There are lots of words and a little money for public transit in the provincial budget released Thursday, and despite a lack of hard figures around commitments to bus electrification and new ferry routes, Halifax’s mayor is encouraged by the government’s direction.
Premier Iain Rankin’s first budget plans for $12.4 billion in spending for fiscal 2021-2022 with a deficit of $584.9 million, down from the forecast 2020-2021 deficit of $705.5 million.
In the government’s business plan, it writes:
Significant electrification of public transit including new electric buses for transit authorities, new hybrid ferries, a new ferry route from Bedford Basin to downtown Halifax, and enhanced active transportation networks around the province will be explored.
What does that mean for Halifax’s ability to move those projects forward? It’s hard to say.
The municipality wants to electrify its bus fleet in the next decade, with plans to spend $900,000 in 2021-2022, according to Halifax’s draft capital plan, to start retrofitting one of the transit depots for charging.
The Halifax Examiner asked around to multiple provincial departments about whether there’s money in the budget for bus electrification, and eventually got a response from Department of Energy and Mines spokesperson Michael Noonan:
Work is actively underway with municipalities to develop proposals for electrification projects under the Transit Stream of the Federal Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP). Provincial departments including Infrastructure and Housing, Energy and Mines, and Municipal Affairs, are working with the HRM and CBRM municipalities. Projects proposals for Infrastructure Canada consideration will include HRM and CBRM electrification.
Project details are not available at this stage. Any projects that receive funding approval will be announced jointly with the Federal Government, in due course.
Likewise, there are no dollar figures attached to the province’s commitment to help out with the Mill Cove ferry, contemplated in the municipality’s Rapid Transit Strategy, passed last year, as a way to ease congestion on the Bedford Highway now that the commuter rail dream is dead. The ferry project is expected to cost $134.5 million, according to the draft capital plan. The municipality plans to spend $2.9 million in 2021-2022 on engineering and terminal and vessel design studies.
There is some real money in the provincial budget, too: $7.6 million for active transportation and transit. Transportation and Active Transit Department officials said $7.2 million of that money is for transit, and municipalities and community groups can apply for the funding. The remaining $400,000 is for the province’s Connect2 program.
In an interview Thursday, Mayor Mike Savage said he’s confident the government will support the municipality’s transit plans.
“We passed our motion at council of what we’re going to need to electrify the fleet, to move to bus and ferry rapid transit. Those are big asks, and everything we’ve seen from the province is supportive of that, that they’re prepared to play their role,” Savage said.
“We obviously need the feds. You can’t finalize this stuff until we know that the federal funding is there.”
Savage said he takes the commitment in the business plan seriously.
“They put a stake in the ground on it,” he said.
“I think both at the political level and the bureaucratic level, there’s a real commitment to electrifying transit fleets and to look at new ways of better moving people, which includes the new ferry into Bedford.”
Aside from the transit commitments, there’s not much else in the budget for the municipality. Notably, there’s no COVID-19 relief, but Savage isn’t concerned about that, and notes the province helped with restart funding and a loan last year
“I like what I’m seeing from the direction of this government, not just what’s in the budget, but they’re acting on requests that we’ve had for some time,” Savage said.
The government is looking back at the long list of legislative requests from the municipality, Savage said, including accessible taxi subsidies and inclusionary zoning.
“Not everything’s in the budget, but the premier has been accessible, the minister of municipal affairs has been ultra-accessible to municipalities, and we appreciate that,” Savage said.
Savage was also happy to see the government increase income assistance rates.
“I think that’s fairly significant,” he said. “I know it’s nowhere near enough for people who are trying to get by, but when you consider where it started I think that that’s very positive. I hope it continues.”