London Transit Commission (LTC) chair and city councillor Phil Squire describes the end of May as a “tipping point” for transit as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to put a massive strain on what is an essential service.
At a board meeting on Wednesday, commissioners voted to extend a ‘rear boarding’ policy to the end of May, meaning riders that are physically able to do so will continue to board buses through the back doors. As a result of that policy, first implemented March 20, fares have not been collected, resulting in an estimated loss of $1.6-million in revenue per month. The LTC also recently approved a motion to implement barriers around drivers at an emergency meeting April 17 at a cost of roughly $1.5-million.
Revenue loss totalled $513,000 in March and $1.7-million in April, according to Squire.
In an effort to soften the financial blow from the loss of fares and cost to implement new safety measures, the LTC also voted Wednesday to put off its 2020 service plan and assessment growth projects, which Squire says will “fund our shortfall up until” the end of May.
“We’re putting off industrial service which was something people really wanted, we’re having to put off some of the improvements to routes that we did,” said Squire.
“That’s really difficult when you’ve planned on this stuff for years, you’ve budgeted for it, and you’ve announced it and now you have to sort of put it on the back burner,” he said, though he noted that the LTC is not alone in facing financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic.
“The federal government recognizes how important transit is and we’re hoping for help in that area but there’s going to be some hard things we may have to do going forward in June.”
Even once service finally resumes as normal, which at this point is unknown, there’s the added challenge of an expected drop in ridership.
“Are people going to come back to transit? Our transit ridership is way down and the idea that on day one people are going to go ‘oh, I’m just going to go back to transit.’ I think there might be some hesitation in that.”
Squire also extended his thanks to drivers, who “deserve a lot of credit… for staying on the job and getting people around.”
“I’d really like to dispel that myth that’s out there that drivers are abandoning the service because that’s just not happening,” he said.
“The number of people who have taken an unpaid leave of absence — that’s an absence they just say ‘look, I don’t feel safe driving, I’m not going to drive’ — that’s a very low number. That’s a number, to give you a range, that is less than 50 drivers out of 600 people who are driving buses.”
Squire added that some people are also using this time to take vacation days and others are off self-isolating due to COVID-19 exposure.
In an interview with Global News in mid-April, Andre Fournier the head of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 741 said that roughly 80 of the 181 drivers off work at that time had taken an unpaid leave due to COVID-19 concerns.