Metro Vancouver’s public transit system is haemorrhaging its cash reserves, forcing it to make drastic cuts to service this week, with the first phase of reductions beginning today.
But there is no indication yet that the provincial government will provide emergency operating funding to eliminate the need for the curtailed service levels to reduce the rate of burn on cash, and rehire the 1,500 people that are being temporarily laid off.
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Instead, in a press conference on Monday, BC Premier John Horgan said he is calling on the federal government to provide the urgent funding needed to help various public transit authorities in BC and across the country weather through the worst of the crisis over the coming weeks and months.
“We’ve seen an 83% decline in ridership over the past number of weeks with respect to TransLink, a 75% decline in ridership for BC Transit in the communities they serve, and a 91% decline on BC Ferries,” said Horgan.
“These very important transportation links, public entities all of them in one variation or another, are in crisis right. I raised last week with the Prime Minister and other Premiers for the need to make sure that when we’re looking at wage subsidy programs for the private sector, as we’ve done with airlines and private sector companies. We should also look at our public entities who depend on the farebox or a direct subsidy from taxpayers either at the provincial or municipal order.”
With fare revenue evaporated, including the health safety-mandated suspension of fare collection on buses to provide physical distancing between drivers and passengers, TransLink is on pace to lose an average of $75 million per month, while BC Ferries is set to lose an average of $30 million per month.
Currently, both TransLink and BC Transit do not qualify for the federal Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy as they are public entities.
While BC Ferries is technically a private corporation, after being spun out from being a provincial crown corporation in 2003, but the provincial government is its only shareholder. But the ferry corporation is deemed ineligible for the wage subsidy as it is deemed non-taxable.
He says there needs to be a coordinated national strategy on supporting public transit services.
“We need a national response to our transit challenges as well, whether you’re in Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver, or anywhere else where public transit is being delivered. This is a national interest, and I tried to raise this in the federal and provincial meeting. I look forward to a response from the federal government in short order, but we need to work on this together,” continued the Premier.
“There are absent resources on every sector of our budget, in every corner of British Columbia, and we need to be mindful of that as we collectively come out from underneath this. That’s where our federation, I believe, has an important role to play, and I have made that clear to the Prime Minister.”
In a press conference today providing an update on the matter, Horgan said he had a call with Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, who he says “does not have a closed mind on opening up ideas on how we can collaborate during this difficult time.”
Horgan said while the federal government is a major contributor to capital investments that go into expanding and building new public transit infrastructure, it has historically had a smaller contribution with providing operating subsidies for these services.
He added that BC Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Claire Trevena has also been pursuing a “fair way” for managing the specific challenges of BC Ferries’ declining revenues, and ensuring smaller coastal ferry routes that are already highly subsidized do not get abandoned.
“We need to make sure that we all understand that provincial, federal, municipal, and regional districts are all in this together, and we have to find ways of maintaining things that are so important to us, not just for coastal communities when it comes to ferries but also buses in Vancouver, Prince George, Kamloops, and other communities.”
The Premier also said Freeland understands the importance of public transit for restarting the economy, but the “challenge is there’s no end of the ask,” suggesting the extreme fiscal burden the federal government is already facing in all other of both the public and private sectors, and that relief measures for public transit services in BC would also need to be applicable to all services across the country — not just TransLink, BC Transit, and BC Ferries.
At the moment, Horgan has committed to helping TransLink reestablish its level of services to near-normal or normal levels by September.
“All orders of government have a role to play to ensure we can move around effectively when we start to come out from underneath the restrictions we’ve been working under,” he said.
“All of these things have to be thought of in the interest of our economy. People make up the economy, people need services, [and] people need transportation services if they are going to be able to continue participating in lifting up everyone’s quality of life.”