In one of Peterborough’s biggest news stories of 2011, more than 200 people attended a city budget meeting last January to oppose a proposed cut to transit funding which would have resulted in service reductions. Public pressure won out in the end and the $422,000 cut was reversed.

Transit should fare better in the new year—the 2012 draft budget calls for $541,418 in additional funding (to absorb the rising cost of fuel) and no fare increase—but the service’s future is still in question.

Peterborough Transit’s list of capital needs keeps growing while funding is stagnant and council’s support remains shaky. Not to mention transit’s capital needs are in competition with myriad other infrastructure improvement priorities across the city.

The 2012 budget identifies over $23 million in foreseeable capital expenditures needed to keep buses running in coming years. That money would go toward keeping the current number of buses on the road and upgrading the Downtown Transit Terminal, among other priorities. Revenue from fares will pay for some of the total. Most of the rest will come from a fund for transit capital expenses.

This year, for instance, $1.3 million will be drawn from that fund to pay for two new accessible buses and two new “Handi-Van” buses. But with only $555,000 a year being paid into it this year and last, city staff note that the fund may run dry by 2015.

And that’s only part of future costs. $23 million is to keep things running at the current level of service. City council has committed to doing more than that. They want to increase ridership to the point that 6% of all daily trips in the city are made by public transit in the future, up from the current 4.5%. To do that, the city will have to purchase 10 new buses to run at peak times. The price tag is $5.1 million plus another $1.4 million in annual operation costs.

Council would no doubt prefer to increase ridership without spending any more money.

“In theory I’m in favour of increasing ridership,” Councillor Len Vass told Arthur last March. “However I don’t think we’re getting the best bang for our buck.”

Vass is counting on an operational review of transit services, now underway, to find ways to run transit for less. “We can’t just throw money at it,” he stated.

But as witnessed from service reviews in Toronto this past year, where one person sees gravy another sees vital services. Considering transit’s long list of capital needs, its doubtful the city can get much more “bang for its buck” without reducing the current level of service, as was proposed last year.

Mayor Daryl Bennett thinks the service is inefficient because revenue doesn’t cover all operating costs.

“The other side of this is the taxpayer who’s paying the overall cost of all of this is diminished because he can’t even afford to go downtown to have a night out…. We’re not looking to impose hardships on anybody. We’re just trying to figure out how best to balance out those who use the system … and the folks who ultimately have to pay the price,” Mayor Daryl Bennett told The Peterborough Examiner last January about the proposed transit cuts.

Bennett ignores the fact that half of all operational costs are paid for by fares. More importantly, he implies that transit is only meant to serve those who can’t afford to drive a car. But the view expressed in the city’s Transportation Plan and numerous other documents is that transit should be a fuel-efficient alternative to polluting private automobile use, for everyone.

Bennett should encourage any taxpayers who feel cheated by having to pay for transit to, well, use it. No matter how you spin it, it’s a lot more affordable than driving.

If more Peterboroughians did use transit, they would notice just how much its list of capital projects are needed. More buses are needed so that you don’t have to wait 40 minutes between every run, different routes are needed so that not every trip has to go through downtown. Other examples aren’t hard to find.

But transit improvements are only one priority on a long list of capital projects the city is waiting to start on. That list includes $173 million to implement the Flood Reduction Master Plan, $26 million for trails and cycling lanes, a major revamping of Morrow Park, and millions to extend city services to recently annexed rural lands.

“These projects cannot proceed in a timely fashion if the City continues with its current capital financing under which only a very few major projects can proceed in any year and most are pushed out because of funding limitations,” city staff note in the proposed budget for 2012.

Another major capital cost, identified in the city’s Transportation Plan, is almost $52 million for expanding roads and building new ones, to accommodate more cars. Expanding transit could reduce the need for more and wider roads since, for the number of people they carry, buses take up less road space than automobiles.

Last year the city tried to cut transit spending. This year, a much better idea would be to cut spending on road building.