Published in the Vancouver Sun, April 21, 2020
As TransLink begins slashing services, laying off employees and cutting executive pay this week to stem revenue losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, B.C. Premier John Horgan has called on the federal government to provide aid to ailing transit agencies.
Almost 1,500 temporary layoffs will take place at TransLink, Coast Mountain Bus Company and B.C. Rapid Transit Company, with the bus company again feeling the effects most because more than half of the transit system’s employees work there.
The cuts come a week after TransLink revealed that due to plunging ridership, farebox revenue and fuel tax income, it is losing about $2.5 million per day, and it is expected that April’s revenue will be down $70 million, or 51 per cent, from what was forecasted earlier this year.
The average monthly loss for the next six months is projected to be $75 million, with the worst-case scenario being losses of $93 million per month.
TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond said there were a lot of “tossing and turning sleepless nights” as those in charge of Metro Vancouver’s transit agency tried to find ways to cut costs.
“Bus operators are out there still providing services, and then to have to talk about layoffs was incredibly painful,” Desmond said. “These are good people, and we all hate doing this, but we got to the point where we weren’t getting help, and this is the only thing that we could do to keep our head afloat.”
Bill Tieleman, co-executive director of the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition, said Monday was “a very sad day” for public transit in Metro Vancouver.
“There are so many people who are depending on our transit services, from frontline and health-care workers to ordinary folks who are still taking the SkyTrain or the bus to get around to their jobs,” he said. “We are hoping that TransLink is able to find additional funding from government to do more than just keep the lights on.”
Although ridership is down more than 80 per cent, about 75,000 people still use the system each day, and transit has been designated an essential service. Reductions will affect all modes, but buses will take the biggest hit.
On Friday, 18 bus routes will be suspended. The routes that will be halted include the 15, 32, 50, 68, 105, 131, 132, 143, 222, 480, 414 and R3. NightBus routes N8, N15, N17, N22, N24 and N35 will also be suspended.
Another 47 routes are expected to be cut in May, and there will be further frequency reductions on many remaining routes. The start date for those suspensions has not been released.
According to the transit agency, it prioritized preserving routes serving hospitals and other health facilities, and routes that are suspended either duplicate other routes or have low ridership.
“It’s a reckless and irresponsible move,” Unifor’s western regional director Gavin McGarrigle said of the service cuts. “Right now, there are tens of thousands of workers that are on transit because they have to be on transit. They are making sure that people get the health care they need in long-term care homes and hospitals and grocery stores — the list goes on for essential workers.”
Unifor represents about 5,000 workers at Coast Mountain Bus Company.
SkyTrain service will be reduced by between 15 and 40 per cent, depending on the line and time of day.
Expo Line capacity will be reduced by 20 per cent during peak hours, and 20 to 40 per cent midday, early evening and on weekends, depending on time of day. The Millennium Line will be reduced by 15 per cent during peak and 20 to 40 per cent at other times. Canada Line capacity has already been taken down by 18 per cent during peak hours.
This means wait times will increase by between 30 and 90 seconds during rush hours and one to four minutes outside of those times.
SeaBus, which is already running every half hour throughout the day, will stop running earlier in the evening. The last run leaving Lonsdale Quay will be at 7:30 p.m. and the last trip out of Waterfront Station will leave at 7:45 p.m.
West Coast Express, which is down from five trains in each direction to three, will run shorter trains.
This follows cuts to service that began last month. TransLink has already reduced bus service by 15 to 20 per cent, SeaBus by 50 per cent, West Coast Express by 40 per cent and SkyTrain by about 17 per cent. Capacity is also reduced on buses to promote physical distancing.
Some service improvements, including expanding NightBus, will be deferred and 2020 major road network operations, maintenance and rehabilitation funding to municipalities will stop.
The Hospital Employees’ Union, which represents 50,000 people working in health care — 25,000 of whom work in areas served by TransLink — said the service cuts will add stress for its workers.
“Our members have limited transportation options to get to work, and they’ve already been facing lengthier commuting times as a result of previously announced service reductions,” said secretary-business manager Jennifer Whiteside.
McGarrigle said there are about 3,800 transit operators, and 997 of them received layoff notices — or about 25 per cent of the workforce. Of the approximately 1,100 maintenance staff, 200 were laid off. The notices take effect May 18.
“We’re looking at our legal options right now, including potentially going to the Labour Relations Board about workforce adjustment. But beyond that, there should be no layoffs at all,” McGarrigle said. “The minute that you start to cut back on the buses that are available to people, you’re going to see more people load onto the bus.”
David Black, president of MoveUP, which represents administrative workers at Coast Mountain Bus Company and TransLink, said he is “extremely disappointed” to see the staffing cuts. He said the union was only provided with two days’ notice of the layoffs, which affect 160 of its members, instead of the required four weeks.
“Our members — the front-line workers who get other front-line workers in place to serve the public — are being disproportionately impacted,” said Black in a news release.
Senior executives, including TransLink’s CEO, chief financial officer, executive vice-president, as well as the presidents of Coast Mountain Bus Company and the B.C. Rapid Transit Company, will see their salaries cut by 10 per cent. The board of directors will also take a 10-per-cent pay cut.
According to the latest figures available, Desmond was paid a salary of $405,242, plus benefits, in 2018, while salaries for other executives varied. TransLink’s board was paid a total of $572,317 in 2018.
TransLink will also spend from its cash reserves to sustain essential service operations through the end of the year.
Desmond said the cost-cutting measures should save TransLink $140 million this year, with $85 million of the savings coming from the temporary layoffs.
Desmond said TransLink is more susceptible to the effects this pandemic than many other agencies in Canada because of its reliance on farebox money, which makes up 57 per cent of its operating revenue, and the gas tax. Another factor is that it is an independent regional agency, as opposed to one that is tied to a municipality that can backstop financial losses.
TransLink and the Mayors’ Council have appealed to both the provincial and federal governments for financial aid to help get the transit authority through the pandemic.
Although a dollar amount has not been released, the province has promised to make sure there is funding available for TransLink to reverse most or all of its layoffs and return to “near-regular operations” in September. Desmond said it will take tens of millions of dollars to make that happen.
The agency and provincial government are apparently working on a plan to address “the longer-term fiscal sustainability of TransLink,” so that it can deliver transit services and key projects, such as the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain line and Broadway subway.
When asked about how the province will help TransLink get its service back online by fall, Horgan didn’t answer directly, but said he has raised the public transportation crisis with the prime minister, and suggested that, for instance, the federal wage subsidy should apply to public agencies such as TransLink, B.C. Transit and B.C. Ferries.
He said the provincial government has stepped in to fill gaps in the federal policies related to COVID-19, but Ottawa has “greater access to resources that can be deployed across the country in an equitable way.”
“I’m not diminishing the province’s responsibility here. I’m just seeking to spread that responsibility to other partners so that we can maintain these services, keep people working as long as possible and, once we relieve the restrictions, get people back to work using public transportation,” Horgan said.
The federal government has not made any commitment to helping transit agencies weather COVID-19 to date.
“I’m just very disappointed in all levels of government that we’re somehow talking about funding shortfalls … in the middle of this pandemic when we have clearly a need to provide this service,” McGarrigle said.