Wednesday, HRM’s budget committee finalized the transit budget, and will consider hiring four new security guards at a cost of $379,000. Otherwise, the $38 million budget sailed through the debate largely untouched. This transit budget is 12% more than last year, due largely to an increased cost of fuel, and an increase in the cost of burning fuel (i.e. the carbon tax).
Councillors were urged to consider increasing fees when councillor David Hendsbee put that motion on the floor. But council ultimately decided that transit was a public service and that increasing fees for using public transit would decrease ridership overall, undermining council’s stated goals.
This was pointed out by transit-using Haligonians who spoke at the public meeting. They said to get anywhere in the city is a 20-minute drive, but a 20-minute drive is often a one- or two-hour bus ride (or rides) for those who come downtown from far-reaching places like Cole Harbour and Spryfield.
This, in turn, means workers are being forced to choose. Spend hours of your life to get to work for $3, or spend thousands on a vehicle and minutes of your life getting to work. And since workers are choosing cars, ridership goes down and transit suffers. Council is faced with the unenviable position of trying to fix transit, while at the same time the unreliability of transit is preventing people from choosing it as their primary mode of transportation.
One of the reasons transit is so bad is because transit workers are being treated terribly. Split shifts have long, unpaid hours where transit workers are forced to take the bus across the city during what would otherwise be a four-hour break. And transit drivers don't make a living wage when they start.
Council tried to get more information about why transit workers are leaving. Their boss, Dave Reage, told councillors they are facing challenges, but are recruiting in a more targeted way that will make things better.
Local Amalgamated Transit Union president Shane O'Leary got frustrated during the budget process because councillors wanted input from the union and—even though O’Leary was present, educated and willing to speak—Halifax Transit bosses spoke instead.
O'Leary was reminded that council has rules and that's just how it works. The rules of municipal power say that workers are not allowed to have a seat at the table of power, even if decision makers want to know what they think. The rules say that just the bosses get to speak to council. Maybe that's why we have record profits instead of free health care and affordable groceries. Maybe that's why Halifax Transit is having trouble retaining workers.