Norbert Cunningham – Telegraph-Journal, February 4, 2021

Two recent news stories related to public transit in New Brunswick highlight how badly the province and Ottawa need to agree on an evidence-based plan to create a unified public transit system across the province.

On Wednesday, Brunswick News reported that the Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) was miffed that the Saint John Transit Commission apparently violated the Motor Carrier Act at the end of December by cancelling a bus route servicing Hampton. Saint John Transit was reportedly unable to reach an agreement with the Town of Hampton on a new subsidy rate for the service.

Forget the semantics, which only lawyers could love. The fact is that the route hasn’t run since New Year’s Eve and the Saint John Transit Commission in a Jan. 7 letter requested the EUB to amend the terms of its licence. Five days later, the EUB informed the transit commission it cannot axe a bus route without the board’s approval, which requires a hearing.

The EUB noted it has the power to recommend charges against the commission for not getting permission to cancel the route. This, even though the town and transit commission failed to reach agreement since last November, when Hampton Mayor Ken Chorley balked at the new rate Saint John proposes as “rather excessive.”

The EUB has declined to say anything else. But on Jan. 28, a month later, it did issue a notice of a public hearing via written submissions.

This is bureaucracy run amok. Saint John has severe budget problems and its transit commission has fairly been asked by council to assist by cutting one of its Comex routes. Why the EUB should have any say over a city transit commission responsible to Saint John is puzzling. And if it’s losing money because a client contracting with it isn’t willing to pay enough, what’s the justification to insist city taxpayers subsidize Hampton? Hampton has a choice: pay or lose the service. 

Last year, Hampton paid $68,000 for it and this year the mayor said the commission wants more than $100,000. That’s to service about 50 people daily taking the bus, he says. If “daily” means 300 days a year (more than just workdays), it’s a subsidy of $6.67 cents per user each day. For a full-size city transit bus travelling for about a half hour each way, that doesn’t sound unreasonable: even if it is a 47 per cent increase.

I’m not an expert in transit economics, but I know it seldom comes without subsidies. Ultimately, there is one prime question to answer: who pays if users aren’t charged the full cost? Logic suggests if Hampton council can buy and maintain its own bus for less, it should. If it can’t and still wants bus service, it’s not Saint John taxpayers that need to subsidize them. It might arguably be the province or Ottawa for policy reasons, but that’s another issue: an issue highlighted by Brunswick News’s reporting on the Maritime Bus issue.

That second story revealed how short-sighted, parochial and willing to engage in petty, pointless politics many municipal leaders can be.

We’re in a pandemic, which is straining everyone’s finances, and it was Premier Blaine Higgs’s responsibility to decide how to respond to an urgent request to help keep Maritime Bus operating within the province. He announced $720,000 in assistance for the only alternative to private vehicles. Half comes from the provincial government’s Regional Development Corporation. The other $360,000 is from emergency assistance Ottawa is sending to the province to decide how to help its cities – which the premier has done.

That didn’t stop Cities of New Brunswick Association president and Miramichi Mayor Adam Lordon from complaining about it. He admitted the cities wanted Maritime Bus assisted. He admitted it really is within the province’s bailiwick to use some of the federal money to help the inter-city bus firm the cities wanted assisted. But they apparently feel entitled to even more money than what was allocated in Ottawa.

The complaint is baseless.

Ottawa has sent $41 million to help New Brunswick cities. The provincial government has already distributed $11 million, with the other $30 million pending, earmarked on a per capita basis: except for the relatively small $360,000 for Maritime Bus, which the cities consider essential.

This assistance is in their best interest. What’s the problem? Why take potshots at the premier for doing what’s needed? Surely it’s not partisanship in a time of public emergency when unity for the public good is reasonably expected.

The premier’s decision to use a mere 0.88 per cent of that assistance on buses, which the cities apparently consider essential, should not raise a single eyebrow.

What both these stories show us is how urgently the province needs to develop a realistic plan to build a state-of-the-art public ground transportation system linking all its regions and major centres. We’ve not had one for decades. There is no shortage of ideas, possibilities or experts. The sooner we drop the nonsense and get to work, the better.

Norbert Cunningham is a Brunswick News columnist and a retired editorial page editor with the Times & Transcript. His column appears twice per week.