A looming unforced error

Ferries!

Last week, Halifax’s MP Andy Fillmore made a very welcome announcement: all three levels of government have agreed to move forward into the planning stages for a new commuter ferry between Bedford (at Mill Cove) and downtown Halifax. The ferry will be a big step forward for transit infrastructure in HRM. And the news gets better and better. The ferry will be fast, taking commuters from Bedford to downtown in less than 20 minutes. And it’s going to be green too, according to Deputy Premier Kelly Regan.

This news isn’t a total surprise. The ferry proposal was a part of Halifax Transit’s 2020 Rapid Transit Strategy, and for a lot of the last year, transit geeks have heard rumours that all three levels of government were committed to making the ferry happen.

But there’s something to be very worried about here. The ferry proposal was only one part of Halifax Transit’s Rapid Transit Strategy — the smaller part, actually. The much bigger and more important part was Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). And right now, there are no signs that Halifax Transit’s BRT proposal is moving forward.

Why isn’t the BRT proposal moving forward? The problem is the Province

Why isn’t the BRT proposal moving forward? Here’s what we know. In order to happen, all three levels of government have to commit to their share of the funding. HRM has already made that commitment, at least in principle. The Federal government has also already made that commitment, at least implicitly, because the whole thing is supposed to happen within the framework of a federal funding program. 

That leaves the Province. Right now, the Provincial government has given no public signal that it’s interested in contributing its share of funding to make BRT happen in HRM. Right now at least, the Provincial government has shown no interest in doing their part to bring rapid transit to Spryfield, Lacewood, North Dartmouth, Downtown Dartmouth, or the hospitals and universities on the Halifax Peninsula. 

Cost is not the problem

Maybe you think the price tag for BRT is too high for the Province to bear? Nope. 

Sure, Halifax Transit estimates that the cost of building the BRT network will be about 75% higher than the cost of the new fast ferry. But on a very conservative estimate, the BRT network will serve more than three times as many people as the new fast ferry. Halifax Transit estimates that, if built, the BRT network will be within a quick walk of well over 120 thousand people. By contrast, all of Bedford (most of which will be nowhere near walking distance of the ferry) is only about 40 thousand people. 

On a per-person basis, BRT is a fraction of the cost of the new ferry. So why can’t the Province pull the trigger? 

Will the Province make a massive unforced error?

Halifax Transit’s BRT plan is excellent. It represents, by a very wide margin, the biggest, most important step forward for transit in HRM in many decades, maybe ever. It’s a plan to bring rapid transit to more than 120 thousand residents. Without that rapid transit, congestion will only get worse, pollution will only get worse, and it will only get harder for people to access jobs, the hospitals, and the universities. To look at Halifax Transit’s excellent plan and say “nah” — to shrug and assume the status quo for buses in HRM is good enough for the people who rely on them — would be an epic unforced error. 

But what’s more, there is no longer any question about whose error it will be. The Municipality is on board. The Federal government is on board. If this massive unforced error gets made, it will be made by Iain Rankin’s government.

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