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

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