By Jim Munves
A century ago, Prince Edward Island had a functioning public transit system. Passenger railways criss-crossed the Island, reaching almost every corner, two trains in the morning and two in the evening, even with mid-day runs in some areas.
Had Marlene Geirsdorf had the good fortune to have been born a century earlier, she would have had no difficulty in reaching employment in Murray River, Charlottetown, Souris, or anywhere jobs were on offer. The reason she is stuck today is the result of a series of disastrous decisions made by provincial administrations in the decades following the Second World War.
When passenger rail was discontinued, buses were put in their place. Then the buses were discontinued, leaving nothing in their place. The thinking behind these cessations of service was ‘cost effectiveness', ‘money losing'. Meanwhile the province was spending millions of dollars and borrowing more millions to upgrade and maintain paved roads from East Point to North Cape. These millions were considered ‘investments'.
These changes, of course, were driven by the advent of the motor car, a rarity on P.E.I. a century ago. ‘Investments' in roadways encouraged motor car ownership and it came to be thoughtlessly assumed that proliferation of automobiles would eliminate any need for any other form of transportation. No thought was given to those under driving age, those too aged or infirm to drive, those who did not own a vehicle, or who simply do not wish to drive one. Although these groups amounted to more than a third of the population, no thought was given to how they might find the means to access anything beyond walking distance of their homes. When the need for public transportation was raised, Island politicians had a standard answer: "It has to pay for itself."
Public transportation has to pay for itself? As if water supply and sewer lines had to pay for themselves. As if roadways had to pay for themselves. (In fact, the Island had been borrowing, and continues to borrow, tens of millions of dollars every year to pay for roads.)
What has been lacking is a realization that public transportation is a public service requiring government subsidy to the same extent as roads, bridges, water supply, sewers, schools, hospitals, public buildings, etc. Latterly, and due to considerable public pressure, the province and some municipalities have begun to put in place a few local bus services. These are at best half-hearted efforts, with the Charlottetown system, for example, being unable, despite repeated pledges, to ensure accessibility to all its buses; and with inadequate signage and schedule information.
So what is needed is a real commitment to public transportation as, for example, it operates in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. A workable system for P.E.I. was elaborated in 2008 by ENTRA Consultants. ENTRA showed in detail how an Islandwide system could be gradually put in place for an annual expenditure a small fraction of the provincial transportation and public works budget. (Please, MLAs, ministerial staffs, municipal councillors, familiarize yourselves with the ENTRA Report: Island Wide Transit, Feasibility Study, Final Report, June, 2008).
Look around, P.E.I. Look at Europe, at Japan, at China. No other so-called rich country thoughtlessly assumes that the automobile satisfies the transportation needs of its people. Even south of our border, the U.S., which seemed to be following the same trajectory as P.E.I., reversed course several decades ago, diverting a portion of its fuel tax revenues to rural and other forms of public transportation. Penny wise, pound foolish, would be one way to characterize P.E.I.'s take on public transport. Begrudging two- or-three-million dollars of annual expenditure on public transportation, the Island forgoes the benefits of increasing accessibility to commerce, industry, employment and health. Also it forgoes the benefits of taking off the roads those who should not be driving, or who force themselves to drive in dangerous conditions. With single-vehicle, two-vehicle and multi-vehicle accidents commonplace, the savings in health and hospital expenditures might very well alone pay for all the buses we need.
Jim Munves of Charlottetown is P.E.I. member of the board of Transport Action Atlantic.