Infrastructure News

Northern public transit: Federal funds must be matched by vision

When it comes to the North, public transit is neither abundant nor a top priority for any level of government. Northern communities have small populations and limited sprawl, and where there is sprawl — Whitehorse in particular has various neighbourhoods scattered across more than 400 square kilometres — there is a tendency for high reliance on vehicles, rather than bus routes.

But for the first time in more than five years, the federal government has allotted a specific purse of money toward public transit within its 2016 budget, including for the North.

As part of the Liberal government’s 10-year, $120-billion infrastructure program, $20 billion will go towards developing public transit systems across the country. The first phase of the project, rolling out in the coming months, is a $3.4-billion investment in upgrading existing transit systems.

Each province and territory’s cut of the $3.4 billion is determined by ridership. Yukon and Northwest Territories have 0.03 per cent and 0.01 per cent shares of overall national ridership, respectively, accounting for public transit funding of $890,000 in Yukon and $320,000 in the NWT.

With no existing public transit systems in Nunavut, according to the Canadian Urban Transit Association, the territory will take no share of this phase of funding.

Investing in the system

Provincial and municipal governments will be responsible for distributing the new federal transit funding across the country, depending on whose jurisdiction existing transit systems fall under.

“The aim of the plan is to be flexible and adaptable to different conditions across the country,” says Brook Simpson, press secretary for federal Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

“The idea behind this is that it’s the local levels that understand their needs the best. We’re trying not to be too prescriptive. Our goal is to get this funding to them and allow them to use the knowledge of their priorities and needs.”

Specifics of how and where the funding must be allocated have yet to be released, though Eleanor Young, assistant deputy minister of the NWT Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, says the end of April has been suggested as the deadline for a finalized design of the program.

Though the last time public transit-specific funding was given its own budget line, it was distributed on an application basis, there have been varied federal infrastructure programs and initiatives, such as Gas Tax Funding, each year that can go toward public transit, Young says.

Addressing the gap

The territories’ share of the new transit funding is low, due to limited ridership. Transit is not heavily used in the North, where centres are less populated and many people would rather drive.

While this works out fine for people with vehicles, lack of support for public transit typically disadvantages certain sectors of the population.

A 2007 Statistics Canada study showed that low-income households, particularly those with children and teenagers, were the highest users of public transit systems across the country. (In some cities, such as Calgary, transit passes were offered at discounted rates to low income people, thereby increasing access for frequent user groups with less to spend.)

The most common reason given for not using transit in the 2007 study was access to a car.

In the North, there is a wide gap between those with high-paying government and resource sector jobs and those experiencing high rates of homelessness and under-employment. That gap defines who has the choice to drive and who must rely on a public system to get to and from work, home, and everywhere else.

In 2010, the lowest 20 per cent of earners across Canada were taking in an average household income of $18,200, with the upper 20 per cent earning $171,800. In the Northwest Territories, that divide was even more pronounced, with low-income households averaging $16,300 and top earners bringing in $205,700.

Policy changes needed: planner

The gap between the haves and have-nots is particularly pronounced in the urban centres, where public transit could be a viable alternative to personal vehicles. But for public transit to become fully realized in the North — where driver’s insurance is comparatively low to the rest of the country, parking is at worst a minor headache, grid-lock is pretty-well non-existent, and the environmental case for lowering carbon emissions piques the interest of a select few — several policy changes would need to be made.

Jacob Larsen, a Yellowknife civil planner with a focus on transportation, says the way to increase ridership and make public transit a viable means of getting around any city is twofold: 1) develop land use policies that support denser development, and 2) have drivers pay the real cost of driving, not just the costs of fuel and insurance.

Wear and tear on roads, the environmental impact of emissions, the cost of injuries from vehicle collisions, and health problems caused by inactivity are all costs associated with driving, he says, that are not absorbed by actual users.

By Larsen’s logic, those with higher incomes would make the switch to an efficient public transit system if the comparative cost of driving was vastly different. To be sure, some are already using existing transit systems.

But based on the national statistics, it is likely the lower income tax bracket that would have the most to gain from an improved system.◉

Photo credit: istockphoto/m-gucci

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