Capital On Friday, staff were back before Council with options to fund the so-called B list of capital projects. You may recall from my December e-news that HRM has a big gap in terms of capital funding. The municipality has some ambitious plans including the Moving Forward Together Plan and the Integrated Mobility Plan, but the cash to implement hasn’t been put in place. The capital shortfall over the next three years is $118.7 million. If Council doesn’t find a way to square our ambitions with the budget, then this is what will happen:
- Transit’s Moving Forward Together Plan’s next phase, which includes Dartmouth, won’t be implemented. HRM will pass up on ridership gains and have a half-done transit network.
- Smart payment options for transit will be delayed for several years, meaning those large-sized tickets that have been touted as temporary will be an important part of our transit system for much longer than previously anticipated.
- The bus lanes promised for Robie Street and Bayers Road won’t happen.
- The All Ages and Abilities Bike Network promised by 2022 in the Integrated Mobility Plan will not be finished.
- Complete streets projects such as road redesigns, traffic calming, and new sidewalks won’t happen as quickly
- Buildings that are at the end of their life cycle will continue to be used, even though they really need upgrades (Penhorn Lake Washroom, Halifax North Library)
- The Downtown Dartmouth Infrastructure Project won’t happen, meaning we’ll miss out on the generational opportunity to redevelop Dartmouth Cove, make the most of Phase 2 of the Sawmill Project, and connect the Harbour and Banook trail systems
That’s not a list that I, or many of my colleagues, can accept! So what Council has tentatively decided to do is buy ourselves some time to figure it out. The total shortfall for the 2019/2020 fiscal year is $21.8 million, of which over $17 million is related to transportation. We’re able to fund the 2019 shortfall by using the unplanned for surplus from this year and some of our reserves (savings). This year’s surplus, like last year’s, is the result of higher than expected deed transfer taxes from several high-value properties changing hands. While this is good news for HRM’s budget, deed transfer tax revenue, but it’s nature, is volatile and there is no guarantee that it will generate a surplus again in 2020. We have to be cautious on relying on deed transfer tax revenue for year-to-year budgeting.
Over the course of 2019, Council will go over the long-term capital plan in detail to figure out how we’re going to handle the combined $96.9 million shortfall for the 2020-2021 years. That’s a lot harder to fund! Council’s solution of funding 2019 and then going into detailed planning for the upcoming years could still change since the overall budget hasn’t been approved yet, but this is the tentative approach that most of us voted for on Friday.
Transit: The transit budget was presented at Council on February 1. The good news for Dartmouth is that the cost of the extra ferry crew that was hired during the Big Lift has been incorporated into Transit’s regular budget. The additional crew is what has allowed HRM to provide a simplified all-day 15 minute weekday service, and an all-day 30 minute Sunday service on the Alderney route. You might recall that in 2017 and 2018, I had to ask my colleagues to support retaining the extra ferry crew as an added budget item. Since it’s part of the 2019/2020 base budget and no one from Council moved to cut it, it doesn’t look like I’ll have to do that this year. Staff decided to build the ferry hours into the base budget because ridership, while dropping somewhat this year, is still way up from where it was pre-Big Lift. Good news for Dartmouth. To keep the enhanced ferry service, ridership will need to remain strong so if you’re using the ferry, please keep taking it. Still the best way across the harbour.
The item in Transit’s budget grabbing the most attention this year is the proposed $0.25 fare increase. Fare increases are never popular, but our transit system relies on fare revenue for approximately $35 million a year. The last fare increase was five years ago and since that time, transit’s biggest costs (fuel and labour) have all increased, while the service has also been enhanced (new ferry hours, new bus routes, new buses and ferrys, tech upgrades, etc). The cost of an adult fare in HRM is currently tied with Victoria BC for lowest in comparable Canadian cities. A $0.25 cent increase would move us up to a tie for second lowest with London, ON, but at $2.75, we would still very firmly have one of the most affordable fares in Canada. Most Canadian cities charge fares of over $3.00. HRM doesn’t unduly burden transit riders with the cost of transit either. In fact, the projected $35 million in fare revenue for 2019/2020 equates to just 35% of transit’s budget. This is the second lowest farebox recovery for Canadian cities (Laval, Quebec is lower). Property taxes pay for about 2/3rds of our transit system.
