U-Pass alternatives don't go far enough, post-secondary students say

Students at four post-secondary institutions in Edmonton will be able to take public transit at a discounted cost this fall even after the all-inclusive Universal Transit Pass was cancelled this year because of COVID-19. 

Alternative discount passes range from $34 to $73 a month, compared to about $42 for U-Pass

Universal Transit Pass program, automatic enrollment for students at NAIT, NorQuest College, University of Alberta and MacEwan University was cancelled this fall. (CBC)

Students at four post-secondary institutions in Edmonton will be able to take public transit at a discounted cost this fall even after the all-inclusive Universal Transit Pass was cancelled this year because of COVID-19. 

Edmonton city council agreed Wednesday to offer an alternative discount pass to students at