With the upcoming municipal election in St. John’s, the issue of public transit is one that has received considerable attention and debate among the various candidates. Questions have focused on how to improve on existing services, expand ridership and promote sustainability and importance as an economic and environmental driver, as well as exploring potential avenues for funding. The St. John’s Transportation Commission, along with various community organizations, have sought public feedback through surveys and online forums as a means of garnering input from riders and residents alike. While ridership numbers remain steady, existing taxation regulations, accompanied with limited funding opportunities and innovation, have made it difficult to expand the public transit system in a way that can be beneficial to all.
Currently, transportation services are not included or covered under the province’s Gasoline Tax Act or the Highway Traffic Act, meaning Metrobus Transit are unable to receive tax exemptions, unlike other provincial jurisdictions that provide small rebates or other financial incentives as a means of strengthening their public transit systems. Currently, the Government of Ontario has in place a Gas Tax program, in which it re-invests a small portion of its gas tax revenues to a number of transit systems through the province’s various municipalities.
Promoting and expanding public transit services through a more rigorous marketing campaign to engage new riders could equally be beneficial to the city’s local economy from an urban planning perspective, such as tackling or improving issues related to traffic congestion or limited parking spaces due to continued developments in the housing and retail sectors.
A report published by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) in 2009 found that problems stemming from traffic congestion and lack of direct investment in public transit services was costing the city of Toronto upwards of $4.4 billion in lost productivity. While St. John’s may not face the same level of public demand or regional diversification as found in Toronto, continued housing developments and new subdivisions, coupled with large retail centres, could make it a growing problem for the city.
The city of St. John’s is expected to lead in economic growth in 2013 as a result of oil and gas production, as outlined in a recent Conference Board of Canada report, and therefore it is critical that different options be explored in terms of reforming public transit to improve services, while finding new sources of public or private funding to make these changes a reality. Equally, investments in public transit can also be eco-friendly, as various studies have found that it can lead to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and improvements in air quality by reducing the number of private vehicles. Recently the city announced that Metrobus Transit would be moving into a new $34 million dollar facility that utilizes green-based technologies, much of which was supported by federal funding.
Alleviating the existing tax burden, combined with a modest reduction in licensing fees, would provide Metrobus Transit with additional financial resources that could be directed to a number of areas. This could include infrastructure-related projects, such as repairing or building new bus shelters, improving wireless services for riders, enhancing machinery or purchasing new buses for the purposes of route expansion. The city should also explore other investment opportunities such as networking with neighboring urban communities as a means of expanding ridership and promoting their services to a wider range of customers.
With new revenue streams, Metrobus Transit can also explore other areas, such as re-working their existing route and scheduling system to increase ridership, while better accommodating more remote parts of the city that may not avail of these services directly. Clearly, expanding and enhancing public transit services can have significant environmental and economic benefits, and through proper strategic planning and coordination as part of ongoing urban development, it should be prioritized as a critical service that can benefit the people and the city alike.