TransLink expansion projects could be cancelled without new long-term funding

Feb 24 2022, 9:57 pm

After experiencing a slower rate of rebound growth in late 2021 and early 2022, TransLink has indicated ridership is again on the upswing as of February.

Systemwide boardings reached 64.5% of pre-pandemic volumes in February — up from 50% at the start of 2022, and 57% at the end of January. That currently equates to about 285,000 people using public transit on an average weekday.

Over this past Family Day long weekend, ridership jumped to 72.5% of normal levels, marking one of the highest volumes in ridership since the pandemic began two years ago.

Last month, TransLink indicated it was forecasting ridership would surge to 80% to 90% of normal volumes by the end of 2022.

During today’s Mayors’ Council public meeting, TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn attributed the ridership rebound in recent weeks to relaxations of health restrictions, lower coronavirus case counts, high vaccination rates, the continued gradual return to office workplaces, the return of students, and increased recreation.

The slower ridership growth in late December and early January was due to a combination of extreme winter weather and the Omicron variant.

As of January, Quinn said TransLink’s fare revenues are sitting at 17% below budget for the month — about $7 million. The gap is expected to narrow over the coming months as ridership continues to further improve.

The public transit authority is estimating it will see operating revenue losses of $216 million in 2022 and $200 million in 2023 — about 50% of what was recorded in 2020 and 2021. The deficits over the first two years were covered by the federal and provincial government’s allocation of $644 million in Safe Operating Funding subsidies, which were originally intended to cover losses through the end of 2021. But TransLink will be able to stretch out $106 million in remaining subsidy funding to cover a smaller portion of the revenue shortfalls in 2022 and 2023.

TransLink has formally requested $200 million in additional operating subsidies from the federal and provincial governments to cover the forecasted revenue shortfalls through 2023. This would avoid the need for the public transit authority to draw down the same amount from its cash reserves through 2023, which are meant for rainy days, to maintain liquidity and stability of operations, and avoid steep service cuts or tax hikes.

Earlier this month, the federal government announced $750 million in new funding to help fill the operating shortfalls for public transit systems across the country. Quinn says this federal funding is expected to be matched by the provincial governments.

But he reiterated that TransLink is in need of new revenue sources beyond fare revenue to tackle long-term structural financial issues as a result of the pandemic. Otherwise, expansion and improvement projects could be put on hold or even cancelled.

“Without a long-term funding solution, we may need to consider difficult decisions in the future,” said Quinn.

“This could result in a range of impacts, reduction of service levels, delaying or outright cancellation of capital projects, or stalling expansion of much-needed service that we know this region needs. I really want to be really clear about this, we need to keep the conversation going about long-term funding solutions.”

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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