Fare hikes planned as OC Transpo faces shortfall (Emma Jackson, Metro News)

Bus fares will likely be the hot topic at transit commission this Thursday as OC Transpo stares down an $11.5-million deficit.

The city’s 2011 transit affordability plan calls for regular, incremental fare increases of 2.5 per cent each year in order to pay for Ottawa’s massive light rail project, which is currently under construction.

But commission chair Coun. Stephen Blais refused to say whether the increase would be even higher than usual to help fight this year’s unexpected shortfall.

The transit operator announced the deficit in September, blaming it largely on higher insurance payouts and maintenance costs but also on flatlining ridership, which has held steady at 97 million customer trips per year. That led to a $1.7-million shortfall in fare revenues in 2015.

While Blais wouldn’t discuss details, he made it clear that OC Transpo stands by its predictable increase program.

“Residents will be presented with a budget that continues to ensure that OC Transpo offers a high level of service, while at the same time continues to move us toward … our framework of affordability for light rail,” he said.

Not everyone agrees with this approach, though, and there could be significant debate around the commission table about how the city approaches rider costs.

FARE FREEZE

Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Tobi Nussbaum, who sits on the transit commission, hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll officially move to stop the fare increase during this year’s budget process, but he has been vocal that fares are going up just as service levels are going down.

“We need to work very hard to keep the fare increases as close to zero as we can, given that the system is undergoing some convulsion over the next few years (due to light rail construction),” said Nussbaum. He suggested the city should temporarily abandon its goal of recouping 55 per cent of its operating budget from fares.

“It’s not unreasonable to ask for help from the tax base until the LRT is up and running,” he said.

Blais said that approach is akin to removing three steps from a set of stairs; in order to get to the top, you’re going to have to make the jump sooner or later.

“Is it easier for people to go step by step, or it is easier for people to make that giant leap all at once?” Blais asked. “Most people prefer to take steady, incremental steps.”

LOW-INCOME PASS

Trevor Haché with the Healthy Transportation Coalition is leading the charge to develop a low-income transit pass that would offer subsidized transit to residents living below Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-off line.

The city’s existing community pass is only available to people on disability, leaving the working poor and those on welfare struggling to pay for transportation, Haché said.

Two citizen commissioners recently asked city staff to study how to implement such a pass in Ottawa. A handful of Canadian municipalities offer something similar: Guelph’s transit system, for example, offers a 50 per cent discount if you live below the poverty line.

The problem, Blais said, is that subsidizing a low-income pass could mean regular fares have to compensate for those losses, putting prices up even more.

He was unclear if staff’s findings will inform the 2016 budget process, and hesitated to confirm if changes might be made before the next increase comes into effect on July 1, 2016.

“It’s being actively talked about; it’s being reviewed,” he said after a long pause. “If it’s a revenue neutral push there’s still time to make the change.”

Source: Metro News