Councillors have opted not to pursue cuts to Halifax Transit or increase fares, but they are looking into adding security to bus terminals.

Halifax Transit executive director Dave Reage presented his proposed $38.6-million 2023-2024 operating budget to council’s budget committee on Wednesday. It’s a 12.1% increase over last year’s budget, mostly attributed to a $7.6-million increase in fuel costs.

Reage also included a list of options for councillors to save money, including two cuts to service and a 25-cent fare increase.

Coun. David Hendsbee moved to add the fare increase, which would bring in an extra $848,000 in revenue next year, to the budget adjustment list for final debate later this month.

“I think it’s well overdue and I think the cost of fuel itself would rationalize the need for it,” Hendsbee said.

During public participation Wednesday morning, Ben Hammer, transportation officer at the Ecology Action Centre, told councillors he could support a fare increase.

“I welcome the proposed fare increase as a way to fund fair and competitive compensation for bus and ferry operators so long as there are enough passes available and accessible for people who need them,” Hammer said.

But none of Hendsbee’s colleagues seconded the motion, meaning councillors didn’t even debate the idea.

No new cuts up for consideration

Coun. Pam Lovelace moved to add “a reduction of $1,650,000 for cancelling the final network changes of the Moving Forward Together Plan” to the budget adjustment list.

Those route changes, detailed here, were supposed to be implemented in November 2022. They include tweaks to the flagship Route 1, and changes to Route 10, and more.

Halifax Transit delayed the changes last fall because of its staffing issues. Reage said he was optimistic they could be implemented in November 2023, but there’s a risk staffing shortages could derail the changes again.

The cut contemplated in Lovelace’s motion wouldn’t delay the changes, but cancel them altogether.

“I think it is a good time for us to talk about this, whether or not we want to put this aside and think about what is the future, what is the future vision for transit in HRM,” Lovelace said.

Deputy Mayor Sam Austin argued council couldn’t cancel the changes because they’d be proving critics right. Some argued at the time, back in 2016, that HRM should implement all the changes at once, rather than over time.

“We’re basically going back to everyone who criticized us for the long period of Moving Forward and saying, ‘Yeah you were right, you really can’t trust us to do what we say we’re going to do with our plans,'” Austin said.

Lovelace’s motion failed 12-3, with only Hendsbee and Coun. Trish Purdy voting with her.

Also on the list of budget options was a $4.1-million service cut. Reage told councillors that cut would make permanent the reductions that went into effect this week. Those include the total cancellation of Routes 41, 178, and 179, and reduced schedules for routes like the 29, 57, and 68.

No councillor moved to debate that cut. The only motion councillors did pass would add to the budget.

It’s unclear when Halifax Transit will resume service on those routes as its problems with staffing shortages are far from over.

The committee heard from Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 508 president Shane O’Leary on those staffing issues Wednesday morning. He told councillors transit operators are burnt out, underpaid, and unappreciated.

“Our city needs transit and transit is not being treated like it’s needed,” O’Leary told councillors.

O’Leary said the starting wage for operators is less than the living wage for HRM by $2.

“Our members cannot afford to live at transit. That’s why they’re leaving,” he said.

ATU 508’s contract expired in August 2021, and the union is in negotiations with HRM for a new agreement.

Supervisors would monitor terminals, routes

Coun. Tony Mancini moved to add $379,000 to the budget adjustment list for four new transit supervisors to act as security at bus terminals.

Mancini has raised the issue before, requesting a staff report last summer “that outlines opportunities and challenges related to public safety in the Halifax Transit system and options to mitigate these challenges.” He cited a growing number of reports from residents and transit staff of incidents, mostly at terminals.

The option over budget before council appears to be a response to Mancini’s motion. It gave councillors options to hire between three and six new supervisors.

“Should the Budget Committee choose to fund 4 (four) Service Supervisors, a 12-hour presence would be provided to the Dartmouth Bridge and Lacewood terminal 7 days a week,” staff wrote in a briefing note to the committee.

“They’d be working out of the security office there engaging with our staff, engaging with the public that are in in those areas, building those relationships and hopefully deescalating some situations as we build those relationships,” Philip Herritt, director of transit operations, told councillors.

Lovelace wasn’t convinced HRM has enough data to accurately tackle the problem.

“While I appreciate that you have recognized that there are safety issues, one of the things I’m missing is information on the incidents and the severity of those incidents,” Lovelace said.

“We don’t know where they’re occurring, how they’re occurring, who’s being impacted, if it’s passenger against passenger, passenger against transit operator, you see where I’m going with this.”

Reage said they have data, but it’s not refined enough to share. He pledged to develop more data for periodic reports to council.

“We hear it from our employees, we can see that there are repeated incidents at facilities and where those are,” Reage said.

Mancini’s motion passed unanimously. That addition to the budget will be up for debate during the budget adjustment list meeting at end of March.

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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