On Wednesday, Halifax council will discuss its “parking lot” budget items — about $2.6 million in additional costs or programs that city staff have not included in department budgets, but that councillors felt should be considered for the 2018-19 budget.

Two items on the list will impact the future of the publicly funded transit network, though in very different ways.

One of the smaller items on the budget wish list is a simple funding increase of $60,000 for the Rural Transit Funding Program (RTFP), which helps fund community-owned rural rideshares like Musgo Rider and Bayrides. Both already provide pre-booked or dial-a-ride door-to-door services in rural communities, where neither private taxis nor fixed schedule transit make much sense.

Forget about the 402, rideshares can bring better service to rural communities

I’ve reported on rural rideshares before, particularly in the context of the demise of the 402 Sambro bus, which was part of Halifax Transit’s attempts to rationalize its route system. With community efforts underway to start a rideshare program to serve Sambro, it will be more important than ever to increase funding for the RTFP, which last year saw a 16 per cent cut in its per kilometre subsidy, from $0.50 per kilometre to $0.42. That cut saved about $16,800 for HRM, a pittance in municipal budget terms, but a real financial pinch for the tiny organizations we rely on to run rural rideshares.

The proposed budget already includes a small bump to restore the $0.50 per km subsidy, but if a new Sambro service comes online this year, the rate may end up going right back down to compensate.

What the RTFP really needs is to be able to guarantee consistent funding for these organizations that will grow as they grow, and for the city to absorb annual adjustments instead of foisting losses on community organizations run by volunteer boards.

All-day frequency on the Halifax-Dartmouth ferry?

Dartmouth councillor Sam Austin

The other big transportation item on the budget adjustment list is a more substantial ask, and will also likely have a more substantial affect on the future of the transit system. That is the continuation of increased frequency on the most reliable, lowest cost per rider service, the Halifax-Dartmouth ferry.

Remember the Big Lift? The astronomically expensive Macdonald bridge deck replacement caused a lot of inconvenience over roughly two years, but there was a silver lining. To help compensate for evening and weekend bridge closures, Halifax Transit increased ferry service during evenings and weekends, and people actually used it.

Weekday ridership went up by 39 per cent in 2016-17 as compared to 2014-15, pre-Big Lift. And on Sundays, the difference was even more dramatic, with an average annual 121 per cent increase between the same two periods. Some months, like February 2017, saw a five-fold increase in riders, while others, like July 2017, saw a more modest, yet still significant 54 per cent increase.

It’s those increases in ridership that Dartmouth councillor Sam Austin is hoping the city can hang on to. Realistically, Austin expects that with a fully functional Macdonald Bridge, some riders will revert back to buses or cars.

“We’re not going to hold on to the entire increase,” says Austin. But he’s convinced that as long as “we don’t mess up the service” some of those who switched to the ferry will stick with it, despite the bridge being open.

That’s why Austin has been arguing since last summer to keep the Big Lift bump. He got his wish, in part, last year when council agreed to keep the extra ferry run, but move them from the evening to during the day, when demand is actually higher. But the measure was only approved for a trial period.

Right now, until at least May 2018, the ferry is running every 15 minutes from 7am to 8pm during the week, and every 30 minutes on Sundays from 6:30am to 11:30pm. And unless council decides to fund the continuation of this service, it will revert back to intermittent 15- and 30-minute service during the weekdays, and Sunday service that only runs from 11am to 6pm.

It’s not just Austin on the pro-ferry front. Both downtown Dartmouth and Halifax business commissions have come out strongly in favour (see their online petition here), as have transit advocacy group It’s More Than Buses.

This morning, @Dartmouth_Tim and I will be speaking at @hfxgov Council, in support of maintaining the current ferry schedule. #handsacrosstheharbour @DowntownHalifax @DT_Dartmouth pic.twitter.com/wO6LZjGZRD

— paul mackinnon (@downtownpaul) March 7, 2018

“It is essentially our higher order transit,” Austin says of the ferry. “It is cost effective. It is always on time. It’s almost never cancelled. You have like one day a year where you’ll have a really, really bad storm where they might pull it off, but it’s never caught in traffic. It’s totally reliable.

“This is everything that we say we want to build with the Integrated Mobility Plan,” he continues. “Well, it already exists in Dartmouth.”

And although a ferry system is capital intensive, the current ferry service has Halifax Transit’s lowest operating cost per passenger, according to its 2016/17 year end report.

But ferry service is not quite as scalable as bus service. Adding an extra run on a bus route might require one extra driver, but adding extra ferry service requires an extra four-person crew. The costs to cover the increases to both weekday daytime and all-day Sunday service are about $550,000 (anywhere from $1.88 to $2.17 on the average HRM tax bill, depending on which page of staff’s report you read.)

Increased taxes or spending from savings?

The big question is, will council agree to pay for it?

“We are heading for a showdown between those who are really not wanting to increase the tax rate and those that are wanting to fund things on the options list,“ says Austin. And maintaining the ferry schedule is the most expensive option on that list.

But Austin thinks that Halifax’s projected $12 million surplus might help in that regard. He is going to suggest that the city pay less of its annual operating budget into capital projects this year, instead using some of that $12 million savings to cover the capital budget. This would in turn free up room in the operating budget to accommodate council’s wish list.

City staff’s report says there is no financial risk with this measure, though it warns that many of the programs are multi-year, and so funding them out of our savings this year could still mean a tax increase would be needed to continue them in 2019/20.

This will be Austin’s second year making the case for keeping the Big Lift ferry service bump, and he’s hoping it will be his last. “I’m hoping that if the ridership’s there, that transit just says you know what, we’re building the ferry into our regular budget,” says Austin. “So that I don’t have to do this groundhog day type thing of, okay, another year of trying to keep the hours on the ferry. At a certain point, come on guys, it just makes sense to keep it.”

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