This month could see the start of big improvements to transit in St. John’s and the surrounding areas, but only if those of us who see the importance of a better service work together to support them. Three key factors are coming together – a more supportive city council, federal and provincial support which will pay for most necessary infrastructure and a student bus pass plan that could bring in many new riders and more funding.
Last year’s elections saw many new faces at St. John’s city council and a majority of councillors pledged their support for the Essential Transit Association’s manifesto calling for more frequent buses, more shelters and a focus on extending the system to the communities surrounding it.
Metrobus is now starting public consultations via the Engage St John’s website https://www.engagestjohns.ca/transit for a review of transit services due in February.
The federal government signed an agreement with the province in September that would provide up to $11.5 million of federal funding over the next five years for transit infrastructure in St. John’s, and as a condition for receiving it the province has now agreed for the first time to pay 1/3 of the cost of such new building, so the city will now pay only about a quarter of the cost to buy new buses, improve terminals or build wheelchair-accessible shelters. This boost is crucial – but it must be seized soon, since if the federal government changes next year, that money could vanish or be scaled back.
The final piece of the puzzle is that Memorial University is starting consultations https://www.mun.ca/u-pass/ over a universal bus pass for students, (and potentially staff and faculty) that if adopted would enable Metrobus to significantly improve services and extend its coverage outside of St. John’s to C.B.S., Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s and Torbay.
But it won’t be plain sailing. St. John’s will need to raise property and commercial taxes this year and its subsidy to Metrobus, which pays around 2/3 of the cost of each ride has been painted by some as wasteful because buses, especially off-peak, can be running at a fraction of capacity.
This is not a sign buses don’t work — it’s a symptom of decades of underinvestment. Metrobus has not had the funding it needs to provide a service that would be attractive to a wide range of users, but there is plenty of evidence that boosting service can bring many more people onto the buses.
Kingston, Ont., for example managed to double its bus users in four years by improving service and giving high schoolers free bus passes https://tvo.org/article/current-affairs/why-canadian-cities-are-asking-kingston-for-public-transit-advice.
Significant investment in the Metrobus network would not just bring benefits to existing users — by making the system attractive to many others it would reduce the cost per passenger to the city, since most transit costs don’t rise with the number of users. New users with cars would also be saving significant money and time by not having to run a second vehicle, for example. Teenagers, the elderly and those with disabilities who now find it hard to get around could get out more often, shop and be more active in the community.
Even those who don’t use the service would benefit. Bus users stay healthier longer reducing healthcare costs, carbon emissions would drop, and the cost of other expensive programmes like school buses, medical transport and GoBus that “fill in the gaps” where transit is not available or convenient could be reduced. The three million trips a year made by Metrobus passengers are estimated to be the equivalent of taking 7,000 cars off the road – this speeds everyone else to work, reduces demand for costly road improvements to deal with rising commuting times and lowers the need for parking.
Support for improvements by St. John’s council is important but only a start. Longer term, the province needs to take the lead and by providing funding and leadership to enable Metrobus to become a regional service. At present, transit outside of St. John’s is negotiated city by city and most of these don’t have the staff or resources to plan or provide connection to a regional network.
If you can see the benefits of a network of frequent buses spanning the peninsula, there will never be a better time to act. Participate in the public consultations on transit and lobby your councillors for action. And in the run-up to the provincial elections next year, make sure your MHAs know you believe that better public transit in the Northeast Avalon is important for the whole province.
Chair, Essential Transit Association