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Mayors call for another round of emergency federal funding to help cover transit shortfalls

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A Halifax Transit bus arrives at a terminal in Dartmouth, N.S., on July 17, 2019.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Canada’s mayors are calling on the federal government to urgently approve a new round of emergency funding for local transit systems, as ridership levels have yet to return to prepandemic levels.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, who chairs the Big City Mayors’ Caucus for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said in an interview that cities need to see some kind of a commitment by the end of December given that this is when municipalities are finalizing their 2022 budgets.

Mr. Savage noted that unlike Ottawa and the provinces, municipal governments are not allowed to run deficits and continued low transit ridership is creating big budget shortfalls.

“Cities across the country are preparing their budgets now … and that hole in the operating funding for transit is pretty significant,” he said. “If we don’t get some support for that, then we’re going to have to look at what we’re going to do with transit and it may impact service for our residents.”

Mayors are looking for some form of a repeat of what occurred in 2020, when the federal government announced a $19-billion Safe Restart Agreement transfer to the provinces. Premiers then used some of that money for municipalities to cover budget shortfalls in areas like transit.

Cities across the country are attempting to estimate their transit ridership levels for 2022 and are dealing with a high level of uncertainty related to the degree to which workers are prepared to return to their prepandemic commuting patterns.

Mr. Savage said transit ridership in Halifax is around 60 to 65 per cent of prepandemic levels and the city’s budget assumes ridership will increase to around 80 per cent in 2022.

On Thursday, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities released a policy document to all federal members of Parliament outlining what cities are looking for in areas such as transit, housing and climate change adaptation. The document is called Partners for Canada’s Recovery: Municipal Solutions for Canada’s 44th Parliament.

Some of the requests outlined in the document – in addition to emergency support for transit – include adding $5.5-billion over five years to the Rapid Housing Initiative to create at least 18,000 “deeply affordable” homes, doubling the annual federal transfer to municipalities to $4.6-billion a year and at least $1-billion a year to fund disaster mitigation and climate resilience projects to protect against fires, drought and floods.

The federal government’s Throne Speech, released Tuesday, included general pledges to fund public transit and affordable housing, but did not outline specific measures.

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