Winnipeg's newcomer and Indigenous communities are joining forces to oppose a proposed 25-cent increase to transit fares, warning the move would increase the barriers already faced by low-income members of both communities.
Several groups, including the Canadian Muslim Women's Institute, the Manitoba Association of Newcomer Serving Organizations (MANSO), Aboriginal Youth Opportunities and Functional Transit Winnipeg, held a news conference Monday morning to voice their concerns.
"We need to address this collectively," said Seid Ahmed, refugee response co-ordinator with MANSO.
"The bus fare hike will have a lot of impact on low-income families.… Twenty-five cents is a lot of money. This is going to limit people's mobility, and when we limit people's mobility, there's going to be a huge consequence," he said.
"It's like asking those low-income families to stay at home, basically."
Organizations fear the large increase will mean those living in poverty and newcomers will have less access to food and local services, said Yasmin Ali of the Muslim women's institute.
"We talk about social connectivity. Most of these newcomers in here, they didn't know each other before they came here, but they've made friends, some of them have families. They're not all located in the same area of the town," she said. "They will not go out and visit each other. That will increase social isolation for them."
Many families who move to Canada are large, and thus, transit cuts affect them more than other families, she said.
"I urge the city to think about the impact it's going to have all over and to please reconsider and find some other way."
Jamaican international student Nicolette Jones said last year's five-cent fare increase ultimately put a strain on her marriage, as she and her husband could not socialize as often. She also said a friend in Amber Trails moved back home because buses didn't run on her route after 5:15 p.m., meaning she could not socialize and felt isolated.
"I'm getting very emotional because to a lot of people, it doesn't seem like a lot, but to newcomers, it is a lot," she said before pausing to wipe away tears. "Just talk to people who will be affected before you make this decision."
The fare hike, which would come into effect Jan. 1, is part of the city's 2018 preliminary budget, and would be the largest jump in transit fares since 2008.
Mayor Brian Bowman has said the hike would go toward covering the money lost when the provincial government announced earlier this year it will no longer cover half of Winnipeg Transit's operating costs.
Instead, the province will give a single block of funding to the City of Winnipeg, with no specific amount tied to transit.
- Omnibus budget bill gives province room to wriggle out of transit, infrastructure deals with Winnipeg
But the block funding amount is based on previous years' budget numbers, and last year, transit funding was frozen at 2016 levels with no increase for inflation. The city expects that to result in an $8.3-million shortfall in transit funding.
Bowman said a drop in bus ridership representing $6.4 million in lost revenue added even more pressure to Winnipeg Transit's bottom line. Increasing fares by 25 cents would add $5.7 million into city coffers next year, the preliminary budget forecasts.
'Support the vulnerable'
But Ahmed said it isn't fair to expect the city's low-income earners — many of whom rely on Winnipeg Transit as their only form of transportation — to cover the drop in revenue.
The group is calling on the city and provincial governments to look at providing a subsidized program for low-income riders.
"They should find a way to at least support the vulnerable community groups," Ahmed said.
Many newcomers will have to choose between going out to get groceries, attending English language classes, going to a job interview or meeting with others from their community, Ahmed said.
"If you add up all this, I think the city shouldn't balance the budget at the expense of its low-income families," he said. "I think the city and the province need to come up with a way that they're going to tackle this."
Bowman said he's concerned about low-income families who may face financial struggles because of the potential increase.
"That's why the $10-million cut from the province isn't absorbed fully within Transit — because of those concerns," he said on CBC's Information Radio Monday morning.
"I'm keeping a very open mind and I'm listening very, very hard to those voices that we're hearing in the community right now. I share those concerns."
He would not commit to rolling back other projects to pay for the hike, such as additional money for fighting Dutch elm disease, Wi-Fi on buses or reducing the roads budget.
"We have to draft and table a balanced budget. Once it's balanced and presented to council and for the city for consideration, then we have the debates. And let's keep in mind, if it weren't for this provincial cut to transit, we would not be having this discussion right now."
'The city can invest in measures as they see are their priorities.' - Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler
NDP leader Wab Kinew said municipalities had come to rely on stable funding from the provincial transit-funding agreement, the absence of which places an unfair financial burden on small communities.
In question period Monday at the legislature, Kinew said the decision to back out of the 50-50 funding deal not only hurts low-income Manitobans but shows the province isn't that concerned about combating climate change.
"They're also lobbing on top operating grant freezes and backing off the funding formulas that have given predictability to municipalities," Kinew said.
Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler said Winnipeg ranks third-highest in provincial funding across Canada and that it's up to the city how it spends provincial funds.
"The city can invest in measures as they see are their priorities," Eichler said.
Winnipeg's 2018 budget, released last week, looked at cost savings from putting fewer buses on up to 23 routes.
Even with the 25 cent increase, which would bring the full adult fare to $2.95, Winnipeg Transit riders would continue to pay among the lowest fares in the country — the national average for transit fares is $3.22.
The 2018 budget will be debated over the next three weeks. Council will vote on the spending plans during a special meeting slated for Dec. 12.
The proposed bus fare changes are:
- Adult fare rises from $2.70 to $2.95.
- Monthly adult bus pass cost rises from $90.50 to $100.10.
- Seniors monthly pass cost rises from $45.25 to $50.05.