Cities call for help to keep buses running in pandemic
Municipalities facing deficits as pandemic continues
New Brunswick's cities are calling for provincial and federal support to keep four municipal transit systems operating, something the province's premier says is being examined.
Adam Lordon, mayor of Miramichi and president of the Cities of New Brunswick Association, said declining ridership as people stay home and reduced capacity in order to comply with physical distancing rules is making bus systems costlier to operate.
Lordon said Miriamichi has seen a 90 per cent drop in ridership, but it continues to operate for those who still need to use it.
"The transit deficit would be a real challenge," Lordon said.
While it would have to be a decision by council, he said there is "absolutely a risk" of taking buses off the road if they can't cover a deficit expected to run into the thousands of dollars.
Lordon said the impact is larger on cities with larger transit systems. Municipal transit systems also operate in Fredericton and the Saint John and Moncton regions.
Premier Blaine Higgs said the province is in discussions about assisting cities with transit systems.
"We are working with municipalities in all aspects to determine what are their priorities and what is the area that they need to focus on the most to start-up and to have continue," Higgs said at a news conference Friday.
Higgs spoke to more than 100 mayors and municipal representatives Friday morning. He answered pre-submitted questions and said mass gatherings, like Canada Day celebrations, won't be allowed this summer.
The association's request is one of several the association representing the province's eight cities has made to the province. Others include additional infrastructure spending and being involved in decisions about the province's economic recovery.
The pandemic has blown holes in municipal budgets.
"In some ways, the bigger you are the harder you're being hit," Lordon said.
Saint John faces a projected deficit between $5 million and $12 million this year because of the pandemic.
Moncton projects a deficit of $3.5 million if measures to control the pandemic continue until the end of August. Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold said Friday that scenario is looking increasingly likely.
Moncton staff are expected to present options to city council as early as Monday evening to reduce that deficit.
Margot Cragg, executive director of the Union of the Municipalities of New Brunswick, said municipalities are hurting financially because people and businesses are hurting financially.
"They're going to see a lot of holes in revenue for things like transit … for recreation because people aren't using those facilities, and parking, and from people who just can't pay their bills for a while," Cragg said.
'Pay now, or pay later'
Cragg said the union is working with municipalities to gather data about how each is affected by the pandemic.
Higgs suggested last week at a news conference and then again to mayors Friday that the province will examine relaxing borrowing rules as well as a rule forbidding municipalities from running deficits.
But Arnold said that doesn't provide long-term solutions for communities.
"Pay now, or pay later," Arnold said. "There's only one taxpayer."