News + Opinion » Transit

A City in Transit

Every politician supports better mass transit - just ask them. But will candidates for regional council commit to real action to create a transit-friendly city?



Gas prices are rising to the stratosphere.

The globe is approaching a climate change tipping point. Unending congestion and a lack of parking have turned the daily commute into a daily headache. Late-night partiers risk assault for lack of a safe ride home.

All of which cries out for a reliable and user-friendly transit service, but in Halifax we have an under-funded, sketchy system that is criticized at every turn.

What can be done to improve transit in Halifax, and what should we be asking of the 50 or so people running for regional council in the upcoming municipal elections?

That question begins this investigation, and we'll return to it, but let's first step back and examine what we've got.

To be fair, for all the complaints lodged against it, the Halifax bus system isn't a complete disaster. It does a decent enough job getting people to and from their jobs during the morning and evening rush hours. Well, at least those commuters who live relatively close to a bus line and who work in downtown Halifax or the universities, but lots of far-flung suburbanites are without more than perfunctory service, and those who work in Burnside, Bayers Lake, the airport or elsewhere in the suburbs have to endure impossibly long journeys, if they can take the bus to their jobs at all. Still, the peninsula-and-back service is important, and serves many thousands of people daily.

Outside of rush hour, only one bus---the #1, which winds its way from West End Mall, through the Spring Garden and Barrington corridor, over the Macdonald Bridge to Dartmouth, and back again---runs at anything that can be called a convenient interval, every 10 to 20 minutes. But after 11:00pm it only runs every 25 to 35 minutes, and then, along with the entire system, shuts down for the night around 12:50am.

Except for rush hour, the best of the other routes run every half hour. Many run every hour. But many others don't run at all midday or after 6pm. Weekend service is often even less frequent.


Clearly, we need more buses that run more often to more places and later at night.

But buses cost a lot of money---$400,000 a pop, give or take, plus considerable operating expenses (the present fleet of about 250 vehicles consumes around $56 million every year), according to acting Metro Transit manager Lori Patterson.

And money isn't exactly flowing into Halifax transit. Across Canada, the average provincial government commitment to transit services is $19.87 per person; in Nova Scotia it's a paltry $3.97, and none of that goes to Metro Transit.

Last month, the Ecology Action Centre released its well-received Green Mobility Strategy, which calls on the provincial government to earmark up to $19 million annually for transit. Compared to provincial road construction and maintenance costs, $19 million is almost inconsequential, and providing funding for transit is essential if the province is going to meet the greenhouse gas reduction goals adopted as law last year. But many analysts interviewed for this article believe that there's little hope the present provincial government will increase transit funding in any meaningful fashion, and no hope at all that any provincial money will be provided specifically for Metro Transit. (Tellingly, while environment minister Mark Parent attended the release of the Green Mobility Strategy, the transportation minister was absent, and premier Rodney MacDonald has not commented on it.)

The lack of consistent, predictable provincial funding is the fundamental reason why Halifax's bus system pales in comparison to that of other cities. Without provincial funding, Metro Transit relies entirely on funding from city hall and fare box receipts for operating costs. Other cities' transit systems recover as little as 20 percent of their operating costs from the fare box, but Metro Transit's fare box recovery at one point last year was 80 percent---the highest in North America. With increased funding from city hall, that number has dropped somewhat in recent months, but it remains absurdly high---more than 60 percent.

All the same, given the lack of provincial transit funding, HRM does passingly well---buses compete with all other municipal obligations, but Metro Transit's budget is exceeded by only the road and police budgets. (Of course, the cops and the roads don't bring in 60 percent of their own funding.) And, while capital funds for expanding the system come from a variety of sources (including recent one-time federal gas tax disbursements), the Halifax council has adopted a five-year, $155 million capital plan that makes a stab at addressing the shortcomings of the system.

