Contributed by David Brake of the Essential Transit Association.
Funding and usage
The city provides vital support for public transit in St John’s – in 2016 it gave $14.3m in subsidy to Metrobus and a further $3.5m to para-transit services (point to point transit for the disabled) – around 5% altogether of the council’s spending. There were around 2.9 million bus trips made last year, down from 3.3M in 2006 – the lowest it has been for at least 20 years. At the end of last years bus fares rose from $2.25 to $2.50 (it’s cheaper if you have a pass) but income from fares pays only about a third of what it costs to provide the service. According to Canadian Urban Transit Association figures fares are comparable to others in similarly sized communities. Some candidates have suggested a cheaper bus pass for those with lower incomes. In Halifax, 1,000 of those with a household income under $33,000 qualify for a half price pass. Our buses appear mainly used already by people with low incomes and little choice – 45% of riders have an income of less than $20,000 according to a 2011 report by Dillon Consulting and 55% do not have a car in their households. Most of the routes are served hourly, though some of the busier routes are served half hourly or better at peak times.
The city does not run Metrobus directly – it is governed by the St John’s Transportation Commission – but it does provide the bulk of its funding, and of the ten commissioners, half are either St John’s councillors or city staff.
The present commission is working on an overdue strategic plan for 2018-2022 but it will not be complete before the election is over and the results of the election will change the composition of the commission. There have been numerous suggestions for necessary improvements made both in the Dillon report and in a recent report on transport for MUN. Among them, the Dillon report suggested service frequencies should rise to half hourly on weekdays and indicated this could increase ridership on the affected routes by 30 to 50%. Both reports also call on Metrobus to meet its target of doubling the number of shelters – at present only 7% of bus stops have shelters.
One potential source of additional revenue for improvements is the federal government, which has promised to invest in transportation infrastructure across the country. The city has already received $1.3m through this program but a second, likely larger chunk of funding will be available for new buses, buildings and equipment in the next few years, as long as the city agrees to match it with its own money. The commission is also negotiating with Memorial University to have all students get a bus pass at a reduced price in exchange for service improvements to and from the campus.
Several election candidates have spoken in favour of greater regionalisation of Metrobus. At present although a third of people working in St John’s come in from the surrounding communities the only routes connecting St John’s to the NE Avalon are two running hourly to Mount Pearl (one of them only peak hours on weekdays) and route 30 to Paradise which runs four times a day Monday to Saturday. The city of Mount Pearl pays the full cost of its service. The Dillon report recommends that the city lobby the province (which unlike elsewhere in Canada does not provide transit funding) to “achieve regional cooperation in the provision of public transit services [linking] St John’s, Mount Pearl, Paradise, Conception Bay South and Torbay”.