Federal transit money ‘not designed’ for smaller provinces, Higgs says

Higgs says federal transit money ‘not designed’ for smaller provinces
WATCH: New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says the federal transit money available as part of the Safe Restart Agreement was only intended for the country’s larger provinces. Silas Brown explains.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says the federal transit money that’s available under the Safe Restart Agreement was only intended for the country’s larger provinces.

“It was not designed for the smaller communities, smaller provinces,” Higgs said.

“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.”

However, Nova Scotia did qualify for the funding to help communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. A release from the premier’s office says that a portion of the $250 million it’s getting from Ottawa will be going towards public transit.

According to a spokesperson for the federal government, New Brunswick opted out of the $1.8-billion pot that was specifically earmarked for transit operations. Any investment by Ottawa would have had to have been matched by the province.

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Read more: New Brunswick opts out of transit operations funding offered by Ottawa

Higgs has said multiple times that the funding was for capital projects, but according to a government backgrounder on the agreement, that specific program is meant to address the operating deficits and revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic.

“It was designed for the big centres, it was designed for big infrastructure projects,” Higgs said.

“We don’t need a subway in New Brunswick.”

New Brunswick will receive $200 million as part of the agreement, with $40 million going to municipalities. Where and how that money will be spent has yet to be announced, but Higgs said it can be used for operational funding if that’s what municipalities want.

“We have this money that’s already confirmed, that’s negotiated with the feds to help our municipalities in the case of buses and keeping them running,” he said.

But some critics are questioning the decision to leave money on the table that was specifically intended for transit.

Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold said the city was never consulted about the program.

“That decision was just made without us being consulted in any way,” she said.

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Read more: New COVID-19 deal with federal government provides $200 million for New Brunswick

In fact, the federal program is similar to what the New Brunswick Cities Association began asking for early on in the pandemic.

“The delivery of important services like public transit may be compromised for lack of revenue normally used to finance them,” reads a letter requesting that the provincial and federal governments step in to provide funding to help ease the budget crunch faced by municipalities.

Arnold said the transit needs in New Brunswick are not less important just because it has fewer people.

“Ontario, Alberta — I know they’ve all signed on, they’re getting access to these funds,” she said.

“We need it too. I mean, not to the same scale, but it’s of relatively the same importance to us.”

Arnold said the city is in talks with the province on how the money it will receive will be used. But missing out on transit-specific cash will likely lead to hard decisions over what does and doesn’t get funded to avoid cutting transit service.

“Cities across this country — we have to balance our budgets, we don’t get a choice in that. It’s finite,” she said.

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“Yeah, we’ll be cutting services elsewhere. Trying to figure this all out, it’s very challenging for cities.”

Right now, Arnold said Codiac Transpo is facing an operating loss of about $1 million. In Fredericton, that number is about $700,000.

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Saint John Transit is forecasting a deficit of $505,000 by year’s end, according to a presentation made to the city’s finance committee last week.

This is after the operating budget was already cut by 25 per cent, with service hours reduced to 26.6 per cent of normal. Additional cuts are being explored with the view to decrease the operating loss by half to $250,000.

The president of Canada’s Amalgamated Transit Union said the decision to opt out of the program is “shortsighted” and could have long-term impacts on transit service in New Brunswick.

“We can’t understand why, when we’re seeing a decrease in revenues and fares, that this would be the time to not take assistance,” said John DiNino.

Once service levels are cut and budgets reduced, he said, it’s very difficult for municipalities to reinvest to return to normal.

The union wants to see all levels of government continue to chip in for municipal transit services, he added, in the form of dedicated operational funding even after the current crisis is over.

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“The simple funding mechanism that they put in place is only to address the short-term shortfall in revenues. It does not address the ongoing concerns,” DiNino said.

For now, cities are left to hope what they get is enough to help avoid further rollbacks.

“It’s very, very challenging right now. This is New Brunswickers’ tax money that is partly paying for these subsidies and it’s going to sprinkled across the country and New Brunswickers’ won’t get it? That doesn’t make sense to me,” Arnold said.

“It seems like a no-brainer to me that we should be accessing those funds.”