STM chairman says public transit headed into “downward spiral” without Quebec funding deficit

By The Canadian Press

MONTREAL -Public transit will be dragged into a “downward spiral” that will be the exact opposite of what the Legault government says it wants to achieve if it maintains its decision not to fund the shortfall in transit company revenues, said Eric Alan Caldwell, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Société de transport de Montréal ( STM) in front of an audience of business people gathered by the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal on Monday.

Caldwell sought to demonstrate that the shortfall in transit company revenues “is not a deficit”, but rather a decision to offer a certain level of service.

Backed by figures, Caldwell demonstrated that the 5 per cent drop in service between 2011 and 2018 resulted in an equivalent 5 per cent drop in ridership, and that the subsequent 5 per cent increase in service resulted in an identical increase in ridership.

“If we want people to take public transit more, we have to invest in the service offer. People want frequency,” he insisted.

Yet Quebec Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault is threatening to cover only 20 per cent of the transit companies’ deficit, which represents only $70 million of the $350 million the STM needs to balance its budget while maintaining the current service offer. This threat hangs over all municipal transit services in the province.

Such a decision would have the opposite effect of what the Legault government claims to want in its talk of decarbonizing transportation, says Caldwell. “That’s the downward spiral. We’re pulling down. If we degrade the service offer, we have fewer customers, we have less revenue, we pull the service down. As we’ve seen, investment in the service offering generates goodwill. If we want to pull upwards, we have to make the choice to invest in the service offering.”

Accompanying Caldwell, STM General Manager Marie-Claude Léonard pointed out that the hypothesis of a metro that ceases operations at 11:00 p.m. is just one of the “theoretical hypotheses we worked on to look at what would be the major avenues if we had to reduce service. That’s not what we want to do.”

Léonard pointed out that 85 per cent of the STM’s expenses are devoted to operations, and that 70 per cent of the operating budget represents payroll. The STM says it has made numerous cuts over the past few years to everything on the administrative side.

There are limits, however, says Eric Caldwell. “When you drive a bus, you can’t do it with half a driver. It takes a driver to drive a bus to add frequency. You have to invest in the service offering to get more ridership,” he insists.

Michel Leblanc, president of the Chamber of Commerce, was quick to back up his comments: “For the business community, an efficient public transit system is an absolute prerequisite for our economic prosperity.”

The business community settles, he says, “where there is easy access for staff, for customers”. Referring to a possible Eastern REM, or any other public transit improvement in this sector of the metropolis, Michel Leblanc was categorical: “There will be no major investment in the East if we’re not able to answer the question: how will employees get there by public transit?”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on October 30, 2023.

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