Transit fare changes will introduce smart cards — and a 25-cent hike when paying cash

The cash cost to ride the bus and LRT in Edmonton is set to go up May 1 to $3.75 from the current $3.50, but city council could still hold off on that increase. 

Plan still needs final approval, transit advocates want council to hold off fare hike

The city proposes to raise single cash fare to $3.75 from $3.50 starting May 1. (CBC)

The cash cost to ride the bus and LRT in Edmonton is set to go up May 1 to $3.75 from the current $3.50, but city council could still hold off on that increase. 

Council's executive committee heard from members of the public on Tuesday before deciding to continue the debate at a council meeting next week. 

Greg Mady, president of the Edmonton and District Labour Council, said a pandemic is not the time to raise transit rates. 

"During a time when essential workers are being hailed as heroes for exposing themselves to COVID-19 on a daily basis, city council is now asking them to pay more," Mady said. 

"The vast majority of working Edmontonians who are needing to access public transit are being literally nickel and dimed to death."

Coun. Aaron Paquette said increases will take the biggest toll on lower-income residents.

"It will impact the most vulnerable among us in far greater ways than we can imagine," Paquette said. "It's difficult to imagine that a quarter makes a difference but that is the reality for a lot of people."

The city offers discounted passes for lower-income riders, seniors and youth. Children under 12 ride for free when accompanied by an adult. 

Discount passes available

Paquette said some residents living in poverty don't use social services or take government assistance. 

"They're living in quiet desperation," Paquette said. "That ranges from teenagers who've been kicked out of their homes to folks who've gone through hell in [the] residential school system."

Mayor Don Iveson noted that the city has focused on discount passes for low-income residents. 

"The arguments that these disproportionately affect marginalized people, I hear, but there is a mitigation for it in the form of the low-income transit pass." 

A monthly pass under the city's Ride Transit Program is $35 or $50, depending on income. A regular adult pass is $100 a month. 

The city also offers free monthly passes to people who are homeless or at high risk of homelessness. 

"Rather than making it a little bit cheaper for everyone, making it a lot cheaper for people who really need it has been our philosophy up to this point." 

At the meeting Tuesday, Danika McConnell with Free Transit Edmonton urged councillors to consider a petition signed by 1,500 people asking for a fare freeze. 

"We need to be considering the folks that are sadly living paycheque to paycheque right now, that just can't be paying upfront," McConnell said. 

Carrie Hotton-MacDonald, branch manager of Edmonton Transit Service, said the fare increase in 2021 and another hike to $4 in 2022 are estimated to yield an additional $870,000 next year. 

Annual revenues from all transit fares before COVID-19 were approximately $116 million, she said. 

Setting up smart cards

Council will also be asked to approve fares under the new smart card system, which the city expects to launch this fall. 

Hotton-MacDonald said the city proposes charging $3 for a single ride using a smart card, and $3.50 with a smart ticket.

The goal, Hotton-MacDonald said, is to encourage more people to adopt the smart fare process early. 

Some riders eligible for discounted passes will participate in a pilot to use the new smart card system by the end of the year. The full rollout to all discounted or concession passes is not scheduled to happen until early next year.

Coun. Ben Henderson supports the new smart fare system but doesn't like the timing. 

"The problem is we have a gap," Henderson said. "We're raising fares theoretically on May 1st and the advantage of smart fare is, at best, not going to be available until the fall."

He suggested the city could freeze the cash fare hike until the smart card system is introduced 

Council will pick up the discussion at its next meeting on April 19.