Premier Blaine Higgs said in a Thursday release that the province opted out of federal funding designed to bail out municipal transit systems affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, before the details of the agreement were finalized.
In Thursday’s statement, Higgs admitted the province opted out of the transit category in the funding agreement because “it was designed for large urban areas with significant transit infrastructure.”
This was the first time Higgs backtracked previous claims that the funding was designed for capital infrastructure, not specifically transit.
He also said “any transit funding requests we may receive from our municipalities can be more than adequately covered under the $41 million Municipalities stream of that same agreement.”
Ottawa announced an $18.4-billion agreement July 16 to help provincial governments recover from pandemic-related shortfalls.
The Safe Restart agreement promised $260 million for New Brunswick, including funding to cover costs “related to testing, contact tracing and data management, healthcare system capacity, childcare for returning workers, vulnerable populations, and pan-Canadian sick leave,” including the category for transit, read Higgs’ statement.
In July, Higgs said the federal transit money available under the agreement was only intended for the country’s larger provinces.
“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 that month, although this is not stated in a government backgrounder on the agreement.
Nova Scotia, however, did qualify for the funding to help communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. A release from Premier Stephen McNeil’s office says a portion of the $250 million it’s getting from Ottawa will be going towards public transit.
According to the federal government, the program is meant to address the operating deficits and revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic.
Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold told Global News in July the city was never consulted about the program.
Arnold, alongside the Fredericton and Saint John mayors, was told $80 million will be going to municipalities.
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, Arnold said.
Moncton officials say the municipality is projecting a $756,000 transit deficit by year-end.
Fredericton is forecasting a $750,000 deficit and Saint John anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million in transit budget shortfall, Higgs said.
He said the government is ensuring municipalities are supported, but the statement did not include details on plans for transit bailout.
Global News has reached out to the premier’s office but did not receive an immediate response.
– With files from Silas Brown.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article included the incorrect projected deficit for Moncton, as was stated in Blaine Higgs’ statement. The projected year-end deficit, according to Moncton officials, is $756,000.