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COVID19 Affects Transit Financing – Service Cutbacks

Drastic ridership and financial losses – for TransLink farebox, gas tax and parking tax revenue – are leading to significant public transit service reductions. TransLink has announced major service cuts, including route eliminations, starting April 24 with much larger cuts scheduled for mid-May. Similar discussions are occurring in Toronto and elsewhere. Staff lay-offs are part service re-structuring.

CUTA/ACTU has been lobbying the federal government for emergency transit funding since mid-March, to no avail. The Vancouver Sun reported that federal and provincial leaders turned TransLink’s request for funding down in a note released on Good Friday (interesting timing), even though both consider transit an essential service (here and here). As public bodies, TransLink (and other transit operators) do not qualify for the federal government’s 75% wage subsidy.

The lack of financial support for transit systems is particularly egregious given that Canada’s airlines are re-hiring thousands of workers using federal wage subsidy money, even though there is no work for most of them. The same cannot be said of transit workers who are providing a valuable public service by ensuring some level of urban mobility – particularly for those at the lower end of the pay scales, who society has belatedly discovered are essential.

The province has committed to assisting TransLink ramp up service for a September return to normal service but that is a process that would have to begin almost immediately, if the proposed cutbacks go ahead. Schedules and rosters need preparing, Operator (re)qualifications must be maintained, vehicles and infrastructure must be kept in safe working order – a shutdown and start-up is more than just turning a switch.

In Vancouver, a loose coalition of transportation groups and activists concerned with the TransLink cuts is mobilising a grass roots campaign to pressure senior governments to properly fund transit during the pandemic and related shutdowns. At this point, there doesn’t seem to ba a co-ordinated response plan (if this is incorrect, please let me know) but it cannot hurt to notify your MLA/MP and appropriate cabinet ministers of your concerns. TransLink’s mid-May reductions do not have a published effective date so this is an opportunity to pressure elected officials.

Jarrett Walker has written on transit’s current financial situation. In a City Lab post, he argues that urban transit is more than just providing mobility for those unable or unwilling to drive (i.e. a social service for the transit dependent). He states that ridership, particularly now, should not be the primary purpose or success measure of transit. Transit is an essential service that is “preventing the collapse of civilisation”. Transit supports those who look after people, clean floors, stock shelves all through the supply chains and perform myriad other tasks that keep cities functioning. He concludes that we must reframe discussions on transit and base its success on what it makes possible – urban civilisation.

About the Author

Rick Jelfs

Rick Jelfs is the Secretary of Transport Action BC

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