There is one key difference with the proposed fare increase this year that wasn’t the case in the past: HRM now has social programs in place to mitigate the impact on those who can least afford higher fares. HRM has partnered with the Province to allow anyone who is on income assistance, plus their immediate family, to ride transit for free. This has provided freedom of mobility to approximately 8,300 people so far. HRM also has its own low-income transit program that allows 1,000 people (shortly increasing to 2,000) who don’t qualify for social assistance, but who have a household income of less than $33,000, to purchase a transit pass at half the regular cost.
Given that our fares are low and will still be low even after going up $0.25, they haven’t increased in many years despite increases in transit’s costs and improvements in service, that programs are in place to mitigate the impact on those who can least afford an increase, and that the bulk of transit’s costs are paid for in property taxes, the proposed increase seems reasonable to me.
One final note on fares, it has been suggested by a few people lately that HRM should look at making transit completely free as a way to draw riders. A few places around the world have tried free transit (most recently Dunkirk), but most are small, densely-packed European cities. The only example that I’m aware of, of a large city adopting free transit is Tallin, Estonia (population 431,000). Tallin made transit free in 2013 and was able to do so because of some particular quirks in how Estonia funds municipalities. Estonia provides municipalities with a share of the national income tax based on their population. Tallin is Estonia’s largest city and is the country’s economic and cultural hub. The result of offering free transit to registered residents was a lot of people who were living in Tallin, but were still officially registered for tax purposes as living elsewhere in Estonia, updated their information to officially become Talliners. This increased Tallin’s funding from the national government. We obviously don’t have that sort of setup and free transit here would mean making up costs entirely through property taxes (likely about a 5% increase).
The key finding from research done in Tallin so far is that free transit did provide for more social mobility, but it didn’t get people out of their cars. Very few Talliners who drove opted to leave the car at home because transit was suddenly free. Most of the increase in ridership was sparked by people opting to take transit rather than walk or take their bike. Free transit in Tallin didn’t get people out of their cars, it got them off the sidewalk. The lesson from Tallin is free transit does provide social benefits, but it doesn’t shift people out of their cars. If we want transit to be attractive, we need to make the service frequent, reliable, and competitive in terms of time. If we adopted free transit in HRM, the pressure of shifting $35 million worth of revenue that comes into the municipality through fares to property taxes would make it hard to raise additional money for other improvements. This would potentially undermine and limit HRM’s efforts to enhance transit in ways that have a much greater impact on whether people decide to take the bus or not.
Snow Standards: At our regular Council meeting on Tuesday was a request by Councillor Cleary to look at HRM’s snow standards. Snow clearing is always a touchy subject, mainly because it has a very direct impact on people’s day-to-day lives. HRM’s standards are much higher than many Canadian cities (some don’t clear residential sidewalks at all), but at the same time, our weather can be quite challenging. Rather than a snow pack, our frequent switch-overs from snow to rain and then freezing to turn it all into solid ice is really hard to deal with. My observation from the storm we had just after New Years was it took a bit longer than usual, but HRM did get to bare pavement, in Dartmouth at least. I’m not interested in handing the service back to residents as my recollection from living at the end of Quinpool Road when residents were responsible was it lacked consistency. Parts would be perfectly clear to a standard that HRM doesn’t match, but other sections wouldn’t be touched at all. The inconsistency was rampant and I don’t think that’s much of a solution.
Anyway, Councillor Cleary’s motion was a bit unusual from a procedural perspective. It was very specific going into detailed standards for staff to consider and, as a result, I think it got Council’s role wrong. It’s Council’s job to set policy and staff’s role to handle the specifics. Standards are, ultimately, approved by Council, but Councillor Cleary’s motion, in my opinion, skipped ahead a few steps. To me, the motion would have been better crafted as a request to improve standards rather than dictating, without any analysis from staff, on what those standards should or could be. I had planned to support Cleary’s motion anyway, since I know this is a difficult issue for my Peninsula colleagues, until staff indicated during the debate that they’re bringing a report back to Council in the next few months. Given my unease with the overly prescriptive nature and the fact that a report is coming back to Council, with or without Cleary’s most recent motion, I opted to vote against as did a majority of my colleagues. The no vote was interpreted in some reporting as Council not being willing to look at improved snow standards, but I think that’s a bit simplistic and doesn’t reflect the actual reasons for the no vote or the considerable work that Councillor Cleary has put into this area. This isn’t a closed subject. We’ll see what staff come back with in the next few months.
