Transit workers and advocates in Saint John are voicing their anger over the Higgs government’s refusal of much needed federal financial support for municipal transit services in New Brunswick.
President of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1182, Grant Logan, said transit workers are already taking action. On Tuesday, August 11, they will be in King’s Square, and McAllister and Lancaster Malls educating the public on the state of the service and the need for adequate funding.
“Before the pandemic, we were essential workers. How did we go from essential to just desirable? We have nowhere left to cut. It’s scary and only getting worse,” he said.
Before the pandemic, the city’s total transit budget was about $10.2 million with half of that coming from the fare box. Saint John will cut its share of transit funding by $850,000. But with the city’s $10 million deficit, Logan said that number is expected to surpass $1 million.
“Higgs isn’t being honest with what the public needs to know. The federal government knows the smaller municipalities need this money because transit is more difficult than in the big cities,” said Logan.
Advocate and former transit worker, Tom McGraw, who runs the popular Facebook page, Save Our Bus Saint John, said if New Brunswick provincial and municipal governments do not start prioritizing transit, privatization becomes a serious risk resulting in further service reduction; lesser labour standards, and the furthering of wealth consolidation.
“I’ve seen it all across North America,” he said. “I don’t know of any private systems that are working well. And there aren’t any transit systems in the world that are making money. They need subsidies. It’s infrastructure.”
The Higgs government has refused the funding stating the cost-splitting scheme required to access the funding is too costly. He later expressed his belief that New Brunswick cities are too small to justify transit spending.
Meanwhile in Kingston, Ontario, which has a similar population to Saint John and Moncton, the Ontario government announced Monday that the city will receive eight new public transit and active transportation projects worth about $47 million.
“The government is trying to attract people— you need good public transit to do that,” said McGraw. “Public transit can change the entire cityscape.”
Back in Saint John, a city amid dramatic public service cuts, the only funding announced has been for a private real estate project on its waterfront at Fundy Quay to improve its sea wall.
Saint John has been cutting various services and community funding for years prior to the pandemic in an effort to deal with provincial taxation policies which keeps the city struggling for revenue in the face of low assessments on vast Irving-owned industrial properties such as Canada’s largest oil refinery, and pulp and paper mills.
More recently it was announced the city would be closing a fire station and eliminating 24 firefighter positions.
Leader of the New Brunswick Green Party, David Coon, took to social media like many New Brunswickers to voice his opposition to the government’s decision.
“I am appalled by this lack of understanding of the realities of people relying on public transit, some of the most vulnerable in our society,” he said. “I am calling on Premier Higgs to reverse his decision to turn down the federal funding for transit for New Brunswick.”
For Logan, this is only the beginning of a fight against austerity that’s been a long time coming.
“Higgs thinks we’re going to roll over and play dead. That’s not going to happen.”
Premier Blaine Higgs and Minister of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Bill Oliver did not respond to a request for a comment on this story by press time.
Pete Johnston is a Saint John-based journalist and musician.