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Until the world turned upside down a couple of months ago, having a transit system that was heavily sustained by riders – rather than taxpayers – was considered a public-policy victory.

Robust fare revenues in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto meant cities spent less proportionally topping up the systems with property-tax money than places such as Edmonton, where ridership was lower.

But those cities are victims of their own success as ridership plummets during the pandemic, leaving gaping holes in their operating budgets. Civic officials have responded by making painful service cuts and mayors are pleading for federal help.

According to information from the cities, more than half of transit in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto was financed through fares in 2019: 55 per cent, 57 per cent and 69 per cent respectively. Fares made up 40 per cent of Edmonton’s transit revenue in that year.

“How much operating pressure they’re under now is because of how successful they were in the past,” says consultant Tamim Raad, a former planning director of B.C.’s transit agency, TransLink.

Without federal relief for transit – something all Canadian cities joined together to ask for officially this week – Calgary is expected to follow in the footsteps of Vancouver and Toronto, which announced massive transit layoffs this week.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the city can’t support the transit system indefinitely at the current rate, even though it has already reduced service by about 15 per cent.

“It’s not sustainable. We cannot go on like this forever. We will have to look at further cuts,” the mayor said during his weekly update on Wednesday for the news media.

Calgary’s predicament is in contrast to Edmonton, a smaller system that gets more of its support from property taxes and less from fares.

So Edmonton’s mayor described a far less dire situation this week than Mr. Nenshi.

In that city’s weekly update on Thursday, Mayor Don Iveson gave no indication of any more trims than the night-service cuts that went into effect on Monday.

“We continue to consider transit an essential service.”

Calgary made a strategic decision years ago to spend its limited transit dollars on more coverage and not running any of its C-Train lines underground. The system is considered a North American transit success story with its 106 million-trips-a-year ridership in a city of 1.3-million. About 45 per cent of people who travel to downtown Calgary use the light-rail.

Edmonton chose early to spend a lot of money putting its light rail underground downtown, which left less money for more kilometres of lines elsewhere. It’s ridership, pre-pandemic, was 87 million trips a year in a city of nearly a million.

Calgary had budgeted to get $170-million in transit-fare revenue for 2020. It is now losing $10-million to $12-million a month, although the system is still carrying 100,000 people a day.

Edmonton had forecast $131-million, and has projected it is likely to lose $28-million from the point in March when revenues started going down until mid-June.

Edmonton Transit Service did cause a flurry of concern earlier this week, when it cut late-night service, ending light-rapid trains at 10 p.m. and buses at midnight.

The move has prompted alarm because of its impact on people working late shifts, many of them essential workers.

“We are getting a lot of calls from members on the front line, doing home care, in acute care, also group homes and corrections,” said Karen Weiers, vice-president at the Alberta Union of Public Employees. “We recognize the strain on the municipalities, but it looks like Edmonton is trying to solve one problem by creating a whole lot of others."

By Wednesday, the city had received 300 calls to its help line, 85 per cent of them from health care workers. Edmonton’s interim city manager, Adam Laughlin, said people are being provided with taxi chits until the city can work out another way to get them home at night.

But Ms. Weiers said the city also appears to be suggesting that employers will provide a solution, which they have not done so far.

In both cities, people are worried about the recent cuts or ones that might be to come.

In Calgary, Mike Mahar of the Amalgamated Transit Union said he is waiting for the bad news for his union members.

“I talked to the employer this afternoon. It’s as grim as Toronto or Vancouver,” he said on Thursday night.

His biggest concern, if Calgary also announces major layoffs, is the crowding that will happen as those still trying to get to work pile in to what’s left.

In Vancouver, drivers report that squabbles sometimes break out at bus stops as people fight over who will get the few seats. Some simply get on no matter what, ignoring the signs on seats about distancing.

TransLink, the agency that manages transit and transportation for B.C.'s Lower Mainland, announced it would lay off 1,500 employees on Monday, after warning that it was losing $75-million a month in revenue.

It was the first to “cross the red line,” as one bureaucrat put it, because it operates independently of cities. So it doesn’t have big-city reserves to rely on.

But even the Toronto Transit Commission, which is part of the municipal budget, announced 1,200 layoffs on Thursday.

And the Federation of Canadian Municipalities made a special point of including targeted help for transit in cities in recommendations to the federal government on Thursday.

The FCM said Canadian city transit systems are losing $400-million a month during the crisis.

The federal government has been much slower to respond than the U.S. government, which announced US$25-billion for transit relief on April 2.

But the Canadian federal government has never been involved in helping with operating costs of transit the way the U.S. one has, said Marco D’Angelo, CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association.

“It’s new to them, the idea of embracing operations, even for a short period.”

One piece of the transit system that remains untouched is federal contributions to capital investments.

That’s why Vancouver and Calgary are still planning to go ahead with big new rapid-transit projects. Some smaller projects in Calgary and Edmonton, like the latter city’s bus-network redesign, are being put on hold.

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