Ottawa Citizen

Budget stop on bus funds worries transit chairman

Taxes, light-rail possibly impacted

- BY JOANNE CHIANELLO

The cancellati­on of the provincial government’s bus-replacemen­t program could lead to higher property taxes and changes to the finance plan for a new light-rail system, said the chairman of the transit committee.

“We’re faced with the double challenge of trying to increase our bus fleet to meet growth, replace our aging bus fleet and upgrade those buses we have,” said Bay Councillor Alex Cullen, who is also running for mayor. “This, unfortunat­ely, compounds our problems.”

This year’s order for 60 new buses is unaffected.

However, the long-term effects of scrapping the program — as announced in the Ontario budget tabled Thursday — could result in fewer newer buses on the roads, higher property taxes, or both.

The city’s 2010 budget for bus replacemen­t is $29.6 million, of which the province is subsidizin­g $ 9.7 million, an amount that represents a one-per-cent property tax increase in Ottawa.

“We have an aging fleet — the average age is about 16 years — which means they’re prone for breakdowns,” said Cullen. “Without the provincial subsidy, we either have to curtail our program or we’re going to have to go back to the taxpayer to make up the difference. “Neither is very palatable.” Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said the province expects to save $ 50 million a year by ending the eight-yearold program that paid up to one-third of the cost of replacing city buses. The province wants municipali­ties to make up the difference with their share of the gas tax. Last year, Ottawa received almost $ 37 million from gas-tax rebates.

The problem, said Cullen, is that Ottawa, like every other municipali­ty, has plans for the gas-tax funds. In Ottawa’s case, those funds were earmarked to service the debt on a new rapid-transit system.

Besides the cut to the bus-replacemen­t program, Duncan’s budget says the province intends to save money by delaying $4 billion worth of transit projects in greater Toronto. The $600 million promised for light rail in Ottawa is unaffected, said a spokeswoma­n for Ottawa Centre Liberal MPP Yasir Naqvi.

Mayor Larry O’Brien was unavailabl­e to talk about the cuts to the bus-replacemen­t program. He did release a written statement saying he’s “concerned that the province’s future plan to reduce the deficit could come at the expense of needed funds for important municipal projects such as social housing, transit and public health.”

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