Even Bigger Bustration

Little did I know when I wrote Bustration that there would be more bustration than I could imagine. In a late Friday afternoon “news dump” just before the labour day weekend, the City of Saskatoon announced that it would be unable to run “extended service” come September 2nd. By which they meant that special routes for high school students and extra buses on high volume routes to handle the increase in ridership that comes every September when university students return to class would not be running.

According to the CIty, they were experiencing a “perfect storm” of unusual circumstances. A shortage of mechanics meant they could not put the normal number of buses on the road. Apparently at Saskatoon Transit when you have a ratio of 12.4 buses to one mechanic and the national average is 4.9 buses to mechanic (2012 Annual Report, pg 13) the inability to keep your aging fleet (average age 14.5 years) maintained comes as a surprise.

I asked Saskatoon Transit via Twitter how many buses were non-operational and the answer I received was that they need 95 buses to run full service (the Amalgamated Transit Union local 615 indicated that it takes 123 buses in the am, 105 in the pm to deliver full service, and only 79 buses on the road). In any case that means that out of a fleet size of 158, 50% of the fleet is non-operational. Yes, 50 percent. Five Zero.

After a bit of digging on the CIty’s website and reviewing annual reports I found that on average since 2003 the CIty has budgeted about $2 million dollars a year for bus replacement. That means that each bus in the current fleet could be replaced every 50 years. Yes, 50 years. Five Zero. (Holy coincidence Batman)

Is it any wonder that they can’t keep the fleet on the road? An understaffed mechanical section combined with a pathetic an inadequate  capital replacement program and voila!

Part of the City’s solution is to buy more used buses, from Calgary, which will have to be maintained by the same overloaded mechanics. The reason Calgary has buses to sell is because they actually replace their buses in a timely fashion. Calgary transit purchased 150 new buses in 2013 and exercised options to purchase 30 more. The entire order is expected to be fully delivered by the end of 2014. Calgary, a city with 5 times the population of Saskatoon has a transit fleet 7 times larger than Saskatoon Transit. And they purchased more new buses in the last year than the size of the entire fleet of Saskatoon Transit.

While the City has often talked a good game over the years, constantly claiming to want to improve transit and attract more riders, it is becoming more and more apparent that this is at best, lip service. As I wrote here, things have reached the point where it’s beyond bad luck. It now bears the signs of being purposeful neglect or even destruction of public transit.

City councils over the last decade or more have failed to properly fund transit, and the City’s administration has lacked any strong advocates for public transit when they develop and present budgets for City Council’s approval. One can pretty much ignore transit and get elected, and there continues to be the opinion of elected officials and a significant portion (if not majority) of the voting public that public transit is for poor people, and to a lesser extent, students. Or in other words, people who don’t vote. People who don’t matter.

Now, as of September 20th, the City has locked out the workers belonging to the Amalgamated Transit Union in an attempt to force the ATU into accepting a contract offer that the ATU members have already rejected. At least that appears to be the City’s strategy. Frankly I’m not sure I really understand it. The lockout combined with what seems like a hand slap by the Labour Board on September 26th makes the City look bad. Shutting down public transit punishes users who rely on it, and drives “users by choice” to other modes of transport.

Neither the Mayor or anyone on City Council has exhibited any leadership at all. They, and the City administration seem hell bent on, I’m not even sure what. They want to make changes to the employee’s pension plan which may or may not be legal (future post) and to keep employee wages down, while managers get big increases (another future post). The price they appear willing to pay is to reduce ridership and marginalize public transit even further. To what end? To become the only city of it’s size in Canada without public transit?

If there is one upside to the current situation is that a transit users advocacy group has formed (Bus Riders of Saskatoon on Facebook). I am cautiously optimistic about this. If the group can attract enough support then some real and potentially influential political pressure can be put on City Council, and future candidates, incumbents and newcomers alike.

This will only happen (IMO, of course) if they focus attention on the big picture and not get caught up in minutia, such as route planning. Saskatoon Transit needs the funds to properly replace buses as they age, on a regular and reasonable replacement cycle. Newer buses will increase rider satisfaction, reduce fuel consumption, and maintenance costs. They also need to sufficiently fund transit to add to the fleet as the city grows. This will cost money.

It will cost non-transit users money. They need to be convinced that their tax dollars that are funding transit are not “wasted” on something they don’t use or derive any direct benefit from. They need to be shown the indirect benefits of good (or even excellent) public transit. They cannot be indifferent, or enemies. They need to be allies.

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