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Michael Murphy

Soapbox: Public Transit In HRM

Michael Murphy
Michael Murphy
[Editor’s Note: This post marks the introduction of a new section on Haligonia.ca. “The Soapbox” is where we invite fellow Haligonians to share their views on the state of the city, and anything else that’s on their mind.  If you have something to say, post it on our forums or mail it to us directly through our contact form.]


The city of Halifax now has nearly 400,000 people. Problem is, because of centuries of lackluster city planning, or in most cases a total lack of any planning whatsoever; metropolitan Halifax has been built out and out in the least dense fashion possible. What does this mean? 

It means tens of thousands of cars trucks and buses streaming in from the suburbs every day easily congest peninsular Halifax’s narrow streets bridges and highways. It means you end up waiting in traffic on one of only five entry points to the peninsula in the morning and in the afternoon. There are solutions to this gridlock that have been already partially implemented (some could argue half-heartedly considering their success) and others now on the drawing board.


On the drawing board we have Peter Kelley’s proposed pet pork project, the $30 million “fast ferry” system from Bedford to Halifax. Apparently they intend to expand it someday at an unknown cost so that it can travel to Eastern Passage, Herring Cove, Burnside and Birch Cove. At $10 per round trip and $30 million per ferry/terminal, how realistic is this scenario? They quote 55km/hr top speeds, but is that much better than priority signaled buses like the MetroLink can attain?

The real question should be – how can the analysis and studies the city has undertaken to examine this fast ferry proposal be taken seriously? One fact that doesn’t seem to be been on the radar of either city council or the consultants is that there isn’t one fast ferry system in operation throughout North America that isn’t heavily subsidized by state/provincial and federal dollars.  Not to mention that as one out of two destinations with this form of transit, Bedford has less than 5% of the municipality’s population. Also, to add insult to injury, the city is already pushing out tenders before they have completed a ridership study. I smell bacon.

Halifax’s MetroLink limited run bus service has been a resounding success, and with some proper route planning could certainly be a part of our transit solution… if there were more than two routes – and if they had other destinations besides Scotia Square.

The $30 million earmarked for the fast ferry project should instead be invested in expanding the (already successful) MetroLink service, which currently has two routes; Sackville to Scotia Square, and Portland Hills to Scotia Square. These two existing routes cost the city only $13 million, so I would think even taking into account the inflation over the past few years, that would get us four new Metro Link Routes for the price of the proposed “fast ferry” service.

This could service the vast majority of the municipalities’ existing population and our employment and educational districts with that same $30 million. We could create routes to encompass Spryfield, Clayton Park/Rockingham, Bedford, Burnside, Eastern Passage and other communities quite easily, and build upon a system that is already showing favour with business commuters, students, and average transit riders alike, at a cost of only $2.50 per ride, versus the projected far box sticker shock of $5.00 and up for the Fast Ferry.

There are other options for Halifax’s commuter woes, but up until now City council has been cool to considering any commuter rail or light rail projects, with what could be considered a defeatist attitude.

It is a bit of a chicken-or-egg scenario, the City of Halifax cites our low population base and low population density as the reasons a rail system is unfeasible. If we don’t “plant the seeds” today and in the near future to secure longer term development, then how will we be able to grow as a city? A city which relies as heavily on property tax revenue such as Halifax, you would think population growth would be a high priority. The ultimate irony is that without an infrastructure of high speed mass transit, Halifax may never get to grow large enough to, in the city’s eyes, support such infrastructure.

In the late 1970s, Calgary had the same population as Halifax, and in their wise determination they began planning for LRT service – creating future transit ways, zoning land around transit hubs as higher density so as to support the use of mass transit options, and budgeting over many years, as Halifax has done with its sewage treatment plant, to make high quality affordable mass transit a reality. Today, Calgary’s LRT system is actually profitable (a rarity), and is fully powered by wind energy. If that’s not a good model for development and a path for Halifax to emulate I’d like to know why.

When the lack of population is taken out of the argument, the city will cite the fact that there is now only one rail line remaining in the rail cut that traverses the backside of Halifax’s peninsula, from Bayer’s Road to the VIA Rail station. I’d agree the rail cut is not an ideal route for rail transit, mostly for the fact that the eventual destination (the VIA station in south end Halifax) is a significant distance from Downtown or the Universities, and as such, would need to rely on busses to take folks to their final destination which isn’t ideal. There are other possibilities that haven’t been explored though, such as taking the train down the Bedford Highway and constructing a branch line down along Barrington Street to the Cogswell interchange instead.

The city also brings up the cost of such a service as a detriment to feasibility – yet there are many commuter rail systems currently in operation around North America that have proven themselves worthy of consideration, and at a reasonable cost to the tax payer. A good example of such a system is South Florida’s Tri-Rail system (http://www.trirail.com). The Tri-Rail was initiated in 1989 at a cost of $75 million ($132 million in 2008 dollars), and connects Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. It is a 72 mile north to south route, with 18 stations. Each train-set normally consists of four bi-level passenger cars and a diesel-electric locomotive – carrying up to 700 passengers per run, twice an hour. These trains are wheelchair accessible and also have amenities such as washrooms and bicycle storage areas for passengers. This kind of commuter rail technology is relatively cheap – standard parts, trains and track that can be easily obtained on the open market.

A system such as this would be a great fit for Halifax, and indeed for the region, it is feasible a rail line originating from within the city of Halifax could reach communities like Clayton Park, Bedford, Sackville, the Airport, or even Truro quite easily. This would connect more than 50% of the provinces population with a high speed rail link – It would create a whole new class of commuter for Halifax and would take thousands of cars off of our roads. In fact, Windsor, Hantsport, Avonport, Grand Pre and Wolfville are all within 65 miles of Halifax.

It would connect to existing infrastructure, and in fact, would create much greater efficiencies if a commuter rail could act as the backbone to our existing services; Bus, MetroLink and Ferry. A bike path could be constructed at little cost throughout the urban areas traversed by the rail line, increasing visibility of the line to citizens and helping support green and alternative methods for us to reach our destination without taking a car. Imagine the thousands of direct and indirect jobs created during the construction phase of a project like this, the improved air quality, and the ease of commuting safely and reliably throughout the Capitol region.

During the run up to the Commonwealth Games, the Federal government and the provincial government were ready willing and able to pony up upwards of $700 million to support infrastructure costs as a part of the project. Wouldn’t a smaller portion of this funding commitment put towards mass transit infrastructure for Halifax provide just as much benefit, if not more, to our city and our province?

Halifax needs to focus on a long-term vision for itself instead of being a haven for political patronage and pork barrel projects (such as the “fast ferry” for all of Peter Kelly’s friends in Bedford). Halifax is the economic engine of our province, and to be able to sustain ourselves we will have to begin thinking big. Let’s hope we can get all levels of government (Federal and Provincial) on side to support mass transit options not only for our current state of affairs, but most importantly with our future in mind.

Michael Murphy



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