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Transit fail 

A pair of decisions---cutting ferry service, adding free bus rides for seniors---illustrates what’s wrong with how council does business.

In back-to-back weekly meetings, Halifax council has managed to contradict itself on transit policy, frustrate itself by pulling the rug out from any hope of coherent management of Metro Transit and disgrace itself with bald election pandering.

Two weeks ago, council voted to cut late-night ferry service, starting next week. That vote generated a lot of controversy, but the cuts were justified by abysmal ridership numbers for evening service. (I've posted the numbers for each trip over the last year at thecoast.ca/bites.) Those numbers show that ridership falls below the service standards council had adopted for the ferries last year. Metro Transit management says that cutting the service (except for on weekends) will save about $200,000 a year, money that would be more efficiently deployed on other transit operations with ridership numbers that justify it.

Like a lot of people, I want the late-night ferry service. Ultimately, I think that service is an important component of the city we envision for ourselves, with hopping downtowns on either side of the harbour.

But as much as I'd like to have late-night ferries, what I want even more is for council to stop doing stuff in a backwards, fudge-the-numbers, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants, secretive, fuck-the-policy manner. That's the road that leads to making millions of dollars in improper loans to failed concert promoters and to building a new convention centre based on bullshit projections of future business. That road is failed governance.

I don't blame transit managers for proposing the ferry cuts; strictly speaking, they were doing their job, working within the dictates adopted by council. All the same, I was prepared to argue that there's a way to justify keeping late-night ferry service, even in the face of poor ridership.

See, there is a disconnect between our over-arching vision for HRM ---the regional plan---and the realities of the day-to-day running of a transit system that managers face. It's the councillors' job to reconcile the two.

Currently, all staff reports to council have to consider budgetary impacts. That requirement should be expanded such that all potential council actions have to be assessed for how they fit into the vision and goals established by the regional plan. Were this the case with the ferry cuts, council would have been told that the proposed cuts would pull the rug out from under the desire for a thriving city core on both sides of the harbour, and councillors would have to balance the competing needs---meeting service standards on the one hand, the goals of the regional plan on the other---to come to some sort of judicious decision.

But this week it became clear that council isn't at all interested in judicious decision-making. With no way to assess the need, the cost or how it fits into any governance narrative whatsoever, on a motion by Jerry Blumenthal council voted to implement a "pilot project" of free Tuesday bus service for seniors.

It wasn't lost on any of the councillors that the three months of free service overlaps the October city elections, or that by provincial law each and every retirement home has a polling station in it. Indeed, during a break in the meeting, Blumenthal, who's not running for re-election, explained retirement home campaign strategy to me: "You don't want to be the first [candidate] in to see [seniors]," he said. "You want to be the last, so they remember who you are."

There are no studies justifying the Tuesday Geezer Bus, no indication that transit costs are more onerous on seniors as a group than on any other segment of the population.

And it's not true that "the buses are running anyway, so it won't cost anything." Halifax's transit ridership numbers are still reeling from last winter's strike, and we don't use electronic fare boxes, so it will be impossible to measure the full expense of the Geezer Bus. But extrapolating from Moncton's loss of fare box revenue after adopting the same policy, Metro Transit manager Eddie Robar's best guess is that the three-month pilot project will cost $50,000.

Does anyone seriously think council will have the backbone to kill the new service after three months? No, it's with us forever, costing about $200,000 each year---almost exactly what was "saved" by cutting the late night ferry.

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