The new year may be a critical one for those interested in improved public transit across the North East Avalon peninsula.
The municipal elections in St John’s in 2017 brought in a slate of new councillors, several of whom — notably Ian Froude and Maggie Burton — have told voters they see improved transit as a key objective. This spring, Metrobus will get Dillon Consulting’s recommendations for a new three to five year strategic plan. In their discussions with the public in November, they heard concerns over the frequency of buses, the winding routes they sometimes take, and their occasional unreliability, among other issues.
In announcing this year’s budget – the first one that the new council had the chance to consult on – they said that the public told them they wanted to see services maintained, even if it meant a small rise in taxes, which meant among other things that they left the subsidy for Metrobus where it was. While this may effectively mean a small cut, given inflation and other rising costs, in the next year the strategic plan may give them the ammunition to justify a rise in spending and services.
Earlier, in September, a key piece of the transit puzzle fell into place when the province finally agreed to provide matching funds to release federal funding for transit infrastructure like new buses or shelters. The Federal Public Transit Infrastructure Fund will pay for 40% of new infrastructure (buses, shelters etc) on condition that the province pay for a third, so St. John’s would only have to pay 27% of its cost as long as the province approves the plans, or even less if it’s renewing existing infrastructure. The spending timetable jointly published by the province and the federal government projects a maximum federal spending of $11.5m over the next five years. But only $3m of $4.7m of earlier federal transit money made available from 2016 was spent.
While that will help with one-off purchases to improve the network, the best hope for a boost to Metrobus’ income in the long term, and to encourage an extension of the network outside of St John’s is the “U-Pass” – a scheme promoted by MUN and Metrobus which would see almost all undergraduate students buying a heavily discounted bus pass alongside their tuition fees.
MUN students are already the largest single group of bus users in the city. While they have been promised the increased Metrobus revenue from increased ridership would be spent to improve services to and from campus, this would also benefit many other bus users. Students so far appear evenly split on whether to support the scheme, and if they approve it, when they are asked towards the end of the school year, the new scheme and its promised improvements won’t arrive before September 2020.
Those who stand to benefit the most might be potential bus users in CBS, Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, and Torbay, as most of the options spelled out to students involved running buses out to those communities, as well as providing an express bus service from Mount Pearl into campus.
And in the long term, the biggest changes to bus service might come from taking a wider view of the transit needs of all residents of the NE Avalon peninsula. Although more than half of the population of the peninsula lives outside St John’s itself, and a third of these commute in to the city for work, Metrobus is overseen by St. John’s council staff, councillors, and residents.
At present, Metrobus receives no provincial funding for its running costs. While it runs buses outside of St John’s when paid by other cities to do so, over 90% of the subsidy to keep the network running comes from the city’s ratepayers, and it does not have a formal mandate to manage transit across the region. As a result, it does not have a regional strategy – expansion is entirely dependent on ad hoc bilateral negotiations with other cities. While across Canada most transit spending is predominantly a municipal responsibility, Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the last provinces not to have any form of direct funding for public transit.
The argument for provincial coordination and funding is particularly strong on the NE Avalon peninsula because of the number of small municipalities surrounding St John’s, all with a need for better transit, but none with the financial capacity to plan or deliver it effectively on their own.
A better transit service would save the province money, both directly through reduced need for road improvements to improve congestion and indirectly – for example by improving health, providing easier pathways to employment for young people who can’t easily afford cars, and assisting our ageing population to remain independent for longer.
The City of St John’s would likely have to share its control over transit with the province and other municipalities in exchange for additional funds, but this could be a price worth paying for a better service.
The provincial NDP has called for subsidised bus passes for low income residents, and the city has approached the province for support for a plan along those lines – otherwise transit does not seem to have attracted much attention at a provincial level.
But there is a provincial election coming up, so now might be a good time to contact your MHA and ask them what they think – particularly if you live in one of the communities surrounding the city. Whatever happens, though, 2019 promises to be an interesting year for bus users.