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A worker inspects an empty train at the waterfront station in downtown Vancouver, on April 20, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Vancouver’s transit agency has become the first large system in Canada to lay off hundreds of workers, announcing Monday that it is furloughing almost 1,500 bus drivers, mechanics and others.

TransLink’s bus service will be down to 20 per cent of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic by the end of May, while its two rapid-transit lines will be down to 40 per cent each, with cuts as well to the SeaBus and West Coast Express train.

TransLink chief executive officer Kevin Desmond said the agency had no choice after ridership on the system plunged to 75,000 a day from the typical 500,000, and no other governments have offered any immediate help to keep things going.

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“These cuts are not even saving everything we’re losing. With these reductions, that’s only $25-million a month less that we’re losing [out of $75-million]. For the rest we have to burn cash,” said Mr. Desmond, who is taking a 10-per-cent pay cut along with the rest of his management team.

B.C.’s transportation agency is in a different position financially than transit systems in many other places because it operates independently of cities, with only fares, property tax and gas tax as main revenues, and so it can’t be backstopped by the larger general reserves a city has from other sources.

Many other cities are losing significant revenue from drops in transit payments, as ridership plunges to about 10 per cent or 20 per cent of prepandemic levels, but they are still carrying their transit systems for now with reduced but still largely functional service.

In Calgary, the losses are $10-million to $12-million a month in that city’s budget projections. In the Toronto region, it’s almost $80-million a month for the Toronto Transit Commission and another $40-million a month for GO Transit, which serves the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton.

Many transit riders in Vancouver are distraught about the looming loss of service, while the transit workers’ union is furious.

“We think this is a reckless and irresponsible move by all levels of government,” said Gavin McGarrigle, the western regional director of Unifor. “It’s astounding to us they’ve moved in this direction.”

Fights are breaking out at bus stops by people wanting to get on buses that are already full – buses are operating at 70-per-cent of their usual capacity because of new rules that say people have to be in designated separated seats and can’t stand. Other passengers are simply getting on and ripping up the seat signs because they’re desperate to get where they have to go, he said.

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Ruby Campbell, a New Westminster, B.C., resident, said transit cuts will be very hard on her family.

Her father is in a care home in Burnaby and she knows that the facility, already short-staffed, is dependent on staff who primarily rely on transit.

And her husband, Jason, has a medical condition that means he can’t drive, but he works for a non-profit in Burnaby.

When that office starts functioning again, he has calculated that based on the routes that will be cut, he will have to walk 25 minutes from the nearest SkyTrain.

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“There are hundreds like him who have invisible disabilities and rely 100 per cent on transit,” said Ms. Campbell. “When the federal government is not funding it as an essential service, what is he supposed to do?”

Like many, she also worried about the long-term impacts, even when things start to normalize. “If the system crumbles, it’s not going to be easy to rebuild.”

Mr. Desmond, the TransLink CEO, said the provincial government is being responsive and has said it is planning to help the agency get service back to normal in September, when many are hoping work and school routines can resume.

But, he said, the federal government has been more ambivalent about help, in spite of repeated calls with many transit managers and city leaders.

“I don’t know if they’re fully grasping the magnitude of the problem and how they’ll survive this and what happens in the aftermath.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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