The March 18 decision by council to table a resolution to double adult bus fares, increase student and senior fares by 66 per cent and get rid of monthly bus passes was a good move, giving them the time to deliberately consider the ramifications of implementing such a drastic increase before voting on it sometime after a public meeting on transit April 9.
The resolution seems a lot like a way to doom the transit service to fail and then get rid of it without actually being up front and honest enough to say, “We can’t afford this and we’ve made the decision to shut it down.”
Of course, it could just be an honest attempt to make the system more sustainable. It just isn’t an approach that is likely to work.
Making users who wish to take the bus across town, which is a 10- or 15-minute ride at best, pay more than they do in Winnipeg is definitely not going to make more people ride the bus. In fact, it is likely to do the opposite, since the economic theory of elasticity of demand generally holds that, apart from certain products like baby formula or perhaps gasoline, the higher the price of a given good or service gets, the fewer people are going to want to buy it. So, though the purpose of this move may be to make bus riders pay a greater share of the costs of providing them rides, it may actually backfire and result in the per-ride subsidization from taxpayers getting larger rather than smaller.
In 2017, about 53,000 people rode Thompson transit buses. Collectively, they paid about $95,000 in bus fares and monthly pas purchases. The cost to run the system was about $425,000. So if you take away the fares, it cost taxpayers about $6.25 for every ride. Obviously, if the same number of people keep riding the bus after the proposed price increase, more revenue will come in and the cost to the city for each ride should drop. But, for example, if the number of riders drops by 25 per cent, from 53,000 to about 40,000, and everything else remains the same, the city could bring in as much as $160,000 in revenue. That would lower the price to the city of providing the services, but based on 2017 numbers, it would mean that it would now be paying about $6.62 for every ride taken by the new lower number of passengers, more than it was paying per passenger with lower fares.
What’s more, part of the role of government is to provide services that can’t be profitably provided by the private sector, which is why citizens consent to taxation. If the city can’t provide bus service for its lower-income citizens, the ones who cannot afford a car, where does it find the money to provide other “non-essential” services? How much, in total, does it cost to run the recreation department and all its facilities that remain operational? What percentage of the costs of running the arena do the ice rental rates cover? Should those users be expecting a 66 to 100 per cent rate hike next year?
The current council didn’t campaign, if memory proves correct, on coming in and cutting services in an attempt to balance the budget. But so far, between having been the ones to preside over the closure of the Norplex Pool, albeit due to problems that long preceded their taking grip on the reins of power, and now looking like they could be the ones who, one way or another, kill off city transit, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for any of the community’s citizens to question, when municipal politicians tell them about how bright the future looks for Thompson, whether they actually have any faith in those words, or are just saying them because that’s what politicians do.
Being the person in charge sometimes means making hard decisions, as was the case with the permanent shutdown of the Norplex Pool. People were shocked and upset by it but they understood why it was done once the facts behind the decisions were explained to them. Perhaps if the city were to offer up that same transparency when it comes to city transit, people would be just as understanding. But when offered the chance recently at a Chamber of Commerce presentation to disclose how much money Maple Bus Lines is receiving for providing bus service for a period of five months, city manager Anthony McInnis said that number was confidential right now. Does the ad hoc committee even have any idea what bus riders think of their drastic fare increase or what affect it will have on them deciding to ride the bus or not? Presumably they will use the time that tabling the resolution gave them to find that out and decide if this is the route they want to take.