New Brunswick

New Brunswick transit systems push province to take advantage of federal money

Transit systems across New Brunswick are hoping the provincial government will take part in a $750 million federal program announced last month.

Struggling after two years on low ridership, bus services urge province not to pass up on federal funds

Saint John Transit has seen a revenue loss of about $4 million during the two-year pandemic. (CBC/Steven Webb)

Transit systems across New Brunswick are hoping the provincial government will take part in a $750 million federal program announced last month.

The plan from Ottawa is designed to help municipal transit systems rebound from two years of low ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it requires matching funds from the province.

On Monday, Saint John city council sent a letter to Premier Blaine Higgs asking that the province work with Ottawa on accessing money for the city's struggling transit service.

The City of Saint John officially asked Premier Blaine Higgs to take steps to access new federal funding for municipal transit announced last month. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

"Saint John Transit has reported that in each of 2020 and 2021, revenue totals are down close to $2 million less than the 2019 amounts," the letter said.

Those losses came at a time when Saint John Transit was beginning a redesign of the service in an effort to increase ridership.

The request seems to have an added urgency given New Brunswick passed on special transit funding in 2020.

At the time, Higgs said his understanding was the funding was earmarked for transit infrastructure and was therefore aimed at larger municipalities.

That turned out to be incorrect.

In fact, many smaller provinces were able to access the funding. Saskatchewan received $8.1 million and Nova Scotia received $16 million.

In the end, New Brunswick provided $1.6 million from its COVID relief funding to transit systems in Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John, something other provinces didn't have to do.

Ottawa also allowed a number of provinces to consider money already allocated to municipalities for COVID relief as matching funds in 2020, even if it was not directly tied to transit.

There's no word yet on whether the federal government will allow such broad loopholes around matching funding for this current $750 million dollar program.

But the chair of the Saint John Transit Commission, Nick Cameron, said getting access to that money is crucial to help the service rebuild ridership.

"Our ridership was over two million before the pandemic, now it's less than 1.2 million," Cameron said in an interview, "Those are riders that are using other forms of transportation."

Nick Cameron, the chair of the Saint John Transit Commission, says the new money would be crucial to rebuilding ridership post-pandemic. (CBC)

"We want to grow ridership and we're trying to be innovative but we're at a disadvantage right now."

Cameron's concern is that those people who stopped using the bus during the pandemic have found another way to travel, one they may not be able to give up again.

"If they've already sunk what little money they have into a car, they may not be able to come back [to riding the bus]," he said.

Cameron said Saint John Transit is co-ordinating with the other transit companies to show the need provincially.

Adam Lordon, the mayor of Miramichi, said the city has had "sort of a standing advocacy" to encourage the province to take advantage of these funding opportunities.

Miramichi Mayor Adam Lordon says the city has had 'sort of a standing advocacy' of more funding for transit. (Shane Magee/CBC)

"We've made some modest gains in accessing federal funding, but we view it as an area that there can be an increased partnership," Lordon said in an interview.

He said the city's small transit service was at record levels of ridership pre-pandemic.

He credits that to efforts to change the mindset that transit isn't for everyone.

Miramichi has also seen a substantial increase in the number of students and immigrants in the city in recent years.

"It is an essential service. Every dollar we can access is a dollar we don't have to spend from our budget."

In an email, City of Moncton spokesperson Isabelle Leblanc said the city is aware of new federal operating funding available to transit and said it is still actively discussing an approach.

 "Service levels were definitely affected throughout the pandemic," she wrote. "We began increasing service levels as public health measures allowed and as of February 13, 2022, we have restored 90 per cent of the pre-pandemic service."

The COVID-19 pandemic hit bus services hard, with fewer riders meaning staffing cuts and fewer routes. (Saint John Transit.)

Leblanc said ridership levels are rising.

A request to the Premier's Office for a comment has yet to receive a response.

For Cameron, funding transit in the province is about more than providing transportation for people who have no other options.

He believes it can help New Brunswick battle climate change and be less reliant on oil, so price spikes like we are experiencing now will be more easily managed in years to come.

"Oil will be volatile into the future — that's just the nature of oil markets."

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