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A last-minute government injection of $720,000 appears to have saved bus routes in northern New Brunswick that a private bus operator wanted to cut because of a drop in ridership attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The New Brunswick government announced Friday that the funding for Maritime Bus would allow the company to maintain service to Edmundston and Campbellton.

It said $360,000 would come from an envelope of federal cash given to New Brunswick for COVID relief, while the rest would come from a provincial funding program.

The money is be given to the city of Edmundston, which will pay the bus company for service to the province’s northern region.

“Maritime Bus provides accessible and affordable transportation service for people in our region who need to travel to southern New Brunswick for medical care,” Edmundston deputy mayor Eric Marquis said in a news release. “We are very grateful for the intervention of the government of New Brunswick.”

Friday’s announcement came just ahead of a Sunday deadline for cutting the routes by the Charlottetown-based bus company. The government said the money would be contingent on the company guaranteeing the continued operation of its northern routes until the end of 2021.

Maritime Bus president Mike Cassidy said he was “relieved and thrilled” by the announcement.

“Maritime Bus is an interprovincial carrier, and to be effective we have to be in all three provinces, and we achieved that today,” Cassidy said in an interview.

He said it was especially good news for five company employees who were to be laid off on Monday and could now report for work.

Cassidy also said he didn’t find the guarantee of service requirement from the government unreasonable, adding that he is optimistic his business can rebound in 2021.

“So, 2021 should not be a great year, but for passengers and same day parcels we are going to see a pickup I’m sure,” he said.

Local Government Minister Daniel Allain said Maritime Bus provides a key service to residents, businesses and communities.

The government decision comes after public outcry and political pressure, including from Green party Leader David Coon, who had called on Premier Blaine Higgs to negotiate an agreement with the company to keep its buses on the roads.

Last week, 21 senators from the Maritimes wrote a letter urging the federal government to provide financial assistance. They noted that Ottawa provided direct funding for Greyhound when it abandoned bus routes in Western Canada.

Earlier this month, Cassidy said he had to cut routes because the number of passengers using the bus service fell from 191,000 in 2019 to just 69,000 last year.

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