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Buses beg as cars cash in

Highway robbery: The city is desperately looking for $20.5 million to fund Metro Transit plans, while over $70 million is being spent on local road projects.

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Halifax council has been doing good work on the transit front. Councillors have committed to buying 45 new articulated buses---15 will hit the streets in coming months---and have agreed "in concept" to an aggressive five-year transit expansion plan that, if implemented, will see big improvements in bus service.

Of course it will cost more money to operate that expanded transit system---there's a "funding gap" of $20.5 million between existing bus service and the system outlined in the five-year plan.

Where will that missing transit money come from? Metro Transit suggests raising bus fares 25 cents every other year, and property taxes in alternate years, forever---either of which will be a hard political pill to swallow. City hall thinks the province, which itself is facing huge deficits, should pony up. Or councillors could avoid the hard choices and do nothing, letting transit expansion plans languish. However it plays out, transit funding will likely be one of the defining political issues of the next few years.

But compare uncertain transit funding to the 10s of millions of dollars we lavish on highway interchanges.

On the BiHi, construction crews are presently building an interchange to handle some suburban sprawl about to go up along Larry Uteck Boulevard. The price tag for just that one interchange is $21 million---more than enough to pay for the entire transit expansion plan.

Additionally, we've recently built the Mount Hope Avenue interchange on the Circ in Dartmouth, opening up huge swaths of land south of Russell Lake to development---total cost, $12 million. The newish Dartmouth Crossing interchange cost $19.1 million to build. On the 101 in Sackville, an $8.5-million Margeson Drive interchange is in the works.

Here's how ridiculously easy it is to build highways: last year, HRM asked that $11 million in economic stimulus money go toward a new Woodside ferry. Instead, the feds approved $10 million to build an underpass under the 102, to connect Bayers Lake to Clayton Park---a project the city didn't even ask for.

That's $70.6 million for five highway projects.

It's a common misconception that the money to build highways comes exclusively from gas taxes. In reality, the interchanges are funded mostly through agreements between the city, the province and the feds. On the federal and provincial level, the money for new highways comes from general tax revenues, including income taxes.

As for the city, its share of the money theoretically comes from fees charged to developers as they build in the area. Planners use computer model to figure out overall transportation (cars, not buses) patterns, and how any one particular development impacts the whole, then divvy up the cost as developers sub-divide their property. This way, the "true impact" of the development is paid for.

But seen another way, the provincial and federal funding is a subsidy to developers. Consider that the owners of Dartmouth Crossing paid a mere $3.35 million of the $19.1 million it cost to build the interchange to access their new big-box development---just 18 percent of the total.

And sometimes the funding plans go wrong. The total cost of the Mount Hope interchange, for example, was $12 million, and HRM's share $8 million. The city's funding formula anticipated the private development of the Shearwater military base lands, but the military changed course and held onto that land---pulling the rug out from under about half the anticipated developer contribution.

The missing $4 million is going to come straight out of the regular city budget---money that could otherwise have been used for transit.

And there's the rub. We have supposedly exacting formulas and processes well in place for funding highway construction; no one even questions them. And when the plans do occasionally fall short, we just make up the shortfall with general tax revenues. This apparently is no big deal---before now, did you even know about the missing $4 million Mount Hope funds?

But when it comes to funding transit, every expense is a conundrum, a problem for politicians, the subject of great public debate.

Until government starts funding transit with the certainty it funds highways, we won't get a decent bus system.

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