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

Atlantic Transport News – March 2021

Welcome to the March edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

COVID’S LATEST WAVE BRINGS MORE TRANSPORTATION CUTS

Graphic by James Fraser

Contrary to the verse of T.S. Eliot, most Atlantic Canadians would agree that February is undoubtedly the cruelest month of the year. The point was certainly driven home in 2021 as another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic rolled with a vengeance into Newfoundland and Labrador – and to a lesser extent Nova Scotia and PEI. Only New Brunswick finished the month with a significantly improved active case count from the end of January – and that was mainly because their peak had come earlier in the new year. The sudden surge in cases in Newfoundland’s northeast Avalon region was particularly alarming, not only because it proved to be largely of the more virulent B117 variant, but it was also showing rapid spread among the teenage cohort. Public health authorities acted quickly, and initially placed the entire province under strict lockdown, though the restrictions were later relaxed outside the most affected area. Nova Scotia, meanwhile, put the last remnant of the Atlantic Bubble on hold by requiring all travellers arriving from NL by air or ferry to self-isolate for 14 days.

DRL Coachlines suspended its cross island service in NL for three weeks because of the COVID surge in the St. John’s area, but has announced the schedule will resume on March 8th.

One casualty of the latest crisis in NL was the trans-island bus service operated by DRL Coachlines. On February 13 it suspended all service until further notice, temporarily laying off 28 employees. However, the company has just announced that its full schedule would resume on Monday, March 8, with strict health protocols in place including mandatory masking for the duration of the trip.

DRL had been operating at about 70 per cent of its normal ridership for the past year because of the pandemic, with the company taking a big financial hit, general manager Jason Roberts told CBC News. He said about 90% of the company’s ridership originated in or was destined for St. John’s, and ridership had all but evaporated under the latest lockdown. DRL has been bleeding cash since March of 2020, despite having shut down for several months last spring, and Mr. Roberts anticipates it will be another year before it’s again in a profitable position.

Air service in NL also took another hit, with WestJet announcing that the province was being dropped from its route map effective March 19 for at least three months. The airline had been operating a single Q400 return flight between St. John’s and Halifax on a less than daily frequency for several months. Airline CEO Ed Sims attributed the cancellation to plummeting demand because of travel restrictions and quarantines.

Meanwhile, PAL Airlines is now only operating once a week on its modified St. John’s-Deer Lake-Moncton-Wabush routing. Marketing director Janine Brown expects that this reduced offering will remain in effect until travel restrictions ease between provinces in the now-suspended Atlantic Bubble. Latest indications are that reopening the bubble is indeed on the premiers’ radar, and they will be discussing it next month with some optimism that it might be back by May. Meanwhile, PAL is maintaining a more frequent service between points within NL, flying with some regularity from St. John’s to Gander, Deer Lake, Goose Bay and St. Anthony.

GREENS CALL FOR NEW MARITIMES TRANSPORTATION VISION

“With public transportation services in disarray, it’s as if there is no one in charge – which there isn’t,” says New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon. The remark was part of a call for unified action by the three provincial governments in the Maritimes. In documenting his case, Mr. Coon decries the absence of a strong policy role among transportation departments in general, suggesting they are far too focused on asphalt and concrete.

NB Green Party Leader David Coon is promoting  the concept of an interprovincial authority to develop public transportation policy.

“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?” he writes.

“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.”

The full text of Mr. Coon’s statement can be found on TAA’s website:

ATLANTIC AIRPORTS ASSOCIATION LOSES ITS LEADER

Saint John airport CEO Derrick Stanford is seeking a new challenge outside the aviation sector.

The CEO of the Saint John Airport and chair of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association is leaving to take up a new challenge. Derrick Stanford advised the YSJ board of directors of his departure in February, effective March 10. He’d held the position since 2016.

Mr. Stanford hasn’t indicated where he’s going, but suggested it would be outside the aviation sector. Before coming to Saint John he’d been employed in the software industry.

The departing CEO did express confidence in the viability of Saint John’s airport, which currently is completely devoid of any scheduled passenger flights. He noted that discount carrier Flair Airlines recently announced that it is set to begin service to Toronto as early as May, depending on the travel restriction situation.

The flights would be twice weekly initially, priced from about $80 one way. Mr. Stanford called this a step in the right direction, and predicted that YSJ has a bright future, despite the lack of clarity about a return of Air Canada service. He says things are beginning to look up for the aviation sector generally, with COVID-19 case numbers beginning to decline globally. He added that YSJ is on a “stable footing”, and the airline industry is taxiing toward steadier ground.

