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Bus blues 

Halifax can't keep up with its transit needs, and the province is no help at all

He hates to admit it, but councillor Steve Streatch has never been on a Metro Transit bus. But with gas prices set to skyrocket, he's one of many car-owning Haligonians looking for a seat on Metro's already-crowded buses.

"We all need to recognize, regardless of what walks of life we come from, this is something the public not only is demanding but is deserving of," says Streatch.

But even with council's five-year, $155-million investment earmarked for transit, there isn't enough money to accommodate new bus riders. That money is for another garage depot, the fast ferry and service expansion on existing routes. With ridership at capacity at peak times, and with buses leaving people behind, current riders will benefit from less-crowded buses, but new routes and extension into un-serviced areas will be limited and dependent on unlikely "alternative funding mechanisms" and "partnership opportunities."

"The shame of it is there's no real way to change transit over night," says councillor Andrew Younger. "That means going through some growing pains."

HRM's manager of traffic and transportation services, Dave McCusker, points out the five-year plan reflects the regional plan. It says transit's first priority is to reduce pressure on roads by capturing as many trips as possible. Once completed, transit can start branching out. Wannabe riders must wait before heeding premier MacDonald's advice to "take up the opportunity for transit."

"This comes up at a lot of meetings," says McCusker. "Frankly, we have to say to some people, 'It's nice that you have that desire to contribute by taking transit, but for a lot of people we just can't provide transit asan option.'"

Burnside employs around 18,000 people and is one under-serviced area demanding transit. Kelvin Sams, the chair of the Greater Burnside Business Association, says young tradespeople used to take the bus untilthey saved up enough to buy a car. That transition has now become unaffordable for many workers.

Leasing agents are starting to factorbus access in their decisions to moveinto the park and Sams says transit could help prevent workers from moving west. "The economic impact is under estimated," he says.

But the much-discussed shuttle service for the area, as well as in other areas in the city, isn't on the cards.

"We're developing those systems veryslowly," says McCusker. "That's 10, maybe 15 years away just because we can't get the money fast enough."

McCusker, like many in the city, wants the province assisting with transit. Butsince it's a municipal issue the province is reticent---doling out $1.36 per capita annually for transit when the national average is $18. "If we had 50 percent more funding, then we could have a really competitive big city transit system," says McCusker.

Instead the province is offering tax rebates for transit pass holders at an estimated cost of $1.5 million. Wade Keller, the premier's media liaison, wasn't aware Metro Transit was at capacity and says the province's intention with the tax credit was to encourage people to take transit.

Asked if that money would be better spent towards the service, Lori Patterson, with Metro Transit, chuckles. "I think their intentions are good that they're starting to look at it. We maybe haven't had as much dialogue with them as we should."

Without dedicated financial support, Patterson says Metro Transit can't plan beyond 2013. By the time the new infrastructure is in place though there could be another Metro Link scenario. That project finished just as gas topped $1 and millions have been spent to expand for demand. With gas prices rising, shortages looming and more people looking to transit, there might not be the luxury to wait and see.

Streatch is encouraged by provincial interest, but as councillor for Eastern Shore-Musquodoboit Valley (an area half the size of PEI) he needs transit sooner than later. "We all pay provincial tax, and the fact of the matter is we all need tohave fair and somewhat equal access to these services."

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