How to get around

Regional public transit for St. John’s metro area hinges on all levels of government

Published on August 25, 2012
Passengers board a Metrobus bus. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

St. John’s Coun. Tom Hann has said it on numerous occasions over the last year, both in speaking with reporters and inside council chambers — a regional public transit system is necessary to meet the needs of the St. John’s metro area.

The city’s downtown parking study found that more than 40 per cent of people coming to the area for work come from outside city boundaries.

“What do we do to reduce the traffic congestion, the greenhouse gas emissions, and all the related problems that brings?” asked Hann, chairman of the St. John’s Transit Commission, which is responsible for Metrobus Transit.

“The answer is, some kind of regional transit system, or some kind of park and ride at both ends of the city so people can drive out to the environs of the city with a shuttle service running to the downtown core.”

However, roadblocks remain over how committed other communities are to sharing a public transit system and how such a venture would be funded.

According to the 2011 census, the combined population of Mount Pearl, Paradise, Conception Bay South, Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, and Torbay stands at 81,590, a 13.1 per cent jump from the 2006 census total of 72,077. Over that same period, the population of St. John’s has risen from 100,646 to 106,172.

With new residents comes new vehicles to increase traffic congestion going to and from St. John’s.

Hann admits convincing people to ride the bus presents its own challenges, as many living in St. John’s and the surrounding communities own multiple vehicles and are more than content to commute to work.

In order for any regional transit system to work, he said, money from all three levels of government will be necessary.

“There is a need for an expanded service … a more efficient service, and with that comes a lot of money.”

As it currently exists, the city’s public transit system is an expensive operation.

The City of St. John’s subsidizes Metrobus to the tune of $10.5 million annually, and Hann said that figure will likely rise to $12.5 million to $13.5 million in the years ahead.

A new $35-million bus terminal is also due to open — the federal government covered $28 million of the price tag, while the city is responsible for the remainder of the costs associated with the terminal.

Between 2012 and 2017, 30 buses are also due to be replaced — an investment that carries a price tag of approximately $15 million for the city.

Conception Bay South Mayor Woodrow French said that while he believes regional transit is necessary, he wants to see some outside-the-box thinking involved in creating such a system.

“You’re not going to put people on a Metrobus in Seal Cove and take them all the way to St. John’s,” he said. “People just are not going to do that.”

The town commissioned a study several years ago asking residents whether they would use a transit system to go to and from St. John’s, and its results indicated demand was not there. He said that’s unfortunate given how many cars travel from his community on a daily basis with a lone occupant.

Hann agrees Metrobus as it currently operates would not likely best serve the needs of communities like Conception Bay South.

“That’s why we need to start thinking outside the box and say, ‘If what we have right now couldn’t work efficiently, what do we do?’ We’ve got to go find those answers.”

To help encourage people to use public transit, French suggests people in his community would want a service that provides expedited transportation to St. John’s.

See REGIONAL, page A18

Simms not convinced

Mount Pearl pays an annual subsidy of approximately $800,000 for Metrobus service. Mayor Randy Simms does not believe a regional transit system is necessary for the metro area.

“Public transit is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of it. But when you look at the territory itself, you look at our road network, you look at the population base and size in the region, I’m not sure that you can make an argument that says we have to have that kind of massive infusion in the public transit.”

His counterpart in Paradise, Mayor Ralph Wiseman, agrees. However, he is interested in seeing the results of a study commissioned this year by Mount Pearl to assess its current transit service.

“We (didn’t) get a great indication here from the last study that we had that there’s a lot of interest in public transit (in Paradise). Now there is some, of course there is. But if you’re going to invest a significant amount of money, you would like to have it benefit a large number of people.”

According to Wiseman, it was previously determined that the town could receive two daily rides at a cost of $250,000 annually.

Simms said the Mount Pearl transit study is almost finished and will, hopefully, identify ways to improve ridership on public transit in the community — a big issue for riders in his community is the amount of time it takes to get around. He said there is a surprising amount of traffic moving between Mount Pearl and Paradise.

The Canadian Urban Transit Association, of which the City of St. John’s is a member, has developed a strategy titled Transit Vision 2040 that outlines where the country should be headed on public transit issues. The group is asking the federal government to look at creating its own public transit strategy. Hann said the Federation of Canadian Municipalities is doing likewise.

Hann says the provincial government should offer support to the city’s public transit system. It currently receives no annual provincial funding, but pays approximately $300,000 in provincial taxes.

“We get absolutely no assistance from the province, and there’s something wrong with that,” he said.

However, Hann later added the province has provided help in the past on transit-related projects. The city purchased equipment for six buses that cost $80,000 apiece to help improve fuel efficiency and did so with help from the province.

Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O’Brien said the provincial government is always willing to listen to communities on different matters, but his department’s budget is focused on necessary infrastructure.

He said the public transit system, while necessary, is not a priority or the responsibility of the provincial government.

“It’s not even on my radar,” said the minister, who also questioned whether people under the age of 60 years would use such a system.

“I would suspect that the establishing of a transit system on the northeast Avalon encompassing however many towns is in that area would be quite expensive. So you know, there’s only one pot of money. … There’s only so much to go around.”

Hann admits there are many other matters in the city that demand attention, particularly with regards to aging infrastructure.

“It’s a balancing act of what you do,” he said.

To help create further dialogue on the subject, Hann recently asked Mayor Dennis O’Keefe to write to Minister of Transportation and Works Tom Hedderson to help set up a meeting with the mayors from the northeast Avalon region.

“We’re still waiting for an answer back from that, but I’m hoping what that will accomplish is to get everybody to sit down at the table … and provide whatever details we need to.”

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