Commuter rail is dead. Why did that happen? And what now?

After yesterday’s Council vote, it looks like commuter rail plans are dead. Why did the plan die, and what does HRM do now?

Council’s discussion yesterday was in camera, so we’ll probably never know exactly how the decision was made. But the argument against pursuing commuter rail has been hiding in plain site for a few years now. Since Council got a look at the commuter rail feasibility study back in 2015, it’s been clear that commuter rail just wasn’t an effective way for HRM to spend transit dollars. Here’s why.

Based on the numbers in the feasibility study, commuter rail would probably generate something in the ballpark of 750,000 riders per year. The very best case scenario would be 1.1 million riders per year. The annual operating cost of carrying those riders would be $8 million. So for every million dollars Halifax Transit spent on commuter rail, it would carry about 94,000 riders annually. Or on the very best case scenario, it would carry about 138,000 riders annually.

Here’s the problem with that. Right now, for every million dollars Halifax Transit

spends running the bus system, it already carries about 156,000 riders annually.* That’s more than 50% better than a realistic estimate for commuter rail. It’s still a lot better than even the best case scenario for commuter rail.

Commuter rail just can’t get HRM the best bang for its transit buck.

So what now? None of these numbers change the fact that people in Bedford and Sackville absolutely need better transit options. There’s no question about that. They need rapid transit.

Halifax Transit has to amend its recent bus rapid transit proposal to extend rapid transit out the Bedford Highway to Bedford. HRM is already planning to overhaul the Bedford Highway to make it work better for transit. That’s good. But Halifax Transit has to plan the transit priority infrastructure to ensure that buses coming from Bedford don’t get stuck in traffic and don’t get caught at red lights, not just on the Bedford Highway, but through the Windsor Exchange and all the way into downtown. Then people coming from Bedford and Sackville will have a real rapid transit option for their commutes.

*(These numbers are based on Halifax Transit’s current budget and latest ridership numbers.)

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