Tough transit talk from Winnipeg mayor sounds like pre-budget political posturing

That's why Winnipeg Transit riders should not expect to actually see much of the pain the mayor promised will come when he presents the city's spending plans for 2018.

The mayor is correct to blame the province for transit funding but pre-budget doom and gloom is a bit much

Mayor Brian Bowman has warned the upcoming city budget could see almost half of Winnipeg Transit's routes cut, up to 120 drivers laid off and fares hiked by as much as 30 cents. Such apocalyptic scenarios may scare the bejeebers out of transit users, but they're unlikely to materialize. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Eleven months before Winnipeggers elect their next mayor and council, the last thing Brian Bowman wants to do is enrage the electorate with a bad-news budget.

That's why Winnipeg Transit riders should not expect to actually see much of the pain the mayor promised will come when he presents the city's spending plans for 2018.

On Nov. 22, Bowman will table the final budget of his rookie term as mayor. In a gloomy preview, Bowman said this past week that budget could include drastic cuts to Winnipeg Transit.

Almost half of its routes could be cut, the mayor said. Up to 120 drivers could be laid off. And fares could rise by as much as 30 cents.

Winnipeg Transit could be heading for tough times, if the mayor follows through on doom-and-gloom budget predictions. (CBC)

These drastic measures would add up to the $10 million Winnipeg doesn't expect to receive from the province in 2018. That comes as a result of the Progressive Conservative government's decision to freeze its financial transfers to the city at 2016 levels.

That freeze effectively ended a long-standing provincial deal to split half the cost of Winnipeg Transit's operating costs that are not covered by revenue from bus fares. Since those costs go up every year, flat provincial funding leaves the city with two options — spend more of its own money to pay for Winnipeg Transit, or cut transit service in some way.

Neither option is palatable for the City of Winnipeg. Spending more property tax revenue on transit means spending fewer of those dollars on other city services — the costs of which are also going up.

City can't afford to cut back on transit

On the other hand, cutting back on transit service is also unpalatable, especially when Winnipeg Transit desperately needs to put more buses on the road in order to reduce the number of rush-hour pass-ups, where overloaded buses are unable to stop and pick up more passengers.

When cities experiment with transit service cuts, they run the risk of sending their entire transit systems into a death spiral. Lower confidence in public transit means fewer riders. Fewer riders means less transit revenue. And less transit revenue leads to reduced service, less confidence in public transit and … on and on, the cycle continues, until the only people who use what's left of a diminished public transit system are commuters who have no other means of getting around.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman will deliver the final budget of his rookie term on Wednesday. Voters choose their next mayor in October 2018. (CBC)

In other words, while the city can't afford to pay more for transit, it also cannot afford to cut back on transit, for environmental as well as financial reasons.

The city can't claim to make progress on densification by promoting infill development and building dedicated bus corridors on one hand, and then force its residents to rely more on personal automobiles on the other.

Mayor Brian Bowman knows this, which is why his tough talk on transit service smacks of political posturing the week before the budget.

Commuters will blame city for cuts

The mayor is correct in blaming the province for abandoning its transit funding commitment. Brian Bowman is also correct in surmising transit service would be a logical place to spend some of the proceeds from a new provincial carbon tax.

But the mayor ought to be very well aware that Premier Brian Pallister does not respond well to public pressure. Bowman's plea to restore the transit funding agreement is aimed at voters, not a Tory government that loves to recite the same talking point their NDP predecessors used over and over when they were asked about municipal funding.

Winnipeg, both governments would say, receives the most generous basket of cash of any city in Canada. Or something to that extent.

There is some irony in this. Bowman communications director Jonathan Hildebrand is now on the receiving end of the same rhetorical missile he used to hurl at the city when he served in the same position for former premier Gary Doer. But voters tend to be unimpressed by this sort of inside baseball.

By freezing city funding at 2016 levels, Premier Brian Pallister's government cancelled a deal to cover half of Winnipeg Transit's costs that are not covered by bus fares. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

All Winnipeggers really care about are about when it comes to transit is not paying too much for the service and getting one that actually works. They don't care who winds up covering the tab, not to mention what proportion of the estimated $204-million operating expense is covered by the city, the province or what riders load onto their Peggo cards.

If the service cuts come, commuters will by and large blame the city. After all, the utility is called Winnipeg Transit, not Manitoba Transit.

The mayor and his staff are astute enough to know this. That's why any cuts or fare hikes planned for 2018 are likely to be less severe than the apocalyptic scenario Bowman floated a week before budget day.

It's less clear how the mayor doesn't see the political folly of spending $300,000 on a transit Wi-Fi pilot project during the very same fiscal year. The fact this cash is coming from a separate pot of city money, the innovation capital fund, doesn't explain why the city is about to spend money on a luxury service upgrade while basic routes and drivers' jobs are on the cutting board.

Some Winnipeggers may also wonder why $467 million is being spent on completing the Southwest Transitway at the same time basic transit service is supposedly on the chopping block. That may be because the city has failed to convey that the main purpose of building bus corridors is not to speed up commuting times in the short term, but to increase urban density and save money on operating all sorts of city services in the long term.

Good urban planning policy doesn't translate into sexy sound bites. It would take a champion of a communicator to sell Winnipeggers on the long-term environmental, health and fiscal benefits of building a city slightly less reliant on cars.

Bowman communicates well, but he is no champion. Otherwise, he wouldn't be scaring the bejeebers of Winnipeg Transit riders at the start of an election cycle and hoping they blame Brian Pallister instead.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.