$30 per month: the cost of free public transit in Montreal

Taylor C. Noakes
 Montreal Subway - Photo by Ilia Usmanov

Mayor Valérie Plante’s recent statement that Montreal cannot afford to provide free public transit struck me as incredibly shortsighted: she might be surprised to learn how unaffordable terminal climate change is going to be.

The idea that transit needs to cost the user something, rather than simply being a service whose cost is absorbed through taxation and shared equally as a public benefit, is an unfortunate feature of a capitalist society’s tendency to try to monetize everything. There are people in this city who charge you to look at Mount Royal if they could get away with it. Charging people to take public transit during the era of the climate emergency is just as stupid, particularly so given that we should be trying to incentivize people by whatever means necessary to stop driving their cars. 

As long as our city’s public transit remains at least partly dependent on fares to operate, we can’t reasonably expect to expand transit access or service with declining annual fare revenue. As long as the pandemic continues, the number of people using public transit will remain artificially low, and this in turn means both that transit agencies will have less money to invest in the service they provide as much as government will be disincentivized to invest in public transit operations. It’s apt that such a situation is termed a ‘vicious’ circle.

Take a minute to consider just how perversely backwards our enlightened leaders are when it comes to transit, because Val Plante giving up before even trying is actually the least of it. Back in March, the province announced that it was going to foot much of the $6.4-billion Blue Line extension bill. Last month it was announced that the STM had to trim $2-billion from its budget for the next decade, largely as a result of pandemic-related lost revenue. The provincial government is happy to use taxpayer’s money to build flashy and expensive transit infrastructure, they’re just not too interested in making sure it’s actually being used. Meanwhile, the $800-million the federal government gave to Montreal (which Plante then inexplicably turned over to the Montreal-phobic Legault administration) is apparently still available, just not for the city to use as it sees fit. It’s apparently being held by the province for some as yet unnamed transit infrastructure development project somewhere in the metropolitan region.

So, to recap:

  • Free public transit is too expensive for the city
  • The province will pay for a politically expedient extension of Montreal’s least-used metro line
  • The STM has to cut $2-billion from its budget because not enough people are using public transit
  • $800-million in federal funding meant for public transit in Montreal is being held by the province for some unnamed future project

I can’t make heads or tails of this mess other than that it makes absolutely no sense for anyone in Quebec City to be making funding decisions about Montreal’s public transit, but I’m not convinced the decisions being made by people at City Hall are any wiser. Transit for the city and the metro region should be planned by an organization whose funding comes directly from the people, and shouldn’t be subject to the partisan whims of provincial governments.

That said, Mayor Plante’s assertion that Montreal can’t afford free public transit got me thinking it might be worth doing the math to see if that’s true.

Here’s what I came up with.

The STM’s latest budget is $1.57-billion, of which approximately 42% comes from fares, representing somewhere around $660-million per annum.

If Montreal wanted to offer free or no-charge public transit, say as an incentive to encourage public transit use and lower the city’s carbon footprint, it would have to come up with that amount each year. If that $660-million cost were divided among all 1.9 million residents of the island of Montreal, it would come out to an annual bill of just under $350, or $29 per person per month.

Granted not every resident is a taxpayer, so we can try looking at this another way. If we divided this $660-million figure by the number of private dwellings (which is about 879,000 just within the city limits of Montreal), this would come out to a per dwelling cost of about $750 per annum, or about $63 per month.

We could divide this sum a different way that would also help incentivize transit use, such as by dividing the portion of the STM’s operating budget that comes from fares among the approximately two million cars registered in Greater Montreal. A transit tax applied to all cars in the metro region would come out to just $330 per year, or $27.50 per month. If you applied this to just the one million or so cars registered to people who live on the island of Montreal, it would be $660 per year, or $55 per month. With this model, the public could be incentivized to use public transit in two ways, first and foremost because, as a no-charge public service, it would always be the cheapest transport option. Second, the added (though exceedingly modest) usage fee attached to registered vehicles might make some people reconsider their need for a car.

There are obviously some variables that can be changed here. The STM serves people who don’t live in Montreal, as an example, so it would make sense to spread the cost amongst the residents of Laval and Longueuil as well. According to the most recent census, there are about 1.17 million private dwellings in those three communities (and we’ll round up to 1.5 million to include the West Island, which also uses the STM). In this case, the transit tax would come out to $440 per private dwelling per year, or $37 per month. Keep in mind that this is only splitting the cost evenly amongst private dwellings, not all property owners (and why not split this cost with commercial properties as well). Nor is the bill split equitably amongst all residents either, something else that would be worth advocating for, since the wealthy typically pay more in taxes anyways.

The point here isn’t to advocate for any one particular method of dividing up this bill, but simply to show that for a very reasonable price, the portion of the STM’s annual operating budget that comes from fares could be absorbed by the population of Montreal, providing us all with free public transit. All we need is the means to enact such a fee. According to a source, the metropolitan agglomeration council once considered a similar fee to help fund the development of public transit, but as you probably already imagined, the Quebec government prevented this from happening. This is a recurring problem: the government habitually prevents us from acting in our own best interests.

The benefits of no-charge public transit are myriad, not the least of which is that we could get rid of turnstiles and ticket booths and save all the money wasted each and every year on fare evasion related security. Funds spent on security and ticket-taking could be redirected towards expanding service and improving transit accessibility. Moreover, it’s an absolute guarantee that more people would use public transit if it was essentially free to use, and of course it would be a considerable financial relief for the poorest among us. The environmental impact would be considerable as well, and this is what should be motivating us more than any other consideration. Cars are the major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and so any effort to get people to stop using them would put a dent in our city’s annual emissions. Not only that, but increased public transit use means a more active and generally healthier population. It also generally means less congestion, which in turn not only further reduces emissions, it makes for a more productive and generally happier population as well.

If Mayor Plante and Projet Montréal have any genuine interest in improving the quality of life for our citizens, and making sure Montreal is a leader in the fight against climate change, no charge public transit is an avenue worthy of serious consideration, not flippant dismissal. 

[Top photo: Photo by Ilia Usmanov]