airlines financially if they aren’t interested in restoring regional routes.

ANOTHER SETBACK FOR AIR SERVICE IN THE REGION

In what one airport CEO described as a “massive blow”, Air Canada is implementing further flight suspensions throughout Atlantic Canada, effective January 11. The move includes a total shutdown until further notice of all scheduled passenger operations at Sydney and Saint John, as well as suspension of four routes serving Charlottetown, Fredericton, Deer Lake, and Halifax.

Derrick Stanford, president of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, said the latest round of cuts has whittled down service to an unsustainable level, adding that this is the third significant round of service reductions in six months. It follows hot on the heels of major cutbacks implemented in November by WestJet that wiped out most of that airline’s presence in the region.

“Our industry cannot survive and operate in these conditions, and we are seeing the worst-case scenario playing out here today,” Mr. Stanford said. “This will have a huge impact on our region’s economy, on the ability of families to reconnect, on the movement of essential workers, and on airport employees and businesses.”

Meanwhile, St. John’s-based PAL Airlines is adjusting its services from Moncton to Newfoundland and Labrador to accommodate the latest round of travel restrictions as best it can. The airline has abandoned its service between Charlo NB and Wabush NL, and combined it with a new route linking Moncton with Deer Lake. And, until interprovincial travel restrictions are eased, non-stop service between YQM and YYT has been temporarily eliminated. Effective January 10 until further notice, a tri-weekly DASH-8-300 flight will run St. John’s – Deer Lake – Moncton – Wabush and return. PAL’s Janine Brown says a daily St. John’s – Moncton – Ottawa routing is still their post-pandemic objective, with a separate service planned for Deer Lake and Wabush.

ST. JOHN’S WALKS BACK A LITTLE ON METROBUS CUTS

Metrobus users in St. John’s will not have to deal with schedule cutbacks during the worst months of winter after all. Faced with mounting criticism, City Council has backtracked somewhat on its plan to implement the reduced summer schedule in January, in an effort to meet a severe budget crunch. The 2021 transit subsidy will still apparently be hit by the intended cut of $800,000, but the savings will now be achieved by deferring planned service improvements, rather than cutting back on frequency during the three most severe months of the year. The reductions will now begin in April. Frequency changes in summer are a normal response when student ridership drops substantially and more people are biking or walking.

Meanwhile, service is back to near-normal schedules on most urban transit systems in the region, although ridership, and consequently revenues, remain a long way below pre-pandemic levels.

CAMPOBELLO FERRY GETS ANOTHER EXTENSION

The Campobello ferry normally runs only in summer, and was not designed for operation under winter conditions. PHOTO – Maurice Haddon

The normally-seasonal Campobello Island ferry has received yet another extension. The New Brunswick government will now continue its financial support until February 7, 2021, to enable service four days a week (weather permitting) between Campobello and Deer Island, which is in turn connected with the NB mainland by year-round ferry. The only permanent access for the island’s 700 residents is through an international bridge to Lubec, Maine – a circuitous connection complicated by COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The Campobello ferry usually operates only during summer, and the privately-owned vessel is not well suited to sea conditions often encountered at this time of year. The schedule is therefore a bit of a moving target, and the operator, East Coast Ferries, is using social media to keep its customers informed.

Meanwhile, Campobello’s plight has found its way to the pages of the Toronto Star.  This detailed item was published on January 3: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/01/03/cut-off-by-geography-and-covid-19-this-canadian-island-is-calling-out-for-a-link-to-the-rest-of-canada-to-no-avail.html