Climate Emergency: Council voted to accept a motion from Councillor Zurawski to declare a “climate emergency.” This declaration is purely symbolic and I generally stay away from symbolic gestures, but on this issue it’s warranted. The science is increasingly clear, climate change is real, it’s being caused by us, and the consequences for human civilization are going to be ugly if we don’t get our act together. The scale of the problem is daunting and, at times, depressing, because it requires collective action on a scale that we have never done before as a species. I do wonder and worry about what kind of world my 7 and 4 year old are going to inherit. It’s, at times, easy to despair for the future. Vancouver has already declared a climate emergency and if it becomes something that municipalities across the country take up to put pressure on our provincial and federal governments to act, than a bit of symbolism is well placed.
Besides the symbolism, Councillor Zurawski’s motion also had some practical elements. HRM is working on a Climate Change Plan that is expected to be finished within a year and Zurawski’s motion put a deadline on that work. Zurawski’s motion also requires HRM to consider the most recent scientific evidence from the IPCC and our commitments under the Paris Accord. It would be easy to say HRM’s efforts won’t matter because China and India are still polluting and the USA under Trump is bowing out so why should we bother? The thing is though, if none of us do anything than the problem definitely won’t be solved. We all have a part to play and we have to do our share. Most of the stuff that HRM might focus on such as planting more trees, making municipal buildings more energy efficient, electrifying our vehicle fleet, investing in active transportation and public transit, are measures that would make sense to do anyway, regardless of the climate change implications. The cartoon below pretty much sums it up.
Naturalization: A motion of mine to look at introducing a naturalization strategy for HRM Parks was back before Council. Naturalization is the process of reintroducing and restoring native vegetation in underused spaces. The restoration of pockets of native plants has a lot of potential ecological benefits, and it can also save HRM on long-term operating costs by reducing the need for mowing and other maintenance. Naturalization though isn’t simply stopping mowing. In heavily disturbed and manicured areas, naturalization requires an upfront effort to restore native vegetation, otherwise removing the mower simply creates opportunities for invasive species and can result in a rough looking unloved space. Naturalization requires some effort on our part, but the results can be beautiful. My go to example is the field along the Harbour Trail by the Woodside Ferry Terminal and NSCC campus. A lot of pictures are taken of the harbour and the lupins in this section, but there is next to no maintenance done here. The space is wild and gives you the feel of Nova Scotia’s coastal headlands. It’s loved in its wildness.
HRM has initiated some naturalization projects, but for the most part, the municipality is just getting started and there hasn’t been an overarching program. A lot of HRM’s projects have been sparked through engagement with non-profit groups such as the Sierra Club, Clean NS, Oathill Lake Society, and Tree Canada. The recommendation from staff that was accepted by Council is for HRM to continue looking at naturalization options for areas where it’s difficult to maintain lawns, introducing areas of naturalization in new parks and when redeveloping older parks, better interpretation of naturalization projects, continuing to partner with community groups as opportunities arise, and cataloging naturalization projects undertaken over the next two years so as to start to guide future policy. I amended the staff motion to have staff return to Council in two years time when the naturalization catalog is complete so that Council gets to take a look at the end result and consider again the need for a broader naturalization program.
- Approved substantial alterations to several heritage buildings on Carleton and College Streets in Halifax (actual decision about adjacent development will come later)
- Awarded engine repairs for the ferry fleet to Toromont CAT, operations of the recycling system to Royal Environmental, and replacement of the truck scales at HRM’s recycling depot to Cumberland Paving and Contracting
- Directed staff to continue working with the United Way on their report, Building Poverty Solutions: Ideas of Action
- Confirmed Harbour East’s recommendations on the Dartmouth Splash Pad and the Cancer Survivor’s Garden (see my Harbour East update from January)
- Mapped out an approach on encouraging the development of mountain biking as a sport in HRM
- Gave first reading to schedule a public hearing for a proposed senior’s care facility in Fall River
- Requested staff reports on a one-time allocation form the Hammonds Plains Area Rate for a basketball court in Glen Arbour, and mitigating the impact of truck traffic in Downtown Halifax
- Defeated a request by Councillor Whitman to freeze Council salaries
- Deferred a staff report request on changing HRM’s taxi regulations to make ride hailing services such aqs Uber and Lyft viable in HRM