After enthusiastically approving plans for rapid transit and electric buses — described as transformative, exciting and even sexy — Halifax councillors recognize their next hurdle is getting the money to meet their ambitious goals from a provincial government that’s been hesitant to pay for public transit.
“I’ve always said that the key to getting more people on transit is to make it fast, frequent, reliable. In short, you’ve gotta make it sexier than taking your own car to work. This is sexy,” Deputy Mayor Lisa Blackburn said during Tuesday’s council meeting.
“Our job now is to impress upon our provincial counterparts that we need this and the only way it’s going to happen is provincial and federal money.”
The Rapid Transit Strategy outlines a plan to introduce a rapid transit system of four colour-coded, high-frequency lines within the next 10 years. On about 60% of the 50-kilometre network, buses would have their own dedicated lanes. And on the harbour, three new ferry routes: fast catamarans running downtown from Mill Cove and Larry Uteck Boulevard in Bedford and Shannon Park in Dartmouth in less time than it takes to drive.
The first electric buses could hit the roads in two or three years, and the first new bus or ferry routes could be operational in three or four.
“Implementation is going to be complex,” Halifax Transit director Dave Reage told council. “Altogether, it’s one of the largest city-building projects in HRM history.”
And none of it will happen without federal and provincial funding. Reage said his department won’t even set up the project office till there’s funding secured.
At up to $782 million all-in, the capital costs are equal to three quarters of the city’s usual budget. But it only wants to pay about 27 cents on the dollar, hoping to cash in on infrastructure funding for the rest.
No one is worried about securing funding for transit and green infrastructure like electric buses from Justin Trudeau’s federal government. But Stephen McNeil’s provincial government is a harder sell, having only recently started funding transit at all.
“I feel very confident that we can get that money,” said Coun. Waye Mason.
“But the main concern will be convincing the provincial government to be as excited about this transformative and forward-thinking project … as they are about twinning highways.”
Coun. Lorelei Nicoll, chair of council’s transportation standing committee and its representative on the Canadian Urban Transit Association, saw the timing amid council’s COVID-19 budget crunch as opportune.
“To have it come forward when we’re strapped for money and when transit has actually been declared an essential service … that in itself is strategic,” Nicoll said.
Mayor Mike Savage and chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé said the provincial government seems to have an interest in electric buses.
“It seems like the province is more interested in supporting transit if it meets the overall goals environmentally,” Savage said.
Dubé said there have been strong indications from the provincial and federal governments that this is something they’d like to consider.
“To what extent is a question mark,” he said.
The motion unanimously passed by council on Tuesday approves the Rapid Transit Strategy and the Electric Bus Proposal, and directs Dubé to submit the projects as a funding application and Savage to write a letter to the province “to stimulate discussion regarding the benefits and potential funding for these projects.”
Council also approved a related initiative on Tuesday: the Bedford Highway Functional Plan.
That plan is a higher-level proposal for the congested Bedford Highway, including an inbound bus lane from Kearney Lake Road to Sherbrooke Drive, just past Mount Saint Vincent University, plus an active transportation path, better sidewalks and a lower speed limit along the full length of the highway.
Municipal staff recommended in favour of a “balanced” rather than “transit priority” approach, which had bus lanes on both sides, to lessen the impact on vehicular and truck traffic.
The motion also directs staff to figure out how to widen the road from Seton Road, just before Sherbrooke heading inbound, to the Windsor Street Exchange to make room for bus lanes in either direction.
The preliminary cost estimate for that whole project is $40 million, and the first step is to start negotiations to widen the road by buying up land, mostly from CN Railway.