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‘Death spiral’: Winnipeg advocates concerned over transit funding shortage

A question mark hovers over public transportation in Winnipeg, after a recent report uncovered millions of dollars in funding left wanting.

According to This is the End of The Line, a new report by transportation planning firm Leading Mobility, Winnipeg Transit is facing a $37-million operating budget shortfall. Transit is operating budget item number two for the City of Winnipeg — second only to police services.

Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 1505 president Chris Scott said this is not a good look.

“That’s the first indication of what we’ve referred to as the death spiral, where loss in revenue or loss in funding results in service cuts,” he said.

Scott said the operating budget covers wages for operators, supervisors, security, and helps with reliability.

“That can be the difference between a ten-minute headway or a 20-minute headway between busses for the riding public. If it’s pouring out… or it’s -30 or -40 (degrees)… that’s a long time to wait,” he said.

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The shortfall has already packed a punch when it comes to service levels, he added.

“In order to reduce or mitigate these losses, the operating time on schedules is cut back. So those operating a service either have to drive faster… or they’re running late. And when they run late, it frustrates the riding public, and that puts the operators and all transit employees at risk of violence,” Scott said.

Click to play video: 'Transit update: keeping Winnipeg buses safe'

Transit update: keeping Winnipeg buses safe

Winnipeg city councillor Janice Lukes, who also serves as the transit chair at city hall, said the shortfall may also impact future projects, like a new route network and transitions to electric busses.

“The report says no. The budget says no,” she said. But it’s not for a lack of city funding.

“What really is disheartening, is when you see that 82 per cent(of the population) take personal vehicles — and our roads are falling apart — we’re only putting $191 million into the roads. Nine per cent take transit. We’re putting $238 million into transit,” she said.

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Leading Mobility’s founder and principal David Cooper said shortfalls in operating funds were kicked into full throttle by the pandemic.

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“There was a loss of ridership, (and) there was a pretty substantial hit on the city’s budget when it comes to transit/rapid transit fare revenue,” he said.

Scott saw the same, but with an increase in underpaid, or unpaid, fares.

“There seems to be an increase in fare evasion. Numbers that we have researched indicate about $5 (million) to $6 million in losses from lost fare revenue,” he said.

In 2023 alone, the ATU reported more than 4.4 million instances of fare evasion.

Click to play video: 'Millions of transit fares underpaid in 2023: Winnipeg union'

Millions of transit fares underpaid in 2023: Winnipeg union

The report said that in 2022, 46 per cent of funding came from property taxes, and 32 per cent from fares; 20 per cent was attributed to the Manitoba government, and just two per cent went to advertising and city programs.

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Cooper said those aren’t enough options and recommended new funding sources, including further taxes and levies. The report itself assessed 20 various fees that have proven successful in other cities in the country. Even so, all cities are struggling with operational costs.

“The ones that we thought had the most promise in the three Prairie cities, including the City of Winnipeg, would be looking at a vehicle levy, off-street parking, or a (Transportation Network Companies) fee,” he said.

Lukes agreed the vehicle levy and off-street parking taxes were potential solutions.

“Maybe that would encourage more people who take a vehicle to take the bus,” she said, noting that a vehicle levy would need provincial approval.

Still, it’s not as simple as she would like.

“It’s a chicken and egg. People want really good service. They want to get on the bus, but there’s not good service (s0) they won’t get on the bus. But to get good service, we need more money. So, it’s complicated,” Lukes said.

Click to play video: 'Winnipeggers can expect to pay more with proposed city budget'

Winnipeggers can expect to pay more with proposed city budget

Cooper, Scott and Lukes all said help is needed from the provincial and federal governments to salvage public transit.

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“We’ve advocated as recently as March on the federal level for the Canadian government to implement a national transit strategy, just as the rest of the G7 nations have done with a commitment to operational funding,” Scott said.

“Why not, divert revenue from the carbon tax into transit, which is a double win for the environment? You’re reducing the dependency on fossil fuels while providing a service that reduces the carbon footprint,” he suggested.

Lukes said she feels the same, noting only 10 cents of every tax dollar makes its way to cities.

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“Unless we have federal support, unless we have provincial support, it’s basically status quo – barely holding it together,” she said.

“Canada’s a very wealthy country. I think we could be doing a better job of all of this. But in the near future with transit… we’ve got a lot of good things going on, but the sustainability of it is not so bright,” she said.

Cooper said the United States provides one-quarter of transit operating funding, the British government remits fuel tax to local cities to pay for transit, and the German government offsets fares for residents to use their train systems.

“It’s not just one level of government that is responsible for addressing the operating funding conversation. It’s really all three, and they have different roles,” Cooper said.

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Up to 2017, the province supported 50 per cent of Winnipeg’s transit operating funds, the report said.

In an emailed statement, the office of municipal relations minister Ian Bushie said Budget 2024 committed to increasing annual operating funds once again, but was not specific.

“We are listening to municipalities regarding public transit and look forward to further engagement with municipal partners in this regard,” the statement said.

Global News also reached out to the federal government, but did not hear back by the time of publishing.

Click to play video: 'Coun. Janice Lukes talks bus route changes, upgrades planned for next year'

Coun. Janice Lukes talks bus route changes, upgrades planned for next year

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