With Newfoundland's cross-island bus line on the brink of folding without funding, a Maritimes bus company says provincial and federal cash has been key to staying afloat during COVID-19 — and should continue after the pandemic ends.
Mike Cassidy watched Maritime Bus's ridership and revenue plummet as the pandemic swept across Atlantic Canada last spring. In April 2020, his buses moved 650 passengers on his routes across Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, he said, a fraction of the 14,000 in April 2019, and at a $300,000 loss.
"I went to all three levels of government — the three provinces — and said, 'This is just unbelievable what COVID-19 is doing to my intercity business,'" Cassidy, the owner of Atlantic Coach Maritime Bus, told CBC News.
By June, he said, all three provinces had chipped in a little, and over the course of the rest of the year worked to put more substantial funding in place. By January, his company had received a mix of federal government relief and New Brunswick provincial funds to the tune of $720,000 to keep rural communities in the north of that province linked by his buses.
"I just had faith in the system that governments would acknowledge that intercity busing is important," Cassidy said, adding he also took out loans with banks to get by.
Cassidy sympathizes with DRL owner Jason Roberts, who said Monday he won't be able to keep his company's buses rolling across Newfoundland beyond June unless the province helps staunch the bleeding until COVID-19 recedes.
"My argument has always been, Maritime Bus, DRL-type of companies, we are public transit on provincial highways, no different than public transit on municipal streets," Cassidy said. "And if you support public transit on municipal streets, why wouldn't you support public transit on provincial highways to the rural communities?"
A funding 'no-brainer'
While both Maritime Bus and DRL are for-profit companies, Roberts and Cassidy have both said even pre-pandemic margins are slim for the essential service they provide.
"Busing in general is a very fragile industry, very low margin and very highly capital-intensive. And to be able to operate buses, the cost of those buses is horrendous," said Cassidy.
Salome Barker regularly rides the DRL from St. John's to visit her family in Grand Falls-Windsor. Without it, she said, a lot of people will be affected, from students to seniors to people who can't drive due to disabilities, or others like her who simply don't own cars.
"It would be such a huge loss, and it would kind of be a slap in the face to those people who rely on this as their essential service," Barker told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show on Tuesday.
To that end, Barker supports putting taxpayer money toward a private company.
"To me, it's a no-brainer of keeping this service running," she said.
Potential funding on the horizon
Busing, like most other forms of transportation, has taken a hit during the pandemic; Greyhound Canada announced last week it was folding entirely. Outside the Maritimes, other provincial governments have combined taxpayer dollars with federal funds to keep smaller companies afloat.
Quebec has funded its intercity buses, and British Columbia is accepting applications from bus companies for $10.7 million worth of aid.
"A number of the provinces have identified there has to be a need and [they] don't want to see these bus companies closed," said Cassidy.
"Because there's not a lot of us, and if we closed, the question is, who else would step in to this type of business?"
Newfoundland and Labrador's Department of Energy, Industry and Technology said in a statement to CBC News "discussions are ongoing" with Roberts about DRL, but declined an interview.
The federal government did announce COVID-19 transit relief in the summer of 2020; New Brunswick availed of it to bail out Maritime Bus. CBC's requests for what the $1 million Newfoundland and Labrador received under that program went toward, and if busing was ever considered, were unanswered by deadline.
Beyond the pandemic, Cassidy hopes governments are getting on board with systemic funding for his industry. The federal government announced in March a $250-million pot of funding for transit that connects rural communities.
"What we do not know is the federal interpretation of that fund," Cassidy said.
"We have gone to the federal government and [said], 'When you develop the fund and you have eligibility criteria, we are hoping that for-profit intercity bus companies would be eligible recipients.'"