A regional councillor wants staff to look into options to make Halifax Transit safer for users and employees amid an alleged spike in incidents.
Coun. Tony Mancini brought a motion to council’s Transportation Standing Committee’s virtual meeting on Thursday calling for a staff report “that outlines opportunities and challenges related to public safety in the Halifax Transit system and options to mitigate these challenges.”
Mancini said he’s been getting reports from residents and transit staff, particularly about the transit terminals.
“We have a lot of folks that are using terminals as a place to get out of the weather, utilize our Wi-Fi, use the washroom. There’s some behaviour that’s not appropriate behaviour. In no way am I suggesting that anybody that is homeless or living rough, that they’re all folks that are in this category, but those are some of the folks that we’re hearing from staff and riders,” Mancini said.
“Our transit staff are under pressure and under stress. So are many of our riders, right? I mean, the pandemic has hit everybody. And so folks are a little more short with one another, and we’ve probably seen an increase in conflict.”
Mancini suggested HRM could use the Protection of Property Act to ban people from terminals and buses.
“I understand there’s some issues of applying that to our buses and our ferries. So is it time with this motion to take a look at that again, to add some more teeth to that? Does transit need its own street navigators? Because I hear from transit supervisors that are concerned, and it’s not just about enforcement for them, they want to be able to help people that are in need,” he said.
Halifax Transit doesn’t have its own security or peace officers, with supervisors responding to calls from drivers. Mancini said those supervisors may need more tools, training, skills, resources, and power, and he floated the idea of bringing in Halifax Regional Police to help.
“Are we able to engage with HRP and increase patrols at terminals? Can we have HRP riding some of our most busiest bus routes? Other cities have transit police,” Mancini said.
“And don’t get excited, folks on Twitter, I’m not suggesting we have transit police here in HRM. But other cities have ways of dealing with these types of issues. Is there a variation of that, by having increased patrols?”
Coun. Becky Kent said she’s been hearing the same concerns this summer. She said it’s encouraging that drivers and supervisors want to be part of the solution.
“I think this is a really positive step forward. I think it’s needed,” she said.
Coun. Waye Mason, chair of the committee, agreed supervisors need to be empowered, or Halifax Transit may need to consider creating a new role for public safety.
“I remember there were times when I was in high school in Dartmouth that you didn’t want to take transit after dark. It was scary, right? And we don’t want to go back to that,” he said.
“We need the service that we’re investing so much time in and so many people count on to be and to be felt to be safe by people at all times.”
Mancini said he hopes Halifax Transit can bring back a report quickly to at least get started on improving public safety.
“We need to make sure transit like everything in HRM is safe for not only our citizens but our employees,” he said.
“I’m not suggesting that it’s not safe to go on a bus or on the ferry, but we’ve seen an increase from not that long ago and maybe prior to the pandemic.”
Dave Reage, executive director of Halifax Transit, said he didn’t want to commit to timing, but said he may be able to bring something back quickly. He said there’s a new director of transit operations, Phil Herritt, returning to Halifax Transit from Edmonton, where they have transit cops.
“He’s got a lot of experience in this area, which will certainly help you know, come to some of the conclusions in terms of where we need to go,” Reage said.
No quick fix for staffing issues, says Reage
Meanwhile, understaffing at Halifax Transit has reached a crisis level.
As people who rely on the service well know, buses and ferries have been cancelled across the municipality for more than a month now often with little warning for would-be passengers. Following a presentation on Halifax Transit’s key performance indicators on Thursday, Reage said it’s not getting better any time soon.
Halifax Transit has postponed route changes planned for November (detailed here) because it’s at least 40 drivers short.
“We’ve reduced back pretty much all the service we can without going in to completely rewrite the schedule, which is a very major endeavour. And of course, we’ve deferred the planned service improvements for November, which was obviously a very difficult decision,” Reage said.
“But with the staffing situation, we simply didn’t have a choice. We had to push that back.”
The service saw a “significant increase in retirements” during the pandemic.
“I think like many organizations we heard about the grey wave coming,” Reage said.
“Well, it actually crashed on us, and that’s what’s happening. A lot of people that were retirement eligible, but otherwise wouldn’t have retired, decided to retire during the pandemic.”
Reage said the labour market is “incredibly challenging,” but Halifax Transit is working to recruit people “that maybe could have never seen themselves in an occupation like this.”
But it will take time to get back to full staffing, Reage said. The number of people leaving looks to have peaked, Reage said, and there are more people applying, but training takes seven weeks.
“I don’t have an answer today in terms of when will we be back to full staffing. I mean, it took us a little while to get into the situation and it will certainly take us a little longer to get out,” he said.
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 508, the union representing transit operators, has been without a contract for almost a year. It’s unclear where negotiations stand.