Low expectations

Fifteen buses will be added this year, but Metro Transit can't add any buses beyond those until a new transit garage is built. Buses need to be cleaned, fueled and serviced nightly, and the present garage in Burnside, built in the 1980s to handle a mere 165 buses, is at capacity, with 250 vehicles processed each day.

So the first thing the capital plan pays for is a second garage, at a cost of $25 million, to be built somewhere on the west side of the harbour---"further out" than Clayton Park, Patterson says cryptically, but close enough that buses can run out of it with short no-passenger "dead heading." As of this writing, however, an exact location for the garage is still undecided, and a project manager to oversee construction hasn't been hired.

In the best-case scenario, the garage will be completed in two years. If so, then Metro Transit will acquire 25 new buses each of the following three years---15 to replace old buses that will be "retired" and 10 buses to expand the service. All of the new buses will be low-floored, wheelchair-friendly, articulated buses (the "double" buses with a hinge in the middle), explains Eddie Robar, Metro Transit's manager of planning. They'll be placed on heavily used routes like the #1 and #20, allowing the smaller buses now on those routes to be shifted to new routes through unserviced neighbourhoods.

The plan also calls for a new downtown shuttle, new LINK routes, a rural express bus from Tantallon and, in the final year, a rural bus serving the Eastern Shore.

Otherwise on the bus front, the capital plan calls for an expansion of the Bridge Terminal, a new generation of fare boxes and some security measures.

That's not nearly enough, says Ron Colman, executive director of GPI Atlantic, which in March published a comprehensive study of transportation issues in HRM. "The portion of Halifax commuters who still travel by car, and still travel alone by car, is overwhelming," he says. "Something radical has to shift, and it's not going to shift just by adding 10 more buses."

Fast ferry

The highest-profile project in the capital plan is the fast ferry to Bedford, budgeted at $27 million, which pays for the boats, construction of a ferry terminal at Mill Cove, and the creation of park-and-ride lots and new bus routes connecting Bedford, Hammond Plains and Sackville to the ferry terminal.

The fast ferry has been mired in charges of political shenanigans and second doubts about its feasibility, but Dave McCusker, manager of transportation planning for HRM, stands by the plans. Moreover, he says, its success will lead to increased ferry service throughout the harbour, with possible future fast ferry routes to Eastern Passage, Purcells Cove and Shannon Park.

Politics aside, there's no point in contesting McCusker's vision, or council's support of it, as we'll know whether it's a success or not soon enough---McCusker says the ferry will be up and running by the fall of 2010.

How it all falls apart

Even with all the caveats---garage construction could get delayed, projections for ferry ridership might be overly rosy, the outlined transit expansion doesn't begin to bring about the kind of radical shift we need in transportation if we are to successfully address climate change---the five-year capital plan is a reasonably responsible approach to addressing the present inadequate state of transit in Halifax, especially given the funding constraints placed upon HRM.

But, if we're not careful, these well-intentioned transit plans may be only so much fiction.

See, all the transit plans are dependent upon the Halifax Regional Plan, a kind of blueprint detailing where and how HRM develops over the course of the next 25 years, which was adopted by council in 2006. Like the transit plan, the regional plan isn't perfect, but it at least is headed in the right direction.

There are two parts of the regional plan that concern us here. First, the plan restricts new development to relatively high-density corridors that can be serviced easily by bus routes. Unfortunately, while the plan encourages density, it doesn't define it---there are no legal limits placed on developers. This is important, because a general rule of thumb holds that in order to be financially viable, a bus line has to travel through an area that holds at least seven houses per acre.

You don't have to be cynically inclined to fear that councillors may water down development densities on a case-by-case basis: Council already routinely lets developers cut corners, for whatever reasons---maybe they think that "just this once" won't hurt, or they want to be seen as "pro-development" or they play squash with the builder and want to help him out. The truly cynical might point at the billions of dollars that are to be potentially made through development in suburban HRM, and suggest that kind of money will simply overwhelm whatever scruples councillors have.

But if ambitious transit plans are going to be realized, then councillors are going to have to interpret the density requirements strictly, and favour development on the peninsula over suburban development. If not, then the transit plan is dead in the water.

