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Douglas Todd: Should Ottawa pay for newcomers’ impact on transit?

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Ridership on Metro Vancouver buses and Skytrain has mushroomed by 17 per cent since the beginning of 2016, which Translink CEO Kevin Desmond calls a North American record growth rate.

Census figures show much of that jump comes from a rise in Metro Vancouver’s net population, which is almost entirely based on the arrival each year of 35,000 new immigrants and about 90,000 international students and guest workers.

Since immigration policy is controlled by Ottawa, and neither civic nor provincial politicians have any influence over the fact that most migrants choose to live in Canada’s urban centres, should the federal government be paying more for transit infrastructure in Metro Vancouver and other big cities?

Some migration specialists say yes, some are not so sure, and Translink won’t really answer.

That’s despite census figures showing that immigrants, international students and guest workers use transit at a much greater rate than the domestic population.

While it’s environmentally beneficial that immigrants and non-permanent residents are more likely to rely on buses and subways than automobiles, such demand places more pressure on transit infrastructure, which is heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

In Metro Vancouver, census figures show that about 17 per cent of non-immigrant commuters rely on transit, compared to about 36 per cent of recent immigrant commuters and 45 per cent of non-permanent residents, most of whom are guest workers and international students.

Chris Friesen, who chairs the umbrella body overseeing all migrant settlement services in Canada, says Ottawa should “absolutely” be paying more to support transit infrastructure in the major cities that are favoured by immigrants, temporary residents and refugees.

Vancouver-based Friesen also believes the federal government should direct more funds into transit passes for all people on low incomes, regardless of their immigration status. Almost half the 2.6 million population of Metro Vancouver is foreign-born.

Margret Kopala, an author and policy analyst specializing in migration, said there is no doubt the almost one million new immigrants and non-permanent residents who arrive in Canada every year place additional stress on various forms of costly infrastructure, particularly transit.

But Kopala doesn’t want to see provinces and municipalities “going cap in hand to the feds every time a new federally imposed burden lands on their shoulders.”

Instead, she believes municipal and provincial governments need “a full say” with Ottawa in setting immigration levels and agreeing on how to share infrastructure costs, based on the proportion of new arrivals who choose to live in a particular province or city.

Translink, for it’s part, however, says it has no information on how much the Crown corporation’s annual budget of almost $2 billion is affected by the impact of new arrivals – even while the number moving into Metro on temporary visas has jumped by 40,000 a year since 2015.

“Ridership growth can be attributed to several factors, including high gas prices, high employment, economic opportunities and increases to transit service. … We do not track the citizenship or nationality of our customers,” Translink spokeswoman Jill Drews said by email.

Since only about one third of Translink’s costs are covered by riders’ fees and most of the rest comes from gasoline and property taxes, Translink officials were asked if Ottawa should provide more money to cover the impact that immigrants and temporary residents place on public transportation.

“We continue to work with all levels of government to expand the system to meet the growing demand,” Drew said.

CEO Desmond was not available to respond to questions. Neither was Jonathan Cote, chair of the mayor’s council on regional transportation, who has written in The Vancouver Sun that Translink ridership was growing faster than the forecasted three per cent a year.

Cote, who is mayor of New Westminster, regretted there are many crammed busses and Skytrains across Metro’s system. And he recently wrote that decision-makers in Ottawa have to keep investing in Metro Vancouver transit or it will face “chronic overcrowding.”

The number of foreign students and guest workers coming into Metro Vancouver each year has tripled in the past two decades. Source: Superdiversity

The Metro Vancouver economy grows because of spending by new immigrants, foreign students and offshore guest workers. By contrast, net inter-provincial migration into Metro is flat. And it is positive that a higher than average proportion of such newcomers commute by transit instead of by automobiles, which pollute more and increase congestion.

But every North American public transit systems is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. And there is little doubt that, despite the reluctance of public officials to openly discuss it, a large portion of the rapid growth in ridership in Metro Vancouver is made up of recent migrants, who can choose to live wherever they want once they come to Canada.

