The revelation last Monday that Saint John Transit had spiraled into an unexpected deficit of $400-$800k for the year knocked Saint John Common Council on its collective ass. Council, and in particular the Mayor, reacted angrily to the news with public statements that framed Transit management as incompetent or irresponsible, and it seems likely that heads are going to roll.

But Friday’s emergency meeting between Saint John Common Council and Saint John Transit revealed some surprising and damning things about both Transit and Council and the shifting responsibilities between them. While the Mayor continued to frame the discussion around the obligation for Transit to live within its means (a.k.a. budget), it became clear to anyone reading between the lines on Friday that Transit’s current predicament is the result of many years of murky governance and ineffective decision-making by both the Transit Commission and successive Common Councils. Including the current Council.

Unfortunately this Council meeting wasn’t televised. Audio recorded on an audience member’s phone has been posted on the Internet, link/player below. (WARNING: Extremely boring to anyone other than transit policy geeks and C-SPAN subscribers.)


Basic communications and business processes between Transit and Council are broken.

Transit assumed that Common Council was aware of Transit’s ballooning deficit because the City’s financial department actually does Transit’s books. That bears repeating: the City does Transit’s accounting. And this isn’t the first time Transit has run a deficit. For years now, the City has been accommodating these budget deficits without any fanfare or objection. What’s changed this year isn’t Transit’s management or policies, but Council’s new distaste for deficits and the risks associated with Transit. Clearly, that change either wasn’t communicated to the Transit Commission or wasn’t fully appreciated by them.


To put it another way, if Mom and Dad give you a weekly allowance, and you ask Dad for a little more money this week, wouldn’t you assume Dad would tell Mom about it? And if you ask Dad for a little extra money for dozens of weeks in a row, isn’t it even safer to assume that Mom knows? Imagine how surprised you’d be if Mom suddenly went ballistic on you over the extra cash Dad’s been slipping your way for months.


Governance and the independence of the Transit Commission

The Mayor made a very forceful statement to Transit on Friday regarding its independence, stressing that it’s the Transit Commission’s responsibility to make transit decisions, not Council. The Mayor wanted to be sure Transit heard this message, but it seems his fellow councillors did not. Immediately after the Mayor spoke, other councillors began asking questions in ways that were clearly intended to influence transit policy. Bill Farren had issues with bus routes to Grand Bay Westfield, and the age of the fleet. Gerry Lowe wanted Transit to get into the tourism coach business. Greg Norton was interested in switching to natural gas fuel. And John MacKenzie proposed fare increases.


The current Council is playing fast and loose with its governance relationship with Transit. Transit is not independent from Council, no matter how loudly that falsehood is declared. Operational subsidies are decided by Council, and Transit’s access to other funding is predicated on their relationship with the City. Capital decisions are brought before Council. The Transit Commission does not appoint its own commissioners — that’s managed by Council’s nominating committee, with appointments approved by Council. Councillors themselves routinely serve on the Commission. (At the moment, Councillor Donna Reardon is in that unenviable position.) Several senior City administrators also serve as ex officio members of the Commission. Expecting Transit to function independently and take full responsibility for policy decisions, while its very existence is dictated by the City, is like telling your kid you trust them to roam the city by themselves, as long as you can tag along and tell them exactly where to go and what to do. At the end of the day, Council is responsible for this governance model and everything that comes from it.


Right now, Council clearly doesn’t want to bear any risk or responsibility associated with Transit’s challenges. It’s also clear that many of them still want influence over Transit policies. They can’t have it both ways.



Responsibility for the past and the concept of “This Council”

Friday’s meeting featured a number of references to ‘this Council’ (as opposed to previous Councils), and this Council’s intolerance for the ‘culture of dependence on the City’. The current councillors like to reinforce the idea that they’re a different breed from past Councils — ironically, just as every past Council has done.

From a governance perspective, however, Council is Council. The current councillors own the mistakes, failures and precedents of past Councils just as much as they credit themselves for the successes of those past Councils (for example, clean drinking water, harbour cleanup, pension reform … all initiatives launched by previous Councils). Council doesn’t get to disavow its past decisions and practices, even if the faces around the horseshoe change.


When it comes to Transit, Council should take responsibility for past policies, governance practices and precedents, even the politically inconvenient ones. It isn’t fair to rake Transit over the coals for doing what Transit has always done, and what past Councils have always enabled. Instead, Council should put its own house in order with respect to transit policy and governance — particularly since some councillors, and even the Mayor, were elected on transit-positive platforms.


Transit always operates at a deficit

Public transit systems operate with deficits. Fare revenues offset but cannot fully cover operating costs. This is a simple fact of publicly run mass transit.