Bridge to nowhere

The second regional plan issue involves roads: The road network envisioned in the regional plan is reflective of the development densities it supposes.

We'll ignore the quite complicated computer modelling that accompanies this planning process---suffice it to say that if we get the kind of densities envisioned in the plan then we'll need a road network as outlined in the plan, and no more than that. Roads and densities can act as mutually reinforcing feedback loops---with more sprawl we'll need more roads in places where we wouldn't otherwise need them; build more roads, and we encourage development, usually at very low densities, where none would have happened.

On the road front, the regional plan isn't strict enough for some people---a widened Chebucto Road, for example, is in the plan. The plan doesn't bring about the radical re-structuring of the city that Colman envisions. But it is at least an internally consistent document that, theoretically anyway, supports the growth of transit to some degree, if not by an order of magnitude.

But even that "better than we're doing now" plan is utterly worthless if, as the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission suggests, a tunnel or third bridge is built across the harbour, connecting Woodside to Halifax's south end.

"The regional plan showed that a third harbour crossing isn't necessary during the life of the plan anyway," says one planner who asks not to be named. "Once that third harbour crossing goes in, it will profoundly affect the future settlement patterns of the whole region."

That's an analysis McCusker agrees with. "We need to make sure that bridge doesn't become necessary," he says. As McCusker sees it, building a better transit system quickly reduces the pressure for a new harbour crossing. But at the same time, he's working with the Bridge Commission to determine where such a bridge would be routed and what kind of connections it would make to the existing road network and so forth. Better to do such planning now, he says, than sometime in the future when land might be used for other purposes.

Ironically, the bridge commission presented the third crossing as a strategy for opening, not destroying, transit opportunities. Through press releases and a PowerPoint presentation to Halifax council this past March, bridge commission reps spoke of a $1.1 billion six-lane bridge, with two lanes dedicated exclusively to bus use.

"What does that tell you?" asks a planner. "Either that the other four lanes will be gridlocked, or that there's some green-washing going on here."

No one questions that a Woodside-to-Halifax bridge would make the existing Woodside ferry superfluous, and it'd be pointless to continue to operate the ferry. But the current heavy development of the Russell Lake area in Dartmouth is predicated in large part on residents using the ferry.

That's just one example of the kind of trade-offs and complications that come with altering the regional plan. Building roads where none were planned results in tens of thousands of people changing where they live and how they get to work.

McCusker acknowledges that a third bridge would open up entire stretches of Eastern Passage, Cole Harbour, Cow Bay and points east to development pressure, completely pulling the rug out from under the regional plan, and therefore dashing any hope of having a responsive and useful transit system.

It's as simple as that: At least for the next 25 years (the lifetime of the regional plan) we can have an increasingly workable transit system, or we can have a third harbour crossing. We can't have both.


Bridges do, however, present an opportunity to support transit in another way---transit surcharges.

It works like this: There are presently about 32 million crossings of the Macdonald and MacKay bridges each year. Motorists pay a 75-cent toll, which goes toward debt, bridge maintenance and administration. But an additional toll could be dedicated to area transit systems---each additional 25-cent toll would raise roughly $8 million annually. Making a bridge crossing as costly as taking the bus (that is, imposing a total $2 toll) would provide $40 million each year for cross-harbour ferries and additional buses.

Essentially, a bridge surcharge could more than double the Metro Transit system.

But planners are relunctant to talk about surcharges (or a related funding mechanism, congestion charges) because the public generally doesn't understand them and is resistant to increases in tolls.

That's where Colman's work comes in. The GPI Transportation Accounts: Sustainable Transportation in Halifax Regional Municipality analyzed the true costs of car commuting in Halifax. Car drivers experience a direct hit to their wallets of, on average, $3,327 a year for car payments, gas, insurance and the like. But there are even greater "hidden" car costs of $3,790 per person. Those costs come through higher property and income taxes to pay for roads and policing the roads and, especially, in higher health care costs related to the car commute---increased pollution increases the rates of asthma and other ailments, and car travel is many times more dangerous than transit travel, resulting in enormous costs for emergency care. All told, the typical car owner is paying about 25 percent of his or her income for car-related expenses.

