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Bus route 

Last Friday, planners, experts and citizens gathered to discuss the future of public transit in Halifax. Mike Fleury gets on board.

Andrew Curran spent hours last week riding Metro Transit busses and hanging out at bus stops, but he didn't have any particular destination in mind - he was there for the conversation.

"We were out taking to people all day," recalls Curran, who made the aimless trip along with a friend and a video camera. "People talked about the need for more seating, they wanted more frequent service, they wanted service extended to the outlying areas - people have a lot of concerns."

Curran was gathering footage for a Dalhousie School of Planning public transit conference held over three days last week at Alderny Landing. Local politicians, urban planners and concerned transit riders turned out to discuss the future of public transportation in Halifax. Curran was there as a student organizer, one of the many Dalhousie planning students who turned out for the event.

"We really want this conference to be a tool to build excitement and momentum in the city about the potential for public transit. This is about trying to build public excitement as much as it is about political advocacy."

According to Dalhousie planning professor Frank Palermo, Halifax public transit has been progressing like Andrew Safer's journey - moving forward, but without any clear destination.

"It important to move people beyond these little issues about fares or simply adding more busses - we want to get people to think out side of the box and come up with some really big ideas here," he says.

The conference was attended by a range of concerned guests and speakers, including management from Metro Transit, Stephanie Sodero from the Ecology Action Centre, transit expert and keynote speaker Todd Litman, and mayor Peter Kelly.

Although the participants were all chosen to represent a diverse cross-section of transit concerns, some issues came up repeatedly over the course of the conference. One of the most common was the unused and underused system of rail lines that run between the Halifax, Bedford and Dartmouth which has fueled speculation about the potential of a commuter train to better connect the Supercity.

"We need to change our mindset," said Kelly. "There are a lot of opportunities. Outside of here, there's a rail bed going all the way along the waterfront to Burnside, which has the highest population of in the city. There's no reason we couldn't join those up and have an integrated transportation system on the peninsula.

Kelly, who has raised the rail issue before, urged citizens to not let the issue go away.

"We need to think differently. I know I've been called crazy - that's fine, I've been called worse. But please, don't forget that there's a rail bed out there that, once it's torn up, will cost between $300,00 and one million dollars per kilometre to replace. Lost opportunities, lost dollars, duplication, a waste."

Other key issues included the purchase of a high speed ferry to shuttle between Halifax, Dartmouth and Bedford, the benefits of biodisel and green transit alternatives, and the need to improve the efficiency of the current busses in the Metro Transit fleet.

For those hoping for a major transit overhaul, the conference was well timed. The federal government's gas tax plan will free up transit money for Canadian municipalities. Peter Kelly also pointed out another coming influx of cash, the fledgling federal transit investment fund.

"We have 24 million dollars for this province over two years, and those dollars are supposed to be given out based on ridership," explained Kelly, speaking at the conference. "And there are only three transit systems in the province: Kings, who have 500,000 ridership, Cape Breton who have 400,000 ridership, and the HRM, which has 16.5 million in ridership. So, in theory, and depending on how things go, we should get the bulk of that 24 million dollars."

Keynote speaker Todd Litman offered transportation solutions from around the world. A policy expert originally from Victoria, British Columbia, Litman says that Halifax is a unique transportation challenge, but he believes that the will to improve the current system is there.

"I'm delighted at how enthusiastic people seem to be in Halifax about some of these issues," he says. "I can't go into the details or pick one specific priority for this city. What I can say is integrating land use and transportation is key. That is, it doesn't do you any good just to run busses or even build a train system if you're implementing them in such a way where it can be normal for people who live in these communities to walk to those busses and train stations. Ultimately, even with bus or train transport or those big ideas, maintaining that walkability is key.

"Every community is unique, and every effort is unique. I'm the outside expert that comes in with general information, but it's up to the people here to see how it's going to be applied. Once you have buy-in from the community, instead of conflict within the community, problems can get solved. The question is, can Halifax find that kind of unanimity."

*Liquid Paper: When this story was originally published online, Andrew Curran was mistakenly credited as Andrew Safer. We regret any confusion this may have caused.

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