Office of Councillor Jeff Leiper, Kitchissippi Ward, Ottawa | (613) 580-2485  |
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My votes on the new OC Transpo fare framework

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Wednesday at Transit Commission we passed a radically new fare structure for OC Transpo that positions it for the fast-approaching light rail environment. Several changes were on the table, and I want to take a moment to explore why and how I voted on those. There were two key issues that guided my participation and voting in that meeting: ending the premium fare for express buses in Januaary 2017, and the potential to create a low income transit pass.

At the end of the day, I voted to accept most of the staff recommendations, with highlights including removing the top-up for Para Transpo passengers when traveling the conventional system (a longstanding ask), the discontinuation of paper tickets and passes, the replacement of the student monthly pass with a new youth monthly pass, and the future introduction of multi-day passes.

Early elimination of express premium unfair

Along with Councillor Nussbaum, though, I voted against accepting the staff recommendation to remove the premium fares for express routes in 2017. I listened to the delegations, and explored in-depth with staff the rationale for removing those premiums in 2017 rather than 2018 when LRT goes into service. The assertion, which I don’t accept, is that the value of express routes has been steadily eroded over the years. I don’t believe that case has been made.

When the train goes into service, the advantages of express routes will evaporate. Currently, express buses pick passengers up in close proximity to their homes, and shuttle them with no transfer into the core. When LRT service begins, those routes will work almost the same as local routes, dropping passengers off at a nearby rail station where they’ll transfer for the trip downtown. That's a big, key change.

Since the rationale for a premium will be essentially gone, I support fully collapsing the fare classes from two – express and regular – to a single one. To be clear, that does imply a fairly large jump in the cost of a monthly pass for the majority of adult pass users in order to remain revenue neutral. But, it’s a necessary restructuring.

What I object to is doing it on January 1, 2017, at least a full year and likely longer before the train starts. It means that regular monthly pass users see that big jump in price now while express users will continue to enjoy premium service at a much-reduced price. It’s unfair.

Councillor Nussbaum’s motion was, however, deferred to Council for a decision. While I felt very comfortable voting on it Wednesday after our questions about revenue neutrality and the technical complexity of deferring the switchover were answered to my satisfaction, a majority of Commissioners felt otherwise.

Low income transit pass

The fare category restructuring was doubly important, I consider, since we failed, despite everyone’s best intentions and efforts, to create a low-income transit pass (LITP) as has been generating headlines for weeks. Deferring the big jump for monthly users would have given a year of break to those users who are struggling financially and who buy a regular monthly pass.

The LITP is a longstanding request by poverty and other activists in Ottawa who see the cost of a bus pass as a barrier to full participation in the cultural, economic, and social life of this city. I agree fully with them.

As was well-reported several weeks ago, the Transit Commission does recognize the need for a LITP. At our last meeting, it asked the Province to pay for it. That request is based on a premise that I only partly agree with: that a low-income pass is a form of means-tested social program, and thus the responsibility of the provincial authority. That’s a legitimate philosophical approach, but I also consider that the advocates’ perspective is equally valid. In their (and in large part my) view, the City offers a service, and we should be applying our equity lens to that service to ensure barrier-free access, including financial barriers. The Province has provided the City with multiple tools, including the ability to support transit with fares, taxes and a share of gas tax revenues. Those are levers that we should be pushing and pulling to accomplish equity.

Unfortunately, the only mechanism we could address Wednesday was the restructured fare table. For several weeks, I’ve been noodling the numbers (thanks to staff for providing me all the information I needed in very timely fashion). My motion of a few weeks ago to ask staff for some scenarios for funding a LITP was responded to with three very legitimate scenarios, all of which put what I consider too great a burden on the other fare classes.

Stetcher proposal and the seniors pass

During Wednesday's meeting, Ms. Heather Stetcher put a proposal on the table that, with some very helpful tweaking by staff, would have been fully funded by essentially removing blanket discounts for students and seniors. It’s a very compelling case. The argument has been floating for a couple of weeks that many seniors and students don’t require discounts, and that the only discounts in the system should be for those who financially need them. In other words, discounts - whether for seniors, students or others - would be wholly based on financial need.

At the end of the day, though, I was not prepared to move that we accept the “Stetcher proposal”. Eliminating seniors’ and students’ discounts isn’t something I felt we could appropriately do around the Commission table without significant consultation. It's an important discussion to have, but not one we could accomplish in the timeframes with which we were working.

Next steps

From here, several steps will still need to be taken. At our next Council meeting on June 22, we’ll debate Councillor Nussbaum’s motion for deferring the fare restructuring as it applies to express passes, and we’ll see whether that passes. The Mayor has already written to the Province seeking the funds necessary to fund a LITP. As Councillor Egli very appropriately emphasized at Wednesday's meeting, we need advocates’ support for that request with letters of their own to the Province. Finally, the LITP is an issue we’ll need to re-visit at budget time when potential changes to the transit levy will be on the table.

My thanks to everyone who has engaged with me, my colleagues and the community around all of these issues.

Posted June 17, 2016