By Joseph Kornelsen

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on December 21, 2015.

The chickens are finally coming home to roost at city hall. The new council is coming to terms with the catastrophic fiscal shape we’re in.

Reading through the introduction to Let’s Talk Winnipeg, the city’s online public consultation, there’s a clear thread of panic running through the exhortations to citizens to contribute ideas for next year’s budget.

We’re being asked to imagine our city as vibrant and forward-thinking. One important element of a forward-thinking city is good public transit, and this city is struggling on that file.

Last September, in response to transit service reductions across the city, Mayor Brian Bowman said “the service level expectations need to be more realistic… the scheduling needs to be more realistic to the resources we have.”

Just a year after making a campaign pledge to build five rapid transit lines by 2030, the mayor admitted we barely have the resources to run our existing system — one of the most underfunded transit operations among Canada’s major cities. If the city insists on continuing to build rapid transit corridors but doesn’t believe we have the resources to operate them, then we’re going to be waiting another generation to have decent public transit.

Rapid transit is off to a bad start in this city. Phase 1 of the southwest corridor was built, with little consideration of transit riders’ basic needs, through the Fort Rouge Yards, undeveloped land that was promised for transit-oriented development. Building such development was an important selling point when Phase 1 was pitched to the public. However, according to the development plan for the Fort Rouge Yards, “it is not likely the Fort Rouge station would attract enough support for retail businesses to succeed.”

By not including retail, this development does not meet Winnipeg’s own definition of it. The route for Phase 2 is worse. It will move bus routes even further from destinations along Pembina Highway.

Additionally, we’re not willing to spend the money necessary to operate the kind of excellent transit networks seen in other cities.

Edmonton Transit has an operating budget of $330 million, and Ottawa, the city we often look to as our utopian rapid transit future, has an operating budget of more than $400 million. Winnipeg Transit’s operating budget is $175 million.

But it gets worse. Both Ottawa and Edmonton’s annual municipal contributions to transit operations are over $200 million. Winnipeg contributes $47 million. That’s it. Even with the provincial contribution, transit gets only $88 million.

If the city is in as bad shape as they say, then we need to recognize we don’t have the political will or financial ability to effectively run a rapid transit network. Other cities have high ridership because they’re willing to front the costs of running an effective transit network. We don’t even contribute a quarter of what Ottawa or Edmonton contribute to their transit networks.

Luckily, we have another option: we can invest in a frequent transit network with more buses running evenings and weekends. This can be done incrementally and can create vastly better transit for Winnipeggers more quickly.

Research shows frequent service has the largest effect on ridership because it makes transit competitive with the private vehicle. When transit is frequent, it means a bus will be at your stop ready to go any time — just like a car.

Imagine a transit network that makes it convenient to participate in recreational activities or run errands on Sundays and evenings. Imagine a transit network that operates after the bars close.

Mayor and council voted to increase property taxes in order to collect an additional $20 million annually for the southwest corridor. That amount equals 45 per cent of Winnipeg’s contribution to Winnipeg Transit’s operating budget and would make a huge difference if allocated to bus frequency. It would dramatically increase the number of buses on the street, reduce overcrowding and shorten waits at transfer points. Along with provincial support through the 50-50 transit funding agreement, the total increase in funding would be $40 million.

In a city where the administration is already saying we don’t have enough money, we need to urgently reconsider how we’re spending that $20 million.

Investing in a higher-frequency network is the single best way to invest in transit, and if we want to be a vibrant, forward-thinking city, we need to make that investment in the 2016 budget..

Put rapid transit cash to better use