Rural Sask. hit with funding, bus transportation cuts

Rural residents will notice the loss of the Saskatchewan Transportation Company, says the head of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities.

Ray Orb said the government’s decision to close the provincial bus company to freight as of May 19 and passengers as of May 31 is a concern.

“It’s still a fairly valuable service, especially to some of the smaller communities, especially for seniors who might have problems getting into the bigger centre,” he said after the budget speech announcing the decision.

“Obviously it’s been subsidized quite highly.… I wish there was some alternative way that we could still operate a publicly owned transportation system that I think still should be viewed as an asset to rural Saskatchewan.”

STC served 253 communities, but the only profitable route was Regina to Saskatoon and occasionally Saskatoon to Prince Albert, said Finance Minister Kevin Doherty.

The closure will leave 224 people out of work.

Doherty choked up when asked about people left without jobs as a result of the budget. Another 230 cleaners in government buildings already knew their positions would be cut, and 80 health region employees will be cut through the move to a provincial health authority.

“I take no comfort in this … those are tough decisions,” he said.

However, STC last turned a profit in 1979, and the government spent $112 million over the last 10 years subsidizing the company. It estimated $85 million was needed for the next five years.

The subsidy was $25 per passenger 10 years ago and is now $94.

STC has tried a number of ways over the years to entice more passengers. It also cut routes and changed schedules to try to save money, yet the subsidy continued to grow and ridership dropped.

The corporation estimated 182,400 people would take the bus this year. In 1990, nearly 788,000 rode the bus.

Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan president Todd Lewis said the loss will be felt in many communities.

“Certainly the STC (cut) is disproportionately a hit against rural Saskatchewan without doubt,” he said. “Transit in the rest of Canada is pretty important, but we don’t have it in rural Saskatchewan now in a lot of cases.”

The government says the private sector could step in to provide both freight and passenger services to areas where there is demand.

Rural residents used the bus to get to medical appointments in larger centres, and many farmers used the freight service to get parts and supplies.

Funding for rural roads was also cut this year. SARM had wanted the Municipal Roads for the Economy Program budget to be reinstated to the $25.5 million it used to be.

Last year, it was set at $16 million and in this budget it is $14 million.

Orb said the province had come back to the municipalities last year and cut it from the original amount, so the $14 million isn’t too far off where they already were.

“Obviously citing the economic state of our economy, we’re going to work more efficiently,” he said.

SARM works with the highways ministry and project management board on road projects, and Orb said they will share services where possible and “stretch that money as far we as we can.”

Revenue sharing funding for municipalities is down this year as expected. The government provides revenue from one percentage point of the provincial sales tax to municipalities, but it is based on revenue from two years’ prior.

Rural municipalities will receive $72.8 million this year compared to nearly $77 million last year.

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