New Brunswick

Province 'opted out' of Ottawa's municipal transit relief program without knowing the facts

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs misunderstood details of a federal program to rescue municipal transit systems after leaving discussions that created it and has been providing inaccurate information to the public about the program for the last month.

Blaine Higgs says N.B. received COVID-19 funding, but left talks with Ottawa before transit details finalized

Premier Blaine Higgs opted out of a federal program to compensate transit systems for losses but has said other funding will be available. (Government of New Brunswick/Submitted)

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs misunderstood details of a federal program to rescue municipal transit systems after leaving discussions that created it and has been providing inaccurate information to the public about the program for the past month.

"We finished our agreement and they [other provinces] said we need more from the federal government," Higgs said in an interview Wednesday evening. "It was a discussion Chrystia Freeland had primarily with the other provinces after we had concluded our agreement."

New Brunswick Progressive Conservatives have been promising a fuller explanation this week of why Higgs rejected funding from a federal program designed to bailout struggling municipal transit systems, and a draft statement was prepared by the party to address "confusion" on the matter.

An interview with Higgs about the statement suggests the province was never fully aware special transit pandemic assistance for operational losses was available to it.

New Brunswick doesn't need subways

Higgs has been dogged by questions for the past month about why he walked away from an offer from Ottawa to cost share a multi-million dollar bail out package for the provinces's four municipal transit systems, all of which saw their ridership evaporate and financial situation deteriorate during the pandemic.  

His answers have alternated between assertions that no relief money for transit pandemic costs was rejected by his government, and claims Ottawa was only ever offering to fund big new capital projects for transit systems like subways, which New Brunswick does not need.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland negotiated with provinces to provide federal assistance for municipalities and municipal transit systems hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. Blaine Higgs said New Brunswick left early and missed discussions on transit help. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

"There seems to be some real confusion around what I accepted or didn't accept," Higgs told reporters on Aug. 11 about the transit assistance offered by Ottawa for Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton and Miramichi and rejected by his government.

"The money that was being reported that I was not accepting was related to infrastructure funding for big infrastructure projects." 

That claim, repeated several times over the last month, was not true.   

Offer was to help with revenue losses related to pandemic

The specific offer from the federal government was to compensate individual transit systems across Canada for pandemic related revenue losses and enhanced cleaning and other expenses, if host provinces would share half the cost.  

The new statement from New Brunswick PCs aimed at cleaning up the matter is attributed directly to Higgs and was shared with CBC News Wednesday evening.  

In it the PC leader acknowledges directly for the first time he "opted out" of the federal transit relief program and drops all references to his earlier claim the relief program was for capital infrastructure.  

New Brunswick's four municipal transit systems have all sufferred major ridership drops this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (City of Fredericton)

Higgs now says he believed transit relief funding was for infrastructure projects because that is where discussions were headed when New Brunswick removed itself from the talks.

"It was very clearly stated and I remember Doug Ford saying this that this was for infrastructure funding so we didn't pursue it any further," said Higgs    

"We had concluded our discussions and those discussions went on afterward between those three provinces (BC, Ontario and Quebec) and the federal government." 

However those talks eventually produced a program open to all provinces and offered compensation to any municipal transit system needing it, including the four systems in New Brunswick

North Bay Transit, a municipal bus service in Ontario the same size as Fredericton Transit, is getting $1.2 million in compensation from a federal and provincial program set up to help transit systems. (North Bay website)

The party also offered a new reason for not participating in the relief program, that it was only meant to serve Canada's big cities, but that claim is also dubious

"It was designed for large urban areas with significant transit infrastructure," said Higgs in the new written explanation of why he did not participate, but dozens of smaller communities have already benefited from the program elsewhere in the country.

In Ontario, which did participate in the transit relief program 110 municipalities have been awarded compensation for COVID-19 related losses suffered by their transit systems, many of those with similar municipal transit systems to New Brunswick cities.

In Sarnia and North Bay, which have comparable annual ridership numbers to Fredericton Transit, bus services were granted $1.1 million and $1.2 million respectively from the program to cover pandemic related losses they incurred between April 1 and Sept. 30. 

Larger services closer in size to Saint John Transit and Moncton's Codiac Transpo were given more extensive help from the program, including bus services in Barrie ($2.6 million), Thunder Bay ($3.2 million), Sudbury ($3.5 million) and Peterborough ($3.6 million). 

Province didn't need extra funding 

Higgs said it is a surprise to him that smaller municipalities have been funded under the program but maintains New Brunswick got everything it wanted from Ottawa in its main agreement and so did not need extra funding for its four transit systems. 

A separate federal pandemic relief program the province did sign onto includes money for municipalities they can use to make up for pandemic related losses, including transit losses and Higgs said that is all the province needed.

"Any transit funding requests we may receive from our municipalities can be more than adequately covered under the $41 million municipalities stream of that same agreement," he said. 

About the Author

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.

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