Montreal's Metro could close at 11 p.m. Intercity buses could stop at 9 p.m., and entire lines could be cut from the public transit network.
These are the types of measures public transit authorities could resort to in the greater Montreal area if the Legault government does not increase its financial support, according to a confidential document obtained by Radio-Canada, which explicitly suggests a return to the 1990s — an era when budgetary cuts led to a significant reduction in transit services.
Public transit officials have been on high alert since Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault announced plans to cover only 20 per cent of their estimated $2.5 billion deficit over the next five years.
While the minister has since indicated that was a preliminary offer as negotiations get underway, the budgetary shortfall for the regional transit authority, the Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain (ARTM), would still be around $275 million for 2024 alone.
Despite that bleak outlook, a spokesperson for the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) remains optimistic.
"We have no intention of implementing these hypothetical scenarios," said Justine Lord-Dufour in an email. "Our desire is to increase our range of services to meet the population's needs in terms of public transit and sustainable mobility."
Those hypothetical scenarios include not just closing the Metro early, but opening only at 9 a.m. on the weekends. Trains would also be withdrawn from the Orange, Green and Yellow lines, affecting the frequency of service.
As for buses, the number of trips would decrease from 18,400 to 15,600 on weekdays, from 12,700 to 10,800 on Saturdays, and from 11,700 to 9,900 on Sundays.
To compensate for this reduction, the target number of passengers per bus would increase from 35 to 45, leading to more crowding. At night, the frequency of service would be reduced by 33 per cent.
"The effort demanded by Quebec will take us back to 1991-1992," says the document obtained by Radio-Canada.
Guilbault said she believes there are other ways to optimize public transit systems that don't involve reducing hours of operations, during a news conference Friday, but that ultimately those decisions fall on public transit authorities.
Suburbs could also be hit by cutbacks
In Laval, Que., just north of Montreal, the Société de transport de Laval (STL) may have to cut 18 jobs by 2024. Eventually, the STL may lay off as many as 125 employees, the document says.
To compensate for this lack of employees, the STL could either reduce 50 bus trips during rush hour on weekdays or cut 150 trips outside of rush hour, the document says.
As for the South Shore, the Réseau de transport de Longueuil (RTL) predicts 6,000 to 10,000 riders will be affected due to service slowdowns, or the complete cessation of bus lines in some neighbourhoods.
Montreal public transit ridership dropped significantly during the pandemic, costing the STM millions in ticket sales. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
The RTL also anticipates significant layoffs, leading to an increased risk of strikes, the document says.
As for the commuter rail service, Exo would have to terminate its intercity bus service after 9 p.m. on weekdays. The frequency would also be reduced on weekends and outside peak hours. The train service itself would not be affected.
The transit corporations indicate that they have little room to reduce expenses without affecting service, as they have contractual obligations and collective agreements to honour.
Furthermore, the transport companies have no control over costs such as fuel and parts. They are appealing to the provincial government to increase its financial assistance, saying that cutting service would spur a downward spiral.
For example, a 15 per cent reduction in service would result in a seven per cent reduction in ridership and, therefore, a seven per cent loss in average revenue, documents show.
Radio-Canada has learned the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal (CMM) sent a counter-proposal to Guilbault on Tuesday evening, asking Quebec to cover 75 per cent of the projected deficit by 2028.
According to Guilbault, the counter-proposal isn't reasonable.
"Deficits linked to salary raises, to operational matters in which the government is neither involved nor concerned — those decisions are made independently from the government and after that there's deficits and we expect the government to pay the deficit," she said Friday.
"At what point does the government have to absorb deficits of organizations that do not report to it?"
Quebec government negotiates bailout
Guilbault also says that covering a higher percentage of the deficit would require diverting funds away from other priorities like housing, education and public health.
For several weeks, the Legault government has emphasized that it has no more room for manoeuvring than municipalities and that it is essential to share the public transportation burden.
Quebec officials have also said that the province's total share in funding public transportation, including subsidies for infrastructure and emergency aid provided during the pandemic, was 48 per cent in 2023, compared to 37 per cent in 2015.
During the pandemic, the government's role was to make up the revenue lost by public transit societies due to a dip in ridership explained Guilbault at Friday's news conference. She says the preliminary offer she made two weeks ago continues to follow that same philosophy.
Despite the support, the STM contends it has made an effort to control expenses without affecting service after ridership plummeted during the pandemic.
In 2022, the STM absorbed $18 million, Lord-Dufour said. In 2023, more than $50 million will be absorbed.
"This is considerable considering that more than 85 per cent of our budget is dedicated to service delivery," she said.
"For 2024, the actions that are being evaluated now mark a major turning point where we will move away from non-recurring savings and adopt recurring measures that will have long-term effects."
Laval transit buses are lined up at terminal. The head of the drivers' union says funding cuts will inevitably translate into service cuts. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Bus drivers' unions slam Quebec government
The presidents of the three main unions representing bus drivers of the RTL, STL and STM released a joint statement Thursday, saying the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government is on the wrong track by underestimating the importance of public transportation for the future of Quebec.
"It is a societal choice, in the same way as the health network once was. No one questions its benefits today," said Marc Gingras, president of the Longueuil bus drivers' union (CUPE 3333).
The statement accuses the CAQ of being willfully blind as climate change disrupts quality of life.
"To claim that cutting funding for public transit will not lead to service cuts is to lie to the population," said Julie Sigouin, head of the drivers' union in Laval (CUPE 5959).
The unions represent 5,800 public transit employees, and in the statement, they say the Legault government must make the right choice for the future of Quebec.