Future of transit at stake, big-city mayors say in plea for federal funds

The pandemic has wrought havoc on city's transit revenues

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

Canada’s big-city mayors are calling for the federal government’s help to make up huge shortfalls in transit revenue that threaten to derail the nation’s transit systems.

The Big City Mayors’ Caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities released a statement Wednesday asking the Liberals to cover projected transit shortfalls for 2022, or else risk major service reductions, postponed construction of new projects, and property tax hikes.

The pandemic has wrought havoc on city’s transit revenues, with many riders instead working from home and avoiding tight, crowded spaces. 

“The future of Canada’s public transit is at stake,” said Halifax Mayor Mike Savage in a statement as caucus chair. 

The Toronto Transit Commission projects an operating shortfall of $561 million in 2022, according to the FCM. 

Just about every major city expects to fall short by a hefty amount, including $53.7 million in Edmonton and $60 to 100 million in Metro Vancouver.

Unlike the federal and provincial governments, cities cannot run deficits. That means the money bleeding out of Canada’s transit systems will need to come from somewhere. 

“The consequences of inaction will have very real impacts. Cutting transit service will lead to reduced mobility. Increasing property taxes will limit the economic recovery of our cities. Major user fee increases, or reductions in service quality, will discourage many from riding transit and will place an unfair burden on people who rely on public transit,” Savage said in the statement. 

The federal government has given extra funds to make sure the nation’s buses and trains keep running throughout the pandemic, starting in 2020 with the Safe Restart Agreement. 

At the time, the federal government forwarded $19 billion to provinces and territories to help shore up their economies, and provinces passed on a share of those funds to cities to cover severely lagging transit revenue. 

This time, though, the mayors say the need is more urgent as massive transit shortfalls are projected for the third year in a row. 

“Even before Omicron, most large transit systems were forecasting serious ridership and revenue challenges for 2022. Cities have already made tough decisions — making cuts where they could, laying off staff, and raising property taxes. Yet the effects of the pandemic remain with us. With city budgets being finalized now, we simply cannot wait any longer,” Savage said. 

Dominic LeBlanc, minister of intergovernmental affairs, infrastructure and communities, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2022.

feature image via Canadian Press