Deep COVID-19 cuts expected in Winnipeg budget by bus union don’t materialize

Winnipeg’s bus driver union was surprised at the lack of deep cuts to the active transport coffer when the city tabled its preliminary 2021 civic budget Friday after heavy hits to transit revenue amid a COVID-19 induced drop in riders — and fares.

“We weren’t prepared to hear what we heard yesterday. We were prepared for the worst,” said Romeo Ignacio, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505’s president.

“Somehow it wasn’t as bad as we thought.”

At the height of the novel coronavirus pandemic’s first wave this spring, Winnipeg Transit saw a 72 per cent drop in ridership.

The transit authority relies heavily on fares as a source of revenue — this year though, the net transit shortfall after creative budgeting was $28.5 million.

Read more: Bus driver layoffs announced during City of Winnipeg coronavirus update

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However, the city will offset transit’s losses with other levels of government’s funds.

The city also plans to continue a six per cent reduction in service to the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg to help cut transit costs while post-secondary students continue to learn from home.

The biggest chunk of help comes from the federal government.

The COVID-19 losses and costs will be offset with $74.5 million from Ottawa’s Federal Safe Restart program.

That cash is split — $42.2 million for COVID-19 costs and $32.3 million to cover transit’s losses.

Transit advocates, meanwhile, want City of Winnipeg politicos to think more about the overall intention of a public transit system, instead of raw costs.

“Clearly every single Canadian city is facing struggles with transit right now — what’s really been exposed at Winnipeg Transit is just how reliant they are on fares, whereas in other cities the feds have clearly come in and picked up the slack, which the province hasn’t here,” said Zach Fleisher, a former staffer at the ATU local and current public transit advocate.

It comes down to what the city values transit for, Fleisher said.

“Do they see transit as an option for people who don’t own or can’t afford fares, or are they trying to be competitive with drivers?”

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