Bus emptyassumptions

Thus, the key question in Saint John’s case should not be whether Saint John Transit runs a deficit, but how large that deficit needs to be to provide a level of service acceptable to citizens. To determine service goals, Council needs to decide what it wants the transit service to be: an option of last resort, to serve those in the community who cannot afford cars; a service for the convenience of commuters; a transit network that serves only the densest areas of the City at minimal loss; or, an effective essential public service that is an attractive transportation alternative to all residents. So far, Council hasn’t been willing to own that decision, yet hasn’t empowered the Transit Commission to make the decision either.



A second key question is how risk should be managed. Due to changing operating costs (for example, fuel) and uncertain fare revenue, the risk of deficit is inescapable — unless you’re willing to gut your transit service. The current crisis arose because budgets had been reduced without reducing service. If Council now wants Transit to be very risk averse — as the Mayor has made clear this week — the effect on transit service levels will be catastrophic.


Surprisingly, the issue of risk was never raised during Friday’s discussions, and it seems clear that Council, overall, is not risk literate. Even more surprising was the lack of push-back from Transit regarding risk management. At one point, the Mayor criticized Transit’s General Manager for failing to move more quickly to adopt a new design of smaller, cheaper bus that China now manufactures. However, trials using this new type of bus are still underway in other North American jurisdictions and a decision to acquire and deploy those buses here without an informed cost/benefit assessment would be totally irresponsible.


The future

The future of public transit in Saint John is grim, unless we residents decide to get involved.

Council — consciously or not — has now put Transit in a situation where it must absorb all financial risk, without any buffering of that risk by the City. The only way for Transit to avoid further unexpected deficits is to provide only the level of service which can be paid for by the subsidy alone. Would a service like that be useful to … anyone?


What would a subsidy-only transit service look like in Saint John? We’re about to find out, and we won’t like it. Routes outside core intensification areas will disappear, as will off-peak service. The number of drivers could be reduced to only 10 (based on one comment made by the General Manager on Friday). What routes can be serviced with only 10 drivers? Will the single mom who pours your double-double at Tim’s be able to get to work? Will she be able to get her kids to daycare? Will the 20 year old who’s desperately trying to avoid getting sucked into a life of drugs and crime be able to get to his college classes? Will the service be attractive enough to convince die-hard auto commuters to adopt a transportation option that is more environmentally friendly and cost-effective (considering roads and parking)? The answer is most certainly, hell no.

When councillors get calls from angry constituents, will they direct those callers to Transit, or worse yet, call the General Manager and demand satisfaction for their one upset resident, or will they think about that meeting on Friday and the decisions they themselves have made? Hopefully those councillors understand and take responsibility for what they’ve done over the past week. The responsibility, and the blame, for what happens next lies with Council, not the Transit Commission.


A call to action

People who are watching this issue are debating the best next step. There’s discussion about changing routes, buying smaller buses, even how schedules should be displayed and what kind of paper Transit should be stocking. Does anyone really think the folks at Transit haven’t been over and over and over these miniscule line items? Does anyone really think incremental operational tweaks will result in substantive change to the deficit?

It’s time to think bigger. It’s time to question why public transportation – one of this Council’s adopted Priorities and an issue many Councillors supported during the last election – is now the sacrificial lamb. Because that’s exactly what will happen here: in the interest of demonstrating fiscal responsibility and a hard-nosed approach to governing, Council will slice our transit system to bits. OUR transit system. It’s been bleeding out for years and all we’re doing now is arguing over the right throw rug to hide the mess.

Consider this: this Council approved an operating budget of $4.9 mil for transit, $5 mil less than pension payments budgeted for the same year, $1 mil more than the City spends on running their own internal vehicle fleet. Road maintenance received over $13 mil. Does that spending reflect the promises this Council made during last election? Does it reflect your priorities for our community? If your answer is no, it’s time to speak up.



Footnote — The Transit Commission is a volunteer group


The Transit Commission is made up of community volunteers (ironically, with the exception of those Common Councillors and City staff appointed to serve on it). These are people who signed up in good faith to support their community by assisting in the management of an essential community service. They don’t get compensated in any significant way, and they don’t benefit substantively from their participation. (In fact, this is the case with most of the City’s ‘ABCs’.) Now more than ever, it’s unlikely many of these volunteers enjoy their terms on the Commission.

By placing the blame solely on the Commission and by making statements, for example, about having lost confidence in the Commission, the Mayor and Council have done these volunteers a great disservice. The Mayor and Council have also created an adversarial relationship. All while, ironically, the Mayor calls for collaboration.

If the Commission was a body of paid professionals, this would be manipulative and disingenuous. To make political fodder out of a group of volunteers, however, is shameful.