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Don't Miss the Bus on this Transit Opportunity

by John Hutton

Acadian Lines has announced that it will no longer operate bus services in Nova Scotia as of November 30th. This understandably makes Nova Scotians anxious. Inter-community transit is vital for students, people with low incomes, small businesses that rely on small freight delivery, and people in rural communities. The province has no choice but to act, because inter-community bus service cannot be allowed to disappear.

What can fill the void left by Acadian Lines? A new private, for-profit bus company can enter the market, or the province could create a crown corporation similar to the Saskatchewan Transportation Company. Economists at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) have been talking about the second option for some time now, and have it costed out. It even has a name: Transit Nova Scotia. Acadian Lines' closure creates a rare opportunity to make a provincial transit strategy into reality.

A dilemma exists: public transportation is required for small communities, but as Acadian Lines has shown, it cannot be done profitably. This is why creating a crown corporation is favourable. Mobility is something greater than a simple consumer good, and the logic of earning profit isn't compatible with the goal of ensuring access to service. If a new for-profit company were to enter the market and replace Acadian Lines, they would already know ridership and anticipated fare revenue, and what the business model looks like. According to Global Maritimes, there have been discussions between Acadian Lines and other companies about buying the company but so far nothing has materialized.

"Their concerns are the exact same ones that led us to today,” says Denis Gallant, vice-president of Acadian Lines in the maritimes. “Too big of a network, ridership is down, and inter-city bus transportation as a whole is in a decline across North America. Put all those factors together and not many people are interested in jumping on board.”

Gallant's comments demonstrate the strength of the case for public transit. Another for-profit company would have no choice but to increase fares to raise revenue, or reduce service to cut costs. Neither option works for Nova Scotians. Gallant doesn't explain why ridership is down or why private bus companies are in decline, which comes back to the very problem of for-profit bus transit. When unable to attract enough riders from small communities, Acadian Lines was forced to increase ticket prices, which in turn decreased ridership even further. No wonder it's running on fumes today. The company could have terminated some stops or routes, but that would cause job losses and less service to small communities. Going public will mean keeping good, family-supporting jobs. It means improved, accessible service to Nova Scotians, especially small rural communities. It is the best option.

Whether private or public, a public subsidy will be required if we want inter-community bus transit. Our options: give public dollars to a new private, for-profit company to run the service, or getting a crown corporation to run the service. The public option would be a more efficient use of tax dollars because it would fund services instead of corporate profits. The province would have greater control over the allocation of those funds, and the company would be more accountable to the public. Again, the superiority of the public option is demonstrated.

Buses are the only sensible form of transportation between small communities. Trains, planes, ferries and horses are not an option in the majority of Nova Scotian communities. The threat of losing bus service has demonstrated the importance of transit to people's needs.

We need a provincial crown corporation to guarantee these services. Unlike a private company, a provincial one would be bound by principles beyond mere profit. Down the road, Transit Nova Scotia would not necessarily be limited to buses - in the future it could include light rail, bike shares, etc. In planning a transit system we need to think about why people need it, and so building core values that recognize people's right to mobility into Transit Nova Scotia is important.

Transit Nova Scotia should aim to be comprehensive so that people can travel all over the province and beyond. It needs to be accountable to the public so that routes and services can be adjusted to peoples needs and ensure that public dollars are well spent. It must be accessible so that people with disabilities, mothers, students, and people with low incomes can all use and afford the bus. Finally, it must be environmentally sustainable.

The CCPA has included a costed-out proposal for Transit Nova Scotia, which is available at http://www.policyalternatives.ca/nsab2012.

The province should view the closure of Acadian Lines as an opportunity in disguise, and tell the company to hit the road. It's time for inter-community buses to be recognized for what they are: a public service.

John Hutton is a board member of the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group.

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