“I won’t say the worst is behind us, but we’re on a course now for a slow, steady recovery,” he told CBC News.

The total revenue loss for 2020 among ACAA members is estimated to be $140 million. The airports have asked for federal government help to keep the lights on while they await the end of the pandemic.

TWO NL PARTIES GIVE POSITION ON MARINE ATLANTIC RATES

The NL provincial election scheduled for February 13 was thrown into chaos by the surge in COVID cases. All in-person voting was cancelled, and those who had not already availed of advance polls were required to apply for mail-in ballots. The deadline for those ballots to be received by the returning office in order to be counted was set at March 12, with some sources suggesting that deadline could be extended, and it might be well into April before the election outcome is known.

Transport Action Atlantic had initiated an effort to get Marine Atlantic ferry rates on the table as an election issue. Although the service is a federal responsibility, TAA maintains the matter will only be addressed if provincial politicians become more assertive. PC Leader Ches Crosbie has committed in writing to do just that.

NL PC Leader Ches Crosbie has endorsed TAA’s position on Marine Atlantic ferry rates.

“Marine Atlantic is the responsibility of the federal government. But that does not mean I cannot stand up and hold them accountable. The federal government should ensure that Marine Atlantic provides affordable and reliable service…it is their constitutional responsibility to do so.

“…Yes, I do support the principle that the cost to use the ferry service between Port aux Basques and North Sydney should be comparable to the cost incurred to travel a similar distance via road. Additionally, regardless of the election result, I will support a full review of the existing Marine Atlantic rates to ensure that the federal government is compliant with the Terms of Union.”

A response from the provincial Liberals seems to indicate that they are not prepared to antagonize their federal counterparts, and suggests that they do not consider the current rate structure unreasonable:

“Through ongoing meetings and consultations as well as an ongoing open dialogue with the Government of Canada, we continue to make the case that ferry rates should be set so as to not have any negative impact on business, trade and tourism. We continue to be committed to that approach and will call for a rate review at every possible opportunity.”

The provincial NDP and the NL Alliance Party did not respond to TAA’s invitation.

YARMOUTH FERRY SECRETS REVEALED

While the ferry between Yarmouth and Main sits idle for another year thanks to the pandemic, new details have finally come to light regarding the amounts that the Nova Scotia provincial government has been paying Bay Ferries to operate the service. The provincial PC opposition has been pushing the McNeil government for several years to disclose the exact amounts involved in the management fee paid by the province, a demand that both the government and Bay Ferries claimed would risk damage to the company’s competitive position by revealing commercially sensitive information. The matter was ultimately decided by the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, whose ruling in February made clear that these arguments didn’t hold water.

Roughly a week after the court ruling, Bay Ferries put any questions of potential appeals to bed by releasing the information to the public. According to the newly released information, the deal signed in 2018 sees Bay Ferries paid $97,500 a month, for a total of $1.17 million per year. This was adjusted upward from the original 2016 agreement, which only saw payments of $65,000 a month. The agreement also includes incentives that would allow the company to earn up to double the management fee in a given year based on the achievement of certain performance grades, though this has not yet happened. According to the release from Bay Ferries, the total management fee accounts for approximately 5% of all ferry operating costs in a typical year.

DIGBY FERRY ENDING A TWO-MONTH HIATUS

The ferry that normally runs between Digby and Saint John has been out of service since late January, forcing commercial truckers that form the backbone of Bay Ferries’ traffic at this time of year to take the long way round. MV Fundy Rose has been tied up in Halifax awaiting completion of terminal infrastructure upgrades. While it is not unusual for the service to be suspended while the vessel undergoes periodic refits, this is an exceptionally long outage period.  A Bay Ferries spokesperson noted that passenger ridership had been exceptionally low due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the absence of service was challenging for commercial users.  The Fundy Rose is now slated to resume operation with a 1600 departure from Digby on March 14.

CAMPOBELLO FERRY EXTENDED ONCE AGAIN

The Campobello ferry has been given yet another reprieve. The New Brunswick government announced on March 4 that the normally seasonal operation will continue until at least April 5, allowing residents to access to the rest of the province without having to travel through the US amid the pandemic.

Saint Croix MLA Kathy Bockus welcomed the announcement, but added she’d feel even better if the announcement was for a full-time ferry – a goal she indicated was still being worked on. The tug-and-barge ferry currently on the route is clearly unsuited for winter operating conditions, as evidenced by the large number of cancellations on the four days it is currently scheduled to operate each week.

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.