September 21, 2017

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Bowman needs to get back on track with transit

Mayor Brian Bowman (right), Dave Wardrop (centre), Director Winnipeg Transit, and Doug McNeil (left), Chief Administrative Officer, during a press conference at City Hall regarding the Winnipeg Transit bus shortage on Sept. 10.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Mayor Brian Bowman (right), Dave Wardrop (centre), Director Winnipeg Transit, and Doug McNeil (left), Chief Administrative Officer, during a press conference at City Hall regarding the Winnipeg Transit bus shortage on Sept. 10. Purchase Photo Print

You’ve got to hand it to Mayor Brian Bowman’s communications team. When it comes to the disastrous failure on the transit file a few days ago, they effectively diverted at least some public attention from the fact this was city hall’s own failure. In story after story, the media dutifully repeated the spin the bus debacle was all about a lack of resources, as if a provincial bailout would have prevented the latest circus.

Well, no.

We know what actually happened, by the city’s own testimony. First, there was a maintenance backlog identified in June. You may remember that June was more than 70 days ago; the backlog didn’t magically disappear over the summer (go figure). Next, at the last possible minute, it dawned on managers that they didn’t have enough buses to deliver on the fall transit schedule they’d already announced.

Remember, transit schedules and related ads go to press days or even weeks before release — yet no one bothered to cross-check them given the known backlog. Fixing the schedule in advance would have fixed this just as surely as ending the backlog. Anticipating the schedule mismatch shouldn’t have cost a dime in new resources.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/9/2015 (741 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You’ve got to hand it to Mayor Brian Bowman’s communications team. When it comes to the disastrous failure on the transit file a few days ago, they effectively diverted at least some public attention from the fact this was city hall’s own failure. In story after story, the media dutifully repeated the spin the bus debacle was all about a lack of resources, as if a provincial bailout would have prevented the latest circus.

Well, no.

We know what actually happened, by the city’s own testimony. First, there was a maintenance backlog identified in June. You may remember that June was more than 70 days ago; the backlog didn’t magically disappear over the summer (go figure). Next, at the last possible minute, it dawned on managers that they didn’t have enough buses to deliver on the fall transit schedule they’d already announced.

Remember, transit schedules and related ads go to press days or even weeks before release — yet no one bothered to cross-check them given the known backlog. Fixing the schedule in advance would have fixed this just as surely as ending the backlog. Anticipating the schedule mismatch shouldn’t have cost a dime in new resources.

Tellingly, Amalgamated Transit Union officials insist they flagged this issue even earlier than June. Since Winnipeg narrowly avoided a transit strike this year, I’m inclined to believe them, because maintenance backlogs are just the sort of thing that comes up when unions and employers bicker about workloads and payrolls. Listening for warnings to anticipate problems is exactly why taxpayers pay for a mayor, a mayor’s office and a city council. On Thursday, Bowman told reporters that "this type of oversight will never happen again." The joke, of course, is that the problem wasn’t just about an oversight. It was also about a lack of oversight — in the political, governance sense of the word.

The argument that this is really about missing resources falls further apart when you consider what should have happened. In theory, had there been no backlog, there would have been sufficient resources to use the schedule as posted. Nobody in management has claimed that there weren’t enough buses in the fleet on paper, only that there was a temporary shortage of properly maintained buses.

Yet behind the podium, the mayor was out there with a straight face insisting that the numbers weren’t plausible either way. "The service level expectation needs to be more realistic than they were," he insisted. Don’t blame mismanagement. Don’t blame a failure to share, track and respond to information. Don’t blame the backlog. Blame "expectations."

Maintenance is mostly an operating budget problem. In a city with an operating budget in the hundreds of millions, a maintenance backlog is not a shortage of resources. It’s a shortage of allocated resources. Reserves exist to plug one-time problems where they appear. A maintenance backlog is a one-time problem. But no one acted to plug the hole. Also note that Manitoba’s operating support for Winnipeg Transit is generous by national standards, and it has been for a long, long time.

This isn’t about a shortage of capital resources for spare buses, either. If Broadway had given Winnipeg $20 million in new capital grants for transit expansion this summer, we already know that new buses wouldn’t have been the Bowman administration’s priority. The money would have gone to their real transit priority: a rapid transit roadway that somehow bypasses the cheapest, most rapid route to the university it’s supposed to serve.

But the mayor wasn’t thinking about the looming transit crisis this summer, when he was dancing and dining at 43 pavilions at Folkorama. And if you’re a transit rider and your bus never comes, you’re still free to walk to city hall to have your photo taken beside that famous smile, selfies being the mayor’s favoured mode of communication.

Surely that’s compensation enough, right?

The last time Bowman got the hint that it was time to shift his focus from ceremonial work to identifying and solving problems, he responded by doubling down on the ribbon-cutting as if to mock the idea there even was an issue. This time, it’s different. Bowman-friendly transit voters will take the hit for this episode. So, Bowman-friendly transit voters may start to grasp that every minute the mayor spends in front of a camera is a minute he isn’t spending on oversight of city services.

So, hopefully His Worship will take this latest episode as hint No. 2 to cut the selfies and get to work on the services Winnipeggers rely on daily.

 

Brian Kelcey is a public policy consultant with experience as a senior political advisor in the Mayor’s Office, and in the Ontario government.

 

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