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Metro Transit gets Fare-ly expensive 

Halifax council raises the price on public transport by a quarter in order to bridge budget deficits.

Bus fares are going up.

Halifax council Tuesday voted to increase the price of transit, effective July 1. The one-way adult fare will go up 12.5 percent, from $2 to $2.25. Children and senior fares and the cost of monthly transit passes, ferry and MetroLink service will rise as well.

The increase is needed, says Metro Transit manager Pat Soanes, to fill a $2.6 million gap in the transit service's budget.

Fares last went up four years ago, in January 2005, from $1.75 to $2. Since that increase, Metro Transit's service has increased 60 percent, claims Soanes, citing new MetroLink connections to Sackville and Cole Harbour, the implementation of the U-Pass system for students at local universities, increased ferry operations to the new NSCC campus in Woodside, more Sunday buses since the Sunday shopping ban was overturned, a handful of new bus routes and a more liberal transfer policy.

Those changes alone account for this year's operating budget deficit, but more worrisome are future budget shortfalls.

Last year, council agreed to a relatively ambitious five-year capital plan for transit. That plan foresees a further 25 percent increase in service, as well as new MetroLink routes, new service to far-flung rural communities, a new bridge terminal in Dartmouth and, most controversially, a fast ferry service to Bedford.

Most of the $150 million for the five-year plan comes from the federal government and pays for the capital costs of the plan---the purchase of buses and ferries, the construction of terminals, etc. But actually operating the expanded service---buying the fuel, paying the drivers, etc.---was left unfunded. If the full five-year plan is implemented, the deficit for operating costs is projected to balloon to $16.3 million by 2014.

Traditionally in Nova Scotia, transit operating costs are left to the city, which funds them through a combination of fare box receipts and property taxes.

Property taxes should help pay for buses, says Soanes, because "transit helps all of HRM;" a transit system results in less road traffic for all commuters and improved environmental quality, whether taxpayers take the bus or not, she says. Still, council did not raise the property tax subsidy for transit.

As recently as 2006, fares accounted for more than 70 percent of Metro Transit's budget, one of the highest rates in North America. That figure has recently come down to about 50 percent, which is about average for Canadian cities of Halifax's size.

To meet future deficits, Soanes' report to council envisions an increase in the property tax subsidy next year, yet another 25-cent increase in fares on July 1, 2011 and another property tax increase the following year.

Some councillors objected to the fare increase.

"There have definitely been improvements in transit over the years," said Andrew Younger. "We still, however, struggle with leave-behinds [and other service shortfalls]...if I wasn't providing a product that consumers were totally happy with, would I increase the price of my product before I got those issues sorted out, or would I increase the price of my product after? Well, of course I wouldn't increase the price until I got those issues sorted out. So I have a lot of trouble with a fare increase at the moment."

"I'm not supportive of a fare increase," said Jennifer Watts. "What we're saying is this increase is the most efficient way for us to buy time [to find other ways to increase the budget], but from my viewpoint, people who take the bus are the ones who have been buying time for us for a long time---by waiting at bus stops, by waiting at stops and seeing buses go by, by changing their schedules because they know the bus only comes so often---they have been buying time for us as a community."

But on a motion by Reg Rankin, the majority of council agreed with the fare increase. Generally, suburban and rural councillors supported the increase, while urban councillors opposed it.

"What's a cup of coffee cost nowadays, plus a tip?" asked Lorelei Nicoll, who represents Cole Harbour. "Now that's a luxury. Getting to work is a necessity. So I support fully the increase."

None of the 23 councillors or mayor Peter Kelly regularly use the bus.

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