In a rare outing of its kind, but especially a few weeks before the unveiling of the Legault government’s next budget, the Regional Metropolitan Transport Authority (ARTM) is toughening its tone against transport companies, urging them to stop their “threats” reduction in service.
“It’s too easy to take the user hostage,” said ARTM director general Benoit Gendron in an interview with The Press.
He was reacting to the comments of several operators who are worried about having to reduce the service if new funds are not released by Quebec. Tuesday, in The dutythe general manager of exo, Sylvain Yelle, said he feared falling into a “spiral of decline” without the required support from Quebec, which he figures at nearly 30 million.
Last week, the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) announced cuts of 18 million, guaranteeing however that they will “absolutely not” affect the quality of service. Experts consulted by The Press nevertheless showed themselves to be “skeptical” of this promise. The idea of “optimizing” service in the metro and buses was raised in November by the STM, which could result in service cuts at times if the financial situation does not change.
Elsewhere in Greater Montreal, the Société de transport de Laval (STL) and the Réseau de transport de Longueuil (RTL) are also considering service reductions if investments are not forthcoming.
“A categorical condition”
Nevertheless, Benoit Gendron deplores the fact that discussions on financing are now taking place “in the public square”. “We want to say today that no, we will not accept that users suffer from the situation. This is a categorical condition for us. The companies have negotiated agreements for the year 2023 and they plan to maintain the service levels for 2022. All of this was adopted at our last Board meeting last week, February 23,” adds the manager.
He reveals in passing that the ARTM has already agreed, last week, to increase the remuneration of transport companies by 4.4%, and this, “for the same level of service”.
When I integrate the requests beyond the authorized financial framework, the operators’ requests are between 8 and 12%, so we will see in the light of the sums of Quebec the choices that we will have to make. But in no case should the service be reduced.
Benoit Gendron, director general of the ARTM
“We are still in discussions with the Quebec government. The minister [Geneviève Guilbault] will also launch a series of meetings that will begin immediately after the budget, precisely to see how we can stop taking users hostage,” said Mr. Gendron.
In announcing these consultations at the beginning of February, the Minister of Transport and Sustainable Mobility warned from the outset that the idea of a new tax to fund public transit seemed unlikely. However, a kilometer tax is one of the solutions favored by the Montreal Metropolitan Community, which is currently conducting a vast study on the subject.
Mme Guilbault, on the other hand, says she wants to “rationalize” public transit spending and set up a five-year financing plan by the end of 2023.
Meanwhile, the ARTM is still faced with a considerable shortfall of 500 million dollars, a hole that has just become gaping because of the investments to support the activities of the operators, according to its director general. “Things will tumble in the next few weeks,” promises Mr. Gendron, however.
Solutions to be found
For several months, the entire public transit industry has been at an impasse. In Quebec, the shortfall is likely to reach 900 million within five years, revenue from users having fallen sharply during the pandemic. In the transport companies, a consensus is clearly emerging: it is necessary to diversify the sources of income.
The Legault government is due to table its next budget on March 21. Finance Minister Eric Girard argued that this budget would “set the tone” for the commitments made by the Coalition avenir Québec during the election campaign, which promised to lower taxes “from the first year” of this second term.
“In transportation, there must be a short-term solution regarding the STM’s deficit, which is directly linked to the drop in attendance due to the pandemic. It is not related to reasons of poor management or choice, ”said the mayor of Montreal, Valérie Plante, in the process.