Ottawa's transit commission has decided to ask the province for $3.3 million to fund a low-income transportation pass for the city's poorest — although the commission's chair is skeptical that funding will come through.

Of the 145,000 people in Ottawa who earn less than the low income cut-off — the Statistics Canada threshold beneath which individuals or families devote a larger-than-normal share of their income to necessities like food and shelter — 31,000 are transit users, according to a staff report presented Monday to the commission.

More than 40 local organizations are calling on the commission to support the idea of a special low income bus pass, which already exists in a number of Canadian cities, including Calgary, Hamilton, Saskatoon and Regina.

'It's not clear to me that they'd have any available funds to fund this program.' - Transit commission chair Stephen Blais

Transit commissioners also directed OC Transpo staff to include a low-income fare option in its fare table review, taking place at what's expected to be a mammoth meeting in June.

Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais, who chairs the transit commission, seemed skeptical that either of the options approved Monday would be successful.

The province is already negotiating with Ottawa to increase the current two per cent "surcharge" it charges the city for the provincial Presto system — an indication there's a shortage of cash for transit programs, Blais said.

"The province is currently considering a multi-million-dollar tax increase on the Presto card and it's not clear to me that they'd have any available funds to fund this program," Blais told reporters Monday afternoon.

He added it didn't seem fair that other transit users be asked to absorb the cost of the discounted passes.

"[The discount] either comes from bus fares, which is provided by less than 30 per cent of the population, or it can be derived from tax. The transit commission only has authority to discuss bus fares," said Blais.

"So the question is [whether] 20 or 30 per cent of the population contribute the full subsidy — or should tax contribute the full subsidy."

'In the public interest'

Discounted fares and transportation funding are already offered to some low income customers, including seniors and students, as well as those who are part of the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works.

According to Monday's report, however, an estimated 8,880 transit users do not receive discounts or reimbursements for transportation.

"Since mobility is an enabler for economic prosperity, and two of the city's goals are to foster economic development and social well-being, the provision of a low income transit access seems to be in the public interest," reads the report.

Naheed Khan was among the members of the public who spoke at Monday's meeting.

"I'm a single mom, four children," Khan said. "My need for the bus is every day. All the time." 

Cost of monthly pass 'onerous'

Kitchisippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, who also sits on the transit commission, said Sunday that an affordable bus pass for low-income Ottawans is something that's been "sought for a long time" by anti-poverty advocates.

"It's well over $100 a month for a bus pass. And for a family that falls especially below the low-income cutoff, that is an onerous charge every month," Leiper said.

A regular monthly pass for adults is $103.25 — or $127.25 for access to express routes.

"Not having a bus pass means that jobs are inaccessible, recreation opportunities are inaccessible, socializing is more difficult. It is critical that everyone in Ottawa be able to use transit at an affordable cost," Leiper said.

Leiper successfully moved a motion Monday to include low-income discount fares as an option when the transit commission undertakes a major review of the fare table at its June meeting — which would mean other fares would increase. 

2 options under consideration

Monday's staff report set out two potential options for a low income monthly pass in Ottawa:

  • One that would offer a 24 per cent discount, similar to an OC Transpo student pass, at a cost of $1.3 million per year.
  • One that would offer a 62 per cent discount, similar to the monthly pass for seniors and the community pass — available to ODSP and Para Transpo users — at a cost of $3.3 million per year.
trevor hache Healthy Transportation Coalition

Trevor Haché, president of the Healthy Transportation Coalition, says that a low income transit pass would bring "fairness and equity" to the city's mass transit system. (Chloé Fedio/CBC)

It's the second of those options that appeals most to Trevor Haché, president of the Healthy Transportation Coalition, one of more than 40 groups calling on the city to institute a more affordable pass for those under the low-income cut off.

Those groups — which include unions, environmental agencies, homeless shelters and community heath centres — will be presenting a petition to city council with some 2,400 signatures, showing a "tremendous amount of community support" for such a pass," Haché said.

"Unfortunately right now, Ottawa has some of the highest, most expensive transit fares in the entire country," said Haché. 

"And so, this would really help bring more fairness and equity to the transportation system in general."

Haché said he hopes the new pass is approved before July — when OC Transpo fares are set to go up. 

"If transit is currently inaccessible to a lot of low income folks, which we believe it to be, it's going to get worse," Haché said.

Read the full report on low-income transit access here.

More than 40 local organizations are hoping that Ottawa's transit commission lends its support Monday to a report calling for a low-income transportation pass for the city's poorest.
More than 40 local organizations are hoping that Ottawa's transit commission lends its support Monday to a report calling for a low-income transportation pass for the city's poorest.

with files from Chloé Fedio and Joanne Chianello