Saint John transit union wants province to take federal money
Premier said there's confusion over federal funding offer
The Saint John transit union is calling on the New Brunswick government to reverse its decision to turn down federal transit funding.
Grant Logan, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1182, said Saint John desperately needs the money.
He said the transit commission has had "serious budget problems" since 2010, and 2020 is "turning into a nightmare."
Buses are operating at about half-capacity with reduced routes and services.
"And with the government turning down that money, that would definitely have been a major help. It would have helped right from the get-go," said Logan.
"But we can't state it enough ... that we need this money. We need it badly."
On July 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $19-billion package for provinces.
The so-called "safe restart" deal will help pay for enhanced COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, the purchase of personal protective equipment for front-line workers and businesses, a national sick leave plan and child care so that parents can get back to work.
And $1.8 billion was earmarked for municipalities for transit — with the condition that each province must match the transit funding they receive.
When asked why New Brunswick was opting out of the federal funds for transit operations, Higgs said the program "was designed for the big centres, it was designed for big infrastructure projects. We don't need a subway in New Brunswick."
The province will receive $200 million as part of the agreement, with $40 million going to municipalities. Where and how that money will be spent has yet to be announced.
On Tuesday, Higgs reiterated his position and said there was confusion over what New Brunswick turned down. He said the province opted out of "infrastructure funding for big infrastructure projects."
He said there is still an opportunity to give municipalities operational funding within that $40 million.
Saint John Mayor Don Darling said there is definitely confusion about what the province turned down.
He said he has asked the province for clarity but hasn't yet gotten an answer.
Given the city's long-standing financial woes, Darling said he doesn't want to leave any operating money on the table — if it's available.
"The pressure today right now is not capital pressure for Saint John. The pressure for us is operating pressure. It's a transit system that is running larger-than-planned deficits with little capacity in this municipality to absorb those deficits."
Darling said the buses are running at 50 per cent capacity with reduced routes and hours, and that has caused "severe financial pressure" on the transit commission.
"We were hopeful that there would be some operating support for us as a municipality," he said.
"What I know right now is that we have no capacity to take on even larger deficits from our transit authority. And so what that means is that we're restricting routes and we're restricting schedules and we're already investing $8 million–plus a year in our transit system, and we just don't have any other capacity to put more money in."
Donna Reardon is a Saint John councillor who also sits on the transit commission. She said the province's decision to turn down the founding is "unfortunate and shortsighted."
"I guess the premier doesn't understand the strength of transit in building a city and in building a province."
Looking for public support
Transit workers were out on Tuesday morning and afternoon at the three main bus hubs in Saint John — McAllister Place, Lancaster Mall and King's Square — to give out pamphlets and ask people to sign a petition, which can also be signed electronically on the Facebook page, Save Our Bus Saint John.
Logan said bus service is already stretched thin and the commission is operating at a deficit.
"The last time I checked, we were sitting somewhere around $505,000 and if we keep going the way that we are right now, losing every day, every month, that we're going to sit somewhere about $1.2, $1.3 million for a deficit," said Logan.
"We can't just keep operating the way we have been," he said.
And Logan doesn't buy Higgs' explanation that the money was only designed for larger cities. "Smaller municipalities are receiving money — that are possibly smaller than Saint John. So I can't really agree with what Mr. Higgs stated."
Reardon said New Brunswick may be the only province to opt out of the program.