(Put another way, car drivers directly pay less than 50 percent of the total costs of driving a car, while transit users directly pay more than 60 percent of the total costs of taking the bus.)

Colman found that traffic congestion alone is costing Haligonians about $7 million in lost time and wages annually.

Therefore, even paying for services that make it easier for other peopleto take transit reduces the total costs for people who drive cars. A $2 bridge toll is an investment in overall economic health, both for the community generally and for the person paying the toll.

While they don't like to talk publicly about surcharges, planners do talk among themselves about them. There have been behind-the-scenes discussions of bridge surcharges, and even extending such a system to the Fairview overpass. McCusker won't discount the philosophy of such charges, and also sees value in a toll system on the BiHi and through the Armdale Rotary, with the money raised going toward extending transit services to the western and northern suburbs.

"But it's not going to happen," he says. "There's not the political will."

For certain, transit surcharges are a hard sell. But Colman's group has laid the groundwork for a wider understanding, and with political leadership and risk-taking, surcharges could one day become a reality.


Invariably, any transit discussion will raise calls for light rail. Planners, however, tell us that any potential light rail corridor---Sackville to Bedford to the universities and downtown is often mentioned---doesn't have the population base or densities required for a viable line.

Moreover, says McCusker, CN, whose tracks such a line would run on, is not at all open to the possibility.

But population densities can be increased with the successful implementation of the regional plan and, conversely, commuter rail stations would encourage high-density development to be built nearby. And, given the right incentives, CN can be brought on board a light rail plan.

Still, a light rail system would require an enormous capital investment, likely many times the $27 million Bedford ferry outlay, and that money is simply not now available.

McCusker contemplates the multi-billion transit plans of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver with some jealousy. Ultimately, he says, for Halifax to have the same kind of multi-modal transit systems (bus, ferry, rail), we'd have to have an independent transit authority that would operate bridges and highways along with transit, and have its own funding sources. He doesn't say as much, but such transportation authorities are generally funded through special taxes and bridge fees.

Vomit comet

So far, we've discussed the overall funding and planning issues that affect Halifax's transit system into the future, but what about the nuts-and-bolts particulars that so vex riders today? For example, why can't people catch a bus home when the bars let out?

A late-night bus is not just whimsical fancy on the part of booze hounds: It's one of the main recommendations that came out of the Clairmount Report on Violence in Halifax, commissioned by mayor Peter Kelly and released in May. "The city can do it tomorrow, if it wants to, and if they're serious about responding to this report, they should do that," says Clairmont report co-author Chris Murphy.

Halifax's student population is likewise insistent on the late-night bus. "That's a huge thing we've been pushing for, and our students are largely in favour of it," says Courtney Larkin, president of the Dalhousie Student Union. Students at each local university have increased their fees by a dollar in order to create the Halifax Student Alliance, a lobbying organization whose first order of business is to push for a late-night bus.

Students at Dal, SMU, King's, NSCADU and the Mount pay $115 or $116 (depending on the campus) as part of their student fees each semester for a U-Pass, which gives them unlimited use of Metro Transit.

All together, students provide about $6.7 million annually to Metro Transit, more than 10 percent of its operating budget. Perhaps more important, getting students to use the bus on a regular basis inculcates them on the value of transit, lessons they'll likely take with them the rest of their lives.

In return for the student money, Metro Transit has added new bus routes serving the universities, including a couple of Dalhousie routes, a Clayton Park-to-SMU route and a Dartmouth-to-Mount route. But the transit service resists student calls to provide late-night service.

"That's on the back burner," says Eddie Robar, Metro Transit's manager of planning.

Translation: Despite the mayor and his concern about violence, despite the academics and their reports, despite the students and their money, Metro Transit isn't going to put on a late-night bus, period.

