N.B. municipal transit services face uncertain 2021 after province’s missed chance to secure funding

Three of New Brunswick’s municipalities say their transit services face an uncertain new year despite recently announced funding from the provincial government.

“It is also our understanding that available Transit funding only relates to the year 2020 and there is currently no funding in place to cover COVID-related Transit deficits for 2021,” said Lisa Caissie, a spokesperson for the City of Saint John.

Last week New Brunswick announced that it would be providing nearly $1.6 million to cover transit losses incurred by Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John through a cost-shared agreement between New Brunswick and the federal government under Canada’s Safe Restart Agreement.

But the province’s contribution to covering transit is minuscule compared to what transit services in other provinces are receiving under the agreement.

The cause? A decision by New Brunswick’s government to decline to participate in a specific relief program after a misunderstanding about who it was for and what it was supposed to cover.

Federal program paying out millions

Three other provinces are receiving a combined $57.1 million through the Safe Restart public transit aid program to help fund municipal bus services that have been heavily impacted by COVID-19.

According to public documents prepared by the federal government, Saskatchewan has received $8.1 million, Nova Scotia has received $16 million and Manitoba has been allocated $33 million.

New Brunswick has received none.

Premier Blaine Higgs claimed repeatedly throughout the summer that the federal transit money available under the Safe Restart agreement was only intended for larger provinces such as Ontario or Quebec.

“The larger centres have done this agreement with the feds — we supported that, but it did not apply to the smaller provinces and the smaller cities,” Higgs said in July.

But that was never the case and now New Brunswick is drawing the $1.6 million announced last week from a $41 million pot that is meant to cover municipal shortfalls.

That fund — allocated at a little more than $52 per person — is meant to compensate municipalities for their pandemic costs and losses.

In the press release, the province touted the $41 million as a source for municipalities to help them “deliver essential services, such as public transit.”

But other provinces have access to their own municipal fund in addition to the municipal transit aid program.

Saskatchewan’s pot for municipalities is $62.3 million, Nova Scotia has a $51.5 million pot and Manitoba municipalities have $73 million to draw on.

In an emailed statement the province did not address questions centred around its decision to not take part in the public transit aid program.

It instead touted its decision to draw on the $1.6 million in funding.

“If additional funding is required to cover further COVID-related costs that may arise for transit, it will be available to them,” wrote Vicky Lutes, a spokesperson for the department of local government.

‘Too many unknowns at the moment.’

The transit funding announced on Friday will not restore transit routes cut by New Brunswick’s municipalities as a result of plummeting ridership.

Instead, the $500,000 allocated for Moncton, $670,000 for Fredericton and $400,000 for Saint John will be used to cover the transit services’ debts for the 2020 fiscal year.

That may not be good enough and it leaves a large amount of uncertainty as COVID-19 continues to affect ridership into the new year.

Moncton announced only days ahead of the province’s announcement last week that it would be laying off 11 casual bus drivers even as Codiac Transpo attempted to ramp service back up.

In an email, a spokesperson for the City of Moncton said it’s unlikely that the funds will affect the layoffs at this stage.

“We are unsure as to what 2021 will look like at this time,” said Isabelle LeBlanc. “(There) are too many unknowns at the moment.”

The City of Saint John stressed that COVID-19 has heavily impacted due to the reduced demand for transit over 2020 and it was forced to cut some services.

“It is worth noting that every effort was made to successfully and safely keep public transit services operational during the height of the pandemic,” said Caissie.

Fredericton has been able to avoid cutting any jobs and says it currently has no plans to reduce the routes it offers.

“The city made the commitment to continue to operate the transit system so essential workers and those working in critical service industries had a means of transportation throughout this pandemic,” said Coun. Greg Ericson, chair of Fredericton’s finance and administration committee.

“Challenges with transit revenue will continue in 2021.”

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