Equalize Transit Transfers & Restore VIA Rail to Offset Greyhound

July 16th, 2018

Ahead of this week’s federal cabinet shuffle and premiers’ conference, Regina–Lewvan MP Erin Weir proposes to provide the prairie provinces with a fair share of federal transit funding and to restore VIA Rail service to the southern prairies in response to Greyhound’s withdrawal from the region.

“The new or returning ministers of transport and infrastructure as well as provincial premiers must address the loss of inter-city bus service, which has stranded many prairie residents,” said Weir. “We should work to expand clean, safe and affordable public transport options.”

Public Transit Infrastructure Fund

The 2017 federal budget provided $20.1 billion over 11 years for public transit, but divided it mostly based on each province’s existing urban transit ridership, which favours those provinces with the largest metropolitan centres that already have extensive transit systems.

All three prairie provinces currently have even smaller percentages of urban transit ridership than of Canada’s population. As a result, federal transit funding falls short of population by $168 million for Manitoba, $325 million for Saskatchewan, and $196 million for Alberta.

Shortfall in the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund to Prairie Provinces

 

Population

Ridership

Budget

Shortfall

Millions

Manitoba

3.6%

2.5%

2.8%

0.8%

$168

Saskatchewan

3.2%

0.9%

1.6%

1.6%

$325

Alberta

11.7%

10.3%

10.7%

1.0%

$196

Prairie Total

18.5%

13.6%

15.1%

3.4%

$690

“Most other federal-provincial transfers are distributed by population. An equal per-capita allocation of transit funding to the prairie provinces would provide more than enough money to acquire the terminals, buses and other infrastructure needed to re-establish inter-city bus service,” said Weir. “The Saskatchewan government sold most of the Saskatchewan Transportation Company’s assets for $28 million, less than one-tenth of what it could garner by pushing for a fair share of federal transit funding.”

The federal government should clarify that the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund is not limited to urban transit and that provinces may use some of their allocations for inter-city transit.

In Question Period on October 2, 2017, Weir asked, “Will the Liberal government make some of its Transit Infrastructure Fund available to restore needed bus service between Saskatchewan’s towns and cities?” The Liberals provided a typically imprecise answer (video), but should reconsider this question in light of Greyhound’s withdrawal from western Canada.

VIA Rail Service for the Southern Prairies

The Conservative government of Brian Mulroney slashed VIA Rail, eliminating the southern prairie service from Winnipeg through Regina and Calgary in 1990 in favour of maintaining service to more remote communities along the northern prairie line.

“The Conservative justification for removing VIA Rail service from Regina, Calgary and the southern prairies was that other transport options were available here,” noted Weir. “The elimination of inter-city bus service undercuts that justification and increases the need for VIA Rail on the southern prairies.”

VIA Rail’s 2017 annual report (page 9) indicates that its current subsidy for longhaul travel between Toronto and Vancouver is 32 cents per passenger mile, in line with 28 cents per passenger mile across VIA’s entire network (and far below the $3 or $4 per passenger mile currently spent providing service on several more remote routes).

Given somewhat greater population density on the southern prairies than on the northern prairies, restoring service on the Winnipeg-Regina-Calgary line should not cost more than the existing service on the Winnipeg-Saskatoon-Edmonton line. The total subsidy for all longhaul service west of Toronto was $41 million in 2017. The cost of extending that service to the southern prairies would presumably be similar, and quite modest relative to the annual government funding of $350 million for VIA Rail.

“If the federal government is going to invest in inter-city transit, it only makes sense to use an existing federal Crown corporation,” said Weir. “Expanding into the southern prairies would be viable for VIA Rail and would significantly offset the loss of Greyhound bus service.”