In Metro Transit's defence, adding or altering bus routes is a complicated business, involving coordinating schedules, working through sometimes contentious union agreements, juggling financial commitments and more. Like moving a stick in the children's game of pickup sticks, tweaking a single bus route by just a few blocks can have reverberations that echo through the entire inter-connected system.

Adding a late-night bus would be complicated: Schedules for drivers, maintenance and dispatch workers would have to be re-negotiated, and buses would have to be pulled away from other routes. It can't, in fact, be done "tomorrow."

But those kind of decisions fall in a contested organizational battlefield---they are both political (what kind of resources should be committed where) and administrative (how do we make that happen). The problem is that politicians have ceded their responsibilities completely, and the administrators are now making political decisions---they've decided that all resources must be put into traditional operating hours.

In other words, we won't get a late-night bus until and unless the politicians reclaim their responsibilities and order the administrators to make it happen.

Screwing Dartmouth

There are other local transit issues that cry out for more active political involvement.

Take, as just one example, the Bridge Terminal, a deteriorating embarrassment stuck in what is perhaps the coldest and windiest spot in all of Dartmouth, just across from the Macdonald Bridge. Metro Transit realizes the terminal---the busiest in the system---is far too small to handle even present-day usage, and so it is seeking to build a new, expanded terminal just up Nantucket Avenue.

So far so good.

But while other new and newish terminals, including the Portland Hills and Mumford Terminals, provide an indoor respite from the elements for people to wait for their bus, the new Bridge Terminal will have no indoor waiting area. Instead, it will be equipped with "street-side shelters," according to Patterson---the same type of flimsy Plexiglas contraptions that fail to protect present-day Bridge Terminal users from inclement weather.

The comfort of Dartmouthian bus riders evidently doesn't tweak the same chords the administrators heard when they designed the Portland Hills Terminal. But the design of the new Bridge Terminal is both a health concern and an issue of equity; that is, a political matter.

The political agenda

So, in terms of improving Halifax transit, what should we ask of candidates for municipal council?

Clearly, it's not enough for them to "support transit"---without any deeper understanding of the issues involved, such a statement is meaningless.

Let's then set out a list of particulars. If a candidate is serious about supporting transit, then he or she must as a minimum:

Work to increase funding for Metro Transit, both directly in the HRM budget and by actively lobbying the provincial government to increase transit funding to at least the national average.

Support the five-year transit plan as the starting point for transit planning over the next five years; vote for implementation of the capital budgets to realize the plan and work to add to the system over and above what is called for in the plan.

Closely monitor the progress of the fast ferry, and if resources are wasted or delayed, insist that the money be used on other transit projects instead.

Pledge to honour the letter and the spirit of the Halifax Regional Plan, and vow to support development of the peninsula over that in the suburbs and never to water down development densities.

Actively oppose the construction of a third harbour bridge, insist that staff not cooperate with planning for such a bridge and, as council representatives to the bridge commission, vote against proceeding on bridge plans.

Demonstrate political leadership and expend political capital by supporting a bridge surcharge dedicated to transit funding; argue for a surcharge in public and at council meetings.

Support the ultimate creation of a regional transportation authority with the power to enact and collect tolls on highways and bridges, and to dedicate those tolls to transit.

Demand that Metro Transit make a late-night bus service a priority.

Insist that the plans for the new Bridge Terminal include an indoor waiting area.

Be conversant in the day-to-day details of transit operations through regular personal use of the bus system; take the bus to and from council meetings so as to have a personal understanding of its strengths and weaknesses.

Such a commitment from candidates is of course just the beginnings of an improved transit system. It will take follow-through and accountability to make it a reality.

Tim Bousquet is the news editor of The Coast. He takes the #10 bus to and from work.

Add a comment

Remember, it's entirely possible to disagree without spiralling into a thread of negativity and personal attacks. We have the right to remove (and you have the right to report) any comments that go against our policy.