Winnipeg Transit surpluses should be used to improve service, head off potential cuts: union

The union representing Winnipeg Transit workers says the city needs to make sure the service’s operating surpluses are funnelled back into improving services, and heading off potential cuts in the coming multi-year city budget.

For years, operating surpluses have piled up at Winnipeg Transit — and in many years, some of that money wasn’t spent on the city’s public transportation system.

Transit recorded surpluses in its financial statements every year from 2009 to 2018, adding up to just over $180 million.

Amalgamated Transit Union 1505 vice-president James Van Gerwen says the city should be pumping those surpluses into more buses and drivers.

“It’s our belief that if the money would have been [spent] properly over the last 10 years, we wouldn’t have had as much problems with the system we have right now,” he said.

“That would have stopped all these people from getting passed up [by full buses] or sitting out in the cold and –30 degree weather.”

James Van Gerwen, executive vice-president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, says any surpluses should be ‘put back into the system that the riders are actually paying for in the first place.’ (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg says fares alone don’t cover operating expenses, and the city actually faced a massive shortfall in Winnipeg Transit’s revenue in 2019.

“In 2019, a transfer from general revenue in the amount of $70.5 million was made to cover the shortfall based on budgeted amounts,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

“The surplus represents the difference in the actual revenues/expenses that were realized when compared to the estimated budgeted amounts, including the transfer from general revenue.”

Finance committee chair Scott Gillingham says the excess cash in the transit account is not being pulled into the city’s general revenues for spending elsewhere.

But he acknowledges tracking the surpluses and how they’re spent through the city’s financial statements isn’t an easy task.

Gillingham says the way the surpluses are reported in the city’s books should be easier to read, and he has asked city administration to make that happen.

“The goal that I have is that the information is readily available, easy to comprehend. And so if it’s compiled all into one report or … it could be a page that is included in the capital budget book, that would make it easier for everyone to see in one snapshot,” the St. James councillor said.

City finance chair Scott Gillingham says many investments have been made in improving transit from budget surpluses. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Gillingham says transit surpluses are set aside for improvements and upgrades, both immediate and those planned for coming years.

“Many investments have been made in improving transit from the retained earnings. For example, the operator safety shields that were put in, those were funded through retained earnings,” Gillingham said.

Those retained earnings will come in handy this year, he says, when the city’s transit master plan is completed and a series of recommendations to improve the service will put demands on the accumulated surpluses for funding.

“When the transit master plan ultimately comes to council for adoption, it is going to be a plan that is going to necessitate significant investment over the future years.”

Proposals raised during the city’s preliminary budget process from senior staff have included suggestions of cutting routes and reducing the number of drivers.

The ATU says any surpluses accumulated should be used before cuts are contemplated.

“Sixty per cent of the budget comes out of the fares that the bus riders pay,” Van Gerwen said.

“We would like to see that money put back into the system that the riders are actually paying for in the first place, to improve a system that gives them a much more reliable system on the roads.”

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