Halifax Transit’s Fare Increase: No Easy Choices

Last week’s big transit news is that Halifax Transit asked for, and council approved, a 10% increase in fares for later this year. A regular fare is going from $2.50 to $2.75. On one hand, Halifax Transit’s fares are low by Canadian standards and will still be pretty close to average after the increase. On the other hand, any increase in fares runs the risk of decreasing ridership, and some of the most vulnerable transit users will be hit hardest by the increase.

Grant that Halifax Transit needs additional revenue. But does the additional revenue have to come from a fare increase? Not necessarily. The more Halifax Transit increases ridership on the buses it’s already running, the more revenue those buses generate. So it’s possible to generate more revenue without raising fares. Given the pain involved in raising fares, finding a different way to generate that revenue seems like a no-brainer. It almost seems like free money.

So generating the new funds from increased ridership is exactly what some people, including Councilor Tim Outhit, think Halifax Transit should do. And as a general principle, increasing revenue by increasing ridership is absolutely a goal Halifax Transit should have.

But there’s some bad news here that’s been missing from the discussion so far. Generating additional revenue by increasing ridership isn’t painless. There’s even a chance it could be more painful than raising fares. Here’s why.

There are two ways Halifax Transit could increase ridership. One option is increasing the amount of service they run. But that would mean buying more buses and paying more drivers for more shifts. Those expenses would likely wipe out any additional revenue generated by the increased service. They might end up meaning the additional service was a net money loser for Halifax Transit. So if the goal is to generate new revenue, that probably won’t work.

The other option for increasing ridership is to use the service Halifax Transit is already running, but to re-allocate more of it from low-ridership routes to high-ridership routes. If that was done the right way, it really would generate new revenue without fares going up. But it would also mean decreasing — and in some cases cutting entirely — buses that serve the suburban and rural parts of HRM. That means cutting buses that people have come to rely on. The recent controversy about the route 15 on Purcell’s Cove Road is reminder of how painful service cuts can be for people who rely on the bus.

But that’s what we’re talking about if we want Halifax Transit to increase revenue without increasing fares. We’re talking about cutting buses that people rely on.

In the end, that might be the right thing to do. (It was on the route 15.) But when we’re thinking about that option, we need to have a clear view of who it’s going to hurt and how badly it’s going to hurt them.

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