Halifax Transit has surprised advocates by tabling an uncharacteristically bold plan for regional council’s approval this week, proposing to electrify the city’s bus fleet and drastically improve the transit system over the next decade.
The Rapid Transit Strategy (large PDF) outlines a plan to introduce a bus rapid transit (BRT) system consisting of four colour-coded lines running on 10-minute or more frequent schedules from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Those buses would be in transit priority lanes on about 60% of the 50-kilometre network.
The plan also calls for three new rush hour ferry routes running downtown from Mill Cove (18 minutes), the bottom of Larry Uteck Boulevard (16 minutes) in Bedford, and Shannon Park (10 minutes) in Dartmouth. The routes would use catamaran-style vessels, “capable of operating at higher speeds while minimizing wake effects,” with capacity for 150 people.
Fares on the rapid buses and ferries would be the same as conventional transit.
All of this would be up and running by 2030.
And along with the Rapid Transit Strategy, Halifax Transit staff have presented council with a surprise second plan to electrify the entire bus fleet. That plan means buying dozens of electric buses and installing the necessary infrastructure in the Ragged Lake and Burnside transit facilities.
Having been involved with years of public consultation on the BRT plan, which was previewed earlier this year, Scott Edgar knew what to expect. But the chair of transit advocacy group It’s More Than Buses had no idea the city would pitch a plan to electrify its bus fleet.
In a Twitter thread for It’s More Than Buses, Edgar described the surprise as “Quarantine Christmas.”
The last he’d heard — from Erica Butler’s reporting in the Halifax Examiner — was that the city had turned down millions in funding to pursue electric buses, saying it wasn’t ready. Even earlier this year, council approved a plan to continue buying diesel buses.
Edgar didn’t want to speculate as to the reason for the apparent about-face by Halifax Transit, but said “it’s easy to imagine that somebody somewhere in HRM thought that that was not the best plan and that municipalities should figure out how to say yes to free money.”
While the two plans for rapid transit are technically still separate, Edgar said it makes sense to present them together because they’re both “unprecedented since amalgamation investments in public transit.”
“Halifax Transit is committing to building a high-frequency BRT network and fast ferries with lots of transit priority infrastructure,” he said. “Why not make the buses electric for that too?”
Halifax would pay 25 cents on the dollar
The price tag for the two plans is steep; at up to $782 million, it’s equal to more than three quarters of the city’s typical annual budget. But Halifax Transit believes it can secure funding from the federal and provincial governments to cover the vast majority of the cost — leaving Halifax to pay up to $210 million, or 27% of the total.
“This is a matter of saying yes to huge sums of free money,” Edgar said.
“We have the opportunity here to pay a quarter to get 75 cents from the province and the feds … That’s an incredibly good deal. It’s never going to be cheaper to build this infrastructure or at least we can’t expect that it’s ever going to be cheaper to build this infrastructure.”
Halifax’s quarter is still a significant sum, and there are also operating costs, up to an extra $22 million annually.
But there are savings that are hard to quantify. The staff report to council said the strategy will reduce capital spending on road expansion to meet increasing traffic demands as the city’s population continues to grow.
By 2031, Halifax’s regional plan estimates there will be another 69,000 people in the municipality.
“If even half of those people are driving cars, it’s going to be an absolute carmageddon,” Edgar said.
“Investing heavily in transit priority and investing heavily in transit that encourages people to take transit is sort of the only way to stop gridlock from getting worse and worse and worse over the next decade. I don’t know how to put a price on gridlock and that’s why this is hard to quantify. But I do know that everyone hates it, and it doesn’t work for anyone.”
As good as it gets
The plan as a whole is about as good as transit is going to get in Halifax, Edgar said.
“I have been surprised at how good this plan is,” Edgar said. “I don’t want to say it’s a first for me, but it might be a first for me.”
Because the buses would be mostly out of conventional traffic, they’d be able to move far more quickly across the municipality.
“It’s going to be possible to get from … Spryfield, Kearney Lake, Lacewood, Burnside, Portland Street, downtown Halifax, downtown Dartmouth to any of those other places in less than 45 minutes,” Edgar said. “That has never been the case in any transit system that HRM has had or kind of the predecessor municipalities had.”
The fast ferries were no big surprise to Edgar after the prospect of commuter rail was taken off the table.
“As soon as we found out that commuter rail was dead, we knew that something about Bedford was going to have to give. It’s just not acceptable to leave Bedford with the transit options it has now,” Edgar said.
“At that point, the harbour is kind of the only option.”
Edgar said the plan now shifts the burden for getting people out of cars and onto buses and ferries to the city’s land-use planners, who need to make sure development happens close to the transit network.
“We’re getting to the point where, when we’re talking about trying to encourage people to take the bus, the focus needs to be moving off Halifax Transit and onto the city’s land-use planners,” he said.
The big risk
The Rapid Transit Strategy was developed before COVID-19 and it shows: the staff report mentions it just four times in more than 100 pages. But it does consider the pandemic as a risk.
“Projecting the future is inherently full of uncertainty,” the report says.
“The emergence of COVID-19 is a reminder that sustained growth should not be taken for granted.”
Transit ridership is currently down more than 80% on buses, but chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé said on Monday that plexiglass barriers are being installed now to protect drivers and fare collection could begin again soon. The staff report says the start of the project is far enough off that ridership is not a concern.
“Ridership is anticipated to recover by the time the first elements of Rapid Transit service become operational in three to four years. Furthermore, projects contained within the RTS may serve as economic stimulus projects and provide access to more/new job opportunities for residents that are impacted,” the report says.
The pandemic shouldn’t slow the project in Edgar’s eyes.
“That’s what this Rapid Transit Strategy is about, it’s about planning for the post-COVID world,” he said.
Edgar and It’s More Than Buses are part of a national group advocating for the federal government to come up with $5 billion in transit funding over the next few years — with an online day of action Thursday under the hashtag #KeepTransit Moving — to help municipalities get through the pandemic.
“I don’t think that Halifax Transit should have to delay the projects that it has going right now. But the only way for them not to delay is for the feds and the province to step up,” he said.
The motion to council recommends it approve the strategy and the electric bus proposal and direct Dubé to submit both projects for federal and provincial infrastructure funding. Council meets on Tuesday afternoon following the budget committee.