Today Council passed a budget for the 2021 year. This was the third year in our 3-year budget cycle. You can read about the budget here: http://stjohns.ca/publications/2021-budget-book
Here is a combination of remarks I made during the meeting and some afterthoughts.
I did not vote in favour of the budget. I could not support a budget that does nothing for sidewalk clearing while imposing a permanent cut to Metrobus (of $500,000). I would like to acknowledge the work that Councillor Lane and all of Council did in putting the budget together, and particularly the decision to ensure transit would not be affected during the winter months when it matters most. Thank you for this. But the cuts to transit will be permanent, and will be felt by riders.
The human and economic costs of unsafe sidewalks massively exceed the costs of clearing them. Inadequate snow clearing kills and hurts people every year. It’s hurting businesses, too. Every winter city in Canada must ensure year-round mobility is possible, and we do not. We have a long way to go, which is why we need immediate action toward a broader goal of full access to mobility for everyone.
We currently only clear a small fraction of the City’s sidewalks, and it takes up to a week to get the ones clear that are on our routes, especially when we have a heavy snowfall. On average, we have 22 days in the winter when snow is above 5 cm. As a result, St. John’s sidewalks are unsafe for much of the winter. This directly harms any individual who relies on sidewalks to get around, whether you’re walking to work, walking to a grocery store, or walking to a business from your parked car. Transit users struggle to access bus stops or get on a GoBus. School kids have to navigate icy cleared sidewalks if they’re lucky enough to be on a Priority 1 route.
Many of the City’s most vulnerable residents are directly affected in a disproportionate manner. But the consequences of our refusal to adequately fund core services aren’t limited to those who are most immediately affected. Unsafe sidewalks make this a worse City than it has to be, and that affects everyone who lives here, one way or another. It also impacts the decision of young people and newcomers in general when choosing a city where they will make their home. Improving snow clearing is an investment in our economy. We cannot afford to continue to be penny-wise and pound foolish. We must realize what our inaction is costing the city in terms of economic development and missed opportunity. Newfoundland and Labrador will depend on increased immigration and youth retention in order to find ourselves on a path to a more sustainable and prosperous future.
All that being said, let’s call sidewalk snow clearing what it is: a failure. But what kind of failure is it? It is a political one. Over time, the City Councils have chronically underfunded core services around mobility, following North American trends towards favouring the personal automobile. It is an injustice that has come about after almost 100 years of building 1400 kilometres of roads with no plans for clearing the sidewalks around them. But just because the problem is huge, does not mean we are not capable of moving in the right direction towards fixing things.
In the initial 3 year budget speech of December 2018, there was recognition of the growth of ridership of Metrobus, and of the incremental improvements to sidewalk snow clearing. I am almost always willing to support incremental change as long as it is in the service of something larger, a situation where the whole will be bigger than the parts. This budget does not come close to moving in the direction of fundamental change towards mobility justice. Sidewalk snow clearing represents about one quarter of one percent of the City’s operational budget. If we invested one full percent of our budget, we would see significant improvements. There are many ways to make up that shortfall, but Council has decided to make different priorities, despite clearly articulating mobility as a key priority over the last few years.
Public works staff do the best they can with the money that Council provides. Our staff are dedicated to providing the best level of service that they can, but we have to cough up the money, and not just move funds around and make symbolic gestures. Through this budget process, efficiencies have been sought out, and routes have been re-prioritized as a result. We are purchasing snow clearing fleet to replace existing fleet to improve the equipment’s ability to face our heavy slush/snow. But it is not a service level increase, and we are not expanding fleet. Therefore, the problem remains that Council doesn’t make sidewalk snow clearing a priority.
I would be happy to support a budget that I felt represented a middle ground between the views I hold, and those of the majority of Council. I don’t see that here. The reasons given for the necessity of making a cut to Metrobus and not improving service levels were around uncertainty’s sake. I would argue that that is the very reason we must continue to fund our core services. The City can provide services much more cheaply than the individual. Buying a car is a huge personal cost, paying for a bus pass is a small personal cost. We should leverage our institutional advantage to fill in the gaps so people don’t have to worry about affording mobility as individuals.
To Councillor Lane: I recognize the work gone into this budget and would like to say thank you for engaging in many conversations with me and others about how to make a more liveable city achievable. I feel my understanding of the City and of politics in general has improved because of conversations we have had over the years about the budget. I also want recognize your very positive work to improve mobility over the years and I recognize how difficult this budget process, and this year, has been for all of us. I am sorry I could not support your budget.
Since the Covid 19 global health crisis began, many have said that we are all in the same boat with the pandemic, but this is not true. We are all in the same storm, but some of us have better boats than others. I think that better sidewalk snow clearing & better public transit can help many people better weather the storm. Permanent cuts to the transit budget and not improving sidewalks means a lot more boats keep leaking.