Should Ottawa pay for newcomers’ impact on transit?

posted on August 5, 2019

By Vancouver Sun |

Recent immigrants, international students and guest workers use transit at a much greater rate than the domestic population. Shouldn’t Ottawa help out more?

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.

“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.

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