MONTREAL -- With ridership still less than half what it normally is, it looks inevitable that the STM will make significant cuts to its budget.

The question, in a debate brewing this week, is whether it'll have to cancel routes in the process.

The STM has been asked to cut $276 million over the next three years in a request from the regional board that oversees transit networks in Montreal and the surrounding areas, said Phillipe Schnobb, the STM board's chair.

Just where that money will come from is still being negotiated. The STM has labour agreements that mean a driver can’t be laid off even if his or her bus route is cancelled.

But the STM isn't trying to cancel routes, Schnobb said. In an effort to maintain regular service, he said, the STM is looking at cutting $114 million from the administrative side and making up the difference from surplus funds.

But the regional board isn't very happy with that proposal, saying that using cash surpluses to pay for operating expenses will only create more problems later. Costs will continue to rise, it says, if ridership doesn’t return to normal.

Schnobb argues that the only path to recovery is to keep those services up and running.

“We have to bring back customers, we have to bring back trust,” he said. “That will bring back revenues.”

In June, Quebec provided $400 million in emergency funding to transit authorities across the province. But the STM says its slice of that amount will not be enough to cover the losses accumulated during the pandemic.

What’s more, the STM says it is facing new costs associated with handing out masks and sanitizing buses and metros.

The province is in talks with the federal government to increase support for public transit, the office of Quebec Transport Minister François Bonnardel told CTV News.

Schnobb says STM ridership is still hovering around 40 per cent and that the transit authority is planning a new information campaign to bring commuters back, which it will announce soon.

Overall, the pandemic's effect on the transit system is unprecedented, he said.

“You plan for bad days, but that’s not a bad day,” he said. “It’s a catastrophe.”