Allison Hanes: Public transportation in Quebec is at a crossroads

It is not a question of bad management: it is a political option to invest in public transport to control congestion, improve mobility and fight climate change.

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Quebec Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault has made good on her threat to conduct performance audits of the province’s main public transport agencies, including the Société de transport de Montréal.

The company Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton was chosen to investigate 10 organizations in charge of operating buses, trains and subways in the province in search of ways to optimize financing and services. The term began on Monday.

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The audits were Guilbault’s very smart response last fall to a public pressure campaign by the mayors of Montreal, Quebec, Laval and Longueuil, as well as transportation operators, to secure desperately needed funds to cover major budget shortfalls. . After saying that taxpayers in Quebec regions are tired of subscribing to services in Greater Montreal that they do not use, Guilbault only agreed to absorb 70 per cent of the worsening structural deficits facing agencies in 2024, while dominating the spectrum. of audits hanging over their heads.

His suggestion was that there is waste to be removed, fat to be trimmed, and outside experts are the ones who will be able to find it.

But as assessments continue, it’s unclear what auditors will discover that we don’t already know about the dismal state of public transportation funding in Quebec. The structural problems affecting this critical public service have been ongoing for a long time.

STM is already in the process of cutting $86 million in recurring costs, or about five percent of its operating budget, eliminating 230 jobs (most of them already vacant) and postponing major plans, such as maintaining Azur , of 10 years. subway cars and work on applications that communicate bus schedules in real time. By squeezing blood from a stone, the STM has managed not to cut services. This time.

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However, almost 85 percent of the STM budget is related to operations (perhaps more now), including 70 percent for the salaries of drivers, mechanics and ticket collectors, 90 percent of which is governed by collective agreements.

in a open letter published last week, STM president Éric Alan Caldwell and CEO Marie-Claude Léonard warned that the agency is at a crossroads.

“Do we want to continue reducing expenses regardless of the consequences? Do we want the service to stagnate?” they asked, recalling cuts in the 1990s that caused a downward spiral in ridership that took 15 years to reverse. “Or do we want to make the necessary efforts to improve services and at the same time attack the issue of insufficient income head-on? For us, the choice is simple: it is time to identify stable sources of financing that meet society’s ambitions for the future of sustainable transport.”

In a pre-budget report to Quebec Finance Minister Eric Girard, an association representing the province’s nine largest transit agencies, including Montreal’s, warned that after tense negotiations last fall that led to As a result, $265 million to absorb last-minute deficits is projected for next year’s hole. to be even greater. The Association du transport urbain du Québec is calling for support of $622 million by 2025 to cover projected shortfalls, as well as an agreement to provide “recurring and predictable financing” over the next five years.

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Of this sum, some $500 million would go toward covering the shortfall of the Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain, which coordinates transit projects and financing in Greater Montreal. The ARTM also needed $500 million in 2023. And CEO Benoît Gendron told La Presse the deficit could skyrocket to $700 million by 2029.

If the pandemic had never happened, ARTM estimates it would have raised about $1.2 billion in revenue by next year, he explained. But because ridership has only recovered to about 77 percent of pre-COVID levels due to a variety of factors, including remote or hybrid work arrangements, those sums have been compressed to about $890 million. Ticket sales accounted for about 30 percent of revenue in 2019; now it is only 21 percent.

However, the same levels of service must be maintained, because commuters still need and use public transportation, even if they only take it once or twice a week instead of five days. If cuts compromise supply, they will only drive passengers back to their cars, further hurting ridership and revenue, and precipitating an endless and counterproductive death spiral.

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So it is not a question of mismanagement: it is a political choice to invest in public transport to control congestion, improve mobility, boost productivity and fight climate change. After all, most of Quebec’s emissions come from transportation.

It is also a political option to expand public transport, something that the CAQ government, admittedly, seems willing to do, even if it has so far failed to get any project past the study stage during its six years in power. Guilbault plans to create a new agency to manage the construction of new transportation infrastructure, whether it be trams in Quebec City or in the east end of Montreal, but that won’t change the fact that the government is not funding the transportation networks enough. public transportation that we already have.

So let the auditors kick the tires and bring a new set of eyes to the well-known enigma. Only political will and stable funding that recognizes the importance of public transportation to our collective goals will end the deficits.

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