Montreal

Montreal-area public transit agencies scramble to make up projected $523M loss

Trajectoire Québec, a public transportation advocacy group, is calling on the provincial government to boost financial aid to transit agencies beyond the $400-million bailout it announced back in June. 

Public transit advocacy group calls on Quebec to contribute more financial help

Face coverings are now required in Quebec on public transit, but despite the extra precautions, Montreal's bus network has seen a 43 per cent drop in ridership. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Montreal's regional transport authority predicts the metropolitan area's public transit network will lose about $523 million in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Now Trajectoire Québec, a public transportation advocacy group, is calling on the provincial government to boost financial aid to transit agencies beyond the $400-million bailout it announced back in June. 

That sum, half of which comes from the federal government, is "largely insufficient and will not be able to compensate for the loss of revenue across Quebec," Trajectoire Québec says in a statement released Tuesday.

For now, that $523-million projected loss is largely related to a loss of revenue due to decreased ridership, as well as the costs associated with preventing the spread of COVID-19, says Simon Charbonneau, a spokesperson for the Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain (ARTM).

In Montreal, the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) stopped accepting bus fare payments early on in the pandemic as passengers were restricted to entering through the rear door.

STM spokesperson Isabelle-Alice Tremblay said bus ridership declined dramatically, hitting its all-time low in the week of April 6, when it dropped 82 per cent.

By the week of July 13, the drop was still at 46 per cent.

For the Metro, the decrease in ridership was at 92 per cent by the week of April 6, and by the week of July 13, ridership was still down by 73 per cent, Tremblay said.

The Montreal Metro has seen a substantial decline in riders since March. There has only been a slight increase since April. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

But that drop in fares isn't the only source of revenue loss for the STM. Among other things, it has had to drastically increase cleaning and equip buses with plexiglass barriers to separate drivers from the passengers.

All these extra measures deployed by the STM came at a substantial cost. By mid-June, Lisa Djevahirdjian, a spokesperson for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), said STM staff worried the agency would go bankrupt.

That worry is shared all the way up to the top.

STM says further cost cutting is 'impossible'

STM director Luc Tremblay told CBC News on Tuesday that cutting expenses enough to compensate for the 2020 losses is "impossible."

"Despite the financial help received from the provincial government by all nine transit operators, we are asked to partially absorb the loss of ridership," he said. 

"We are also asked to absorb costs associated with the COVID crisis and there is a budget freeze for 2021 and 2022."

STM chair Philippe Schnobb, left, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and STM director Luc Tremblay were all smiles announcing the STM's 2020 budget back in November. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Tremblay said it's not clear how the STM is supposed to absorb the losses. For starters, the province won't let transit agencies pass the burden onto municipalities so municipal contributions cannot be increased.

Layoffs aren't possible either under current collective agreements, he said, and the vast majority of expenses are associated with customer services. 

Reorganizing not enough

Officials are now looking at postponing some projects, optimizing certain processes and holding off other expenses, but "it is not going to be a lot of money earned from that," Tremblay said.

"We have a very low margin that we can work with," he said.

When the Quebec government announced its public transit bailout package, Transport Minister François Bonnardel described it as a way to get transit agencies back on track.

In a government-issued statement, he is quoted as saying: "This emergency financial assistance is a concrete gesture that will promote a return to normal in the area of ​​public transit."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated the projected $523-million loss is largely related to added costs associated with preventing the spread of COVID-19. In fact, the loss is mainly due to decreased revenue.
    Jul 29, 2020 9:02 AM ET
  • A previous version of this story stated it was free to ride STM buses. In fact, it was not free.
    Jul 29, 2020 9:04 AM ET

With files from Holly Cabrera

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