The pressures that migration place on urban infrastructure is not something most public officials want to talk about. When an Ontario politician recently asked the federal Liberal government to help the province pay the housing costs of asylum seekers, Kopala said, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen accused her of being “un-Canadian.”

With the national discussion at such a low and testy level, it’s not likely there is soon going to be much cooperation among municipal, provincial and federal politicians to resolve the link between Ottawa’s migration policies and Metro Vancouver’s transit challenges.

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Record one million job losses in March: StatCan

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OTTAWA — More than one million Canadians lost their jobs in the month of March, Statistics Canada is reporting. The unemployment rate has also climbed to 7.8 per cent, up from 2.2 percentage points since February.

Canada’s national statistics agency released its monthly Labour Force Survey on Thursday, using March 15 to 21 as the sample week – a time when the government began enforcing strict guidelines around social gatherings and called on non-essential businesses to close up shop.

The first snapshot of job loss since COVID-19 began taking a toll on the Canadian economy shows 1.1 million out of work since the prior sample period and a consequent decrease in the employment rate – the lowest since April 1997. The most job losses occurred in the private sector and among people aged 15-24.

The number of people who were unemployed increased by 413,000, resulting in the largest one-month increase in Canada’s unemployment rate on record and takes the economy back to a state last seen in October, 2010.

“Almost all of the increase in unemployment was due to temporary layoffs, meaning that workers expected to return to their job within six months,” reads the findings.

The agency included three new indicators, on top of the usual criteria, to better reflect the impact of COVID-19 on employment across the country.

The survey, for example, excludes the more commonly observed reasons for absent workers — such as vacation, weather, parental leave or a strike or lockout — to better isolate the pandemic’s effect.

They looked at: people who are employed but were out of a job during the reference week, people who are employed but worked less than half their usual hours, and people who are unemployed but would like a job.

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Employee at Ottawa’s Amazon Fulfillment Centre tests positive for COVID-19

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OTTAWA — An employee who works at Amazon’s fulfillment centre on Boundary Road in Ottawa’s east-end has tested positive for COVID-19.

Amazon says it learned on April 3 that an associate tested positive for novel coronavirus and is currently in isolation. The employee last worked at the fulfillment centre on March 19.

Two employees told CTV News Ottawa that management informed all employees about the positive test in a text message over the weekend.

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Amazon spokesperson Jen Crowcroft wrote “we are supporting the individual who is recovering. We are following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.”

The statement also says that Amazon has taken steps to further protect their employees.

“We have also implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the FC.”

CTV News Ottawa asked Amazon about the timeline between when the company found out about the positive COVID-19 case and when employees were notified.

In a separate email to CTV News Ottawa, Crowcroft said “all associates of our Boundary Road fulfillment centre in Ottawa were notified within 24 hours of learning of the positive COVID-19 case.”

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Ottawa facing silent spring as festivals, events cancelled

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This is shaping up to be Ottawa’s silent spring — and summer’s sounding pretty bleak, too — as more and more concerts, festivals and other annual events are cancelled in the wake of measures meant to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The province has already banned gatherings of more than five people, and on Monday officials announced city parks, facilities and services will remain shut down until the end of June, nor will any event permits be issued until at least that time.

“This leaves us with no choice but to cancel the festival this year,” Ottawa Jazz Festival artistic director Petr Cancura confirmed Monday.

This was to be the festival’s 40th anniversary, and organizers announced the lineup for the June 19-July 1 event the day after Ottawa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. 

The Toronto and Montreal jazz festivals had already pulled the plug because of similar restrictions in their cities, so Cancura said the writing was on the wall.

“We have a few contingency plans to keep connecting with our audience and working with our artists,” Cancura said.

People holding tickets to the 2020 festival can ask for a refund or exchange for a 2021 pass.

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