The funding, which Sudbury MPP Rick Bartolucci said is new money the city wasn't expecting, must be spent on Sudbury Transit. Since 2003, the province has shared two cents per litre of provincial gas tax revenues with municipalities to expand and improve their public transit systems. Sudbury has received $23 million from the fund since then.
Bartolucci said thanks to recent investments, Sudbury Transit is one of the few public systems in Ontario that's fully accessible to all residents, either through regular buses or the Handi-Transit system.
“That's an accomplishment that this council deserves an awful lot of credit for,” Bartolucci said at a news conference Thursday. “I can hold up Sudbury Transit as an example for others to follow (where) everyone can drive on public transit vehicles.”
The money partially makes up for a $2.9 million reduction in grants the city will receive from the province in 2014. While a cut was expected, the finance department found out in November that funding was declining by $1.17 million more than staff estimates, prompting last-minute scrambling to keep the 2014 tax hike below three per cent.
Robert Gauthier, Greater Sudbury manager of transit operations, said the money will help pay for a variety of items.
“It's going to be contributing to some growth initiatives, some ridership initiatives, the new building that we're going to be moving into at the end of the year, and the cameras we're installing on the buses,” Gauthier said.
Those initiatives were already included in the 2014 budget, so it's unclear if the new money will go into a reserve fund or will be spent on new initiatives. The $249,590 cost for the new bus cameras, for example, were paid for through a capital reserve fund. And to keep the tax rate low, a new bus route servicing the Lionel E. Lalonde Centre in Azilda – at a cost of $100,000 – was made a one-time budget item, also funded from reserves.
Greater Sudbury Mayor Marianne Matichuk said they'll decide exactly where the money will be spent in the New Year.
“We'll have to look at it, city council through the finance committee, and see where we can get the most benefit for taxpayers,” Matichuk said.
In his release on the funding announcement, Bartolucci said the money will allow transit “to make significant improvements for riders including new routes, new more fuel efficient buses, new security technology as well as a new transit garage.”
The $23.5 million transit garage, slated to open in early 2014 on Lorne Street, will be where all 60 transit buses and 900 other vehicles in the city's fleet will go for maintenance and repair. It will include 48,000 square feet for bus storage and the same space for the repair garage, allowing the city to combine work currently done in six locations into a single site.
However, the cost of the project increased from the original $15 million estimate in 2010, and took two years longer than anticipated. Paying for the renovations of the former National Grocer's building will cost taxpayers $1.2 million a year.
While Bartolucci said ridership in public transit has been increasing in Ontario as a whole, Gauthier said ridership in Sudbury has been steady over the last several years, hovering just below the five million mark.
“Over the last five years, it's been fairly steady,” he said. “The highest number, I believe, was in 2008 when we went over five million.”