Editorial: Raising prices shouldn’t be only option when making changes to transit

We don’t know what, if anything, came or will come of the City of Thompson meeting on public transit held at the Thompson Regional Community Centre (TRCC) April 9, as this newspaper will have been sent to the printers hours before it gets underway, but hopefully there will be more inventive suggestions than simply to a) shut it down or b) keep it going exactly as it is, only with fares that are twice as much and no more monthly bus passes.

Given that the city budget last year was about $30 million, the cost of providing transit isn’t a major line item overall, accounting for about 1.7 per cent of the total budget if we estimate the cost to the city at about $500,000 per year (which is all this newspaper can do right now, since actual costs for 2018 or since transit resumed in February after its three-and-a-half month hiatus have not yet been provided to us). The total cost wasn’t so much the reasoning behind the resolution (tabled by council until after the public meeting) that would see fares go up from $2 to $4 for adults and from $1.50 to $3 for students, Coun. Jeff Fountain said in a March 27 letter to the editor. It was more about the proportion, since more than 85 per cent of the costs of transit are borne by taxpayers, rather than the riders themselves.

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But is expecting riders to pay more of the costs a better solution than somehow trying to reduce the cost overall by adjusting schedules to align with the busiest times, for instance, rather than just having a bus drive its route empty, wasting gas and the wages being paid to the drivers for absolutely no purpose? Perhaps the city will have come to the April 9 meeting with actual data on ridership and peak times and potential solutions as well as how the proportion of the cost that the city bears to provide transit services in Thompson compares with the proportion in other similarly sized cities with similar transit schedules and equipment. On the other hand, perhaps they won’t have, and will be expecting citizens to provide their own solutions without being armed with all of the facts. By the time this editorial is in print, some of you reading will probably know the answer to that.

The question of what the right proportion of user fees versus taxpayer funding when it comes to transit could be extended to other city services. Take, for example, the city’s recreation budget for 2018. The department eats up about 12 per cent of the total budget of $31.5 million while recreation revenues were projected to bring in about $780,000 – essentially 20 per cent of the total cost. Is it reasonable to pay 80 per cent of the costs of recreation but not of transit? Keep in mind of course that, given the fact that the Norplex Pool was allowed to deteriorate to the point that it became a financial black hole as well as a safety concern, there’s a pretty good argument that perhaps the recreation budget should have been higher to include enough money to take care of necessary repairs and maintenance.  While we don’t have the costs of operating the TRCC fitness centre here, it is quite possible that user revenues only contribute a similar proportion of the costs, and in this case there are at least two other facilities in Thompson where people could go to use similar fitness equipment.

The point is not that the recreation department or the fitness centre are not worthwhile uses of city money but that when you start cherry-picking departments that need to become sustainable, it is only logical to ask if that same standard is being applied elsewhere. Also, since life in Thompson is not necessarily cheap as it is, perhaps it is best to start looking at how the transit system can be run more efficiently first before jacking up prices and hoping, likely in vain, that users will continue to make the same number of trips that they did when it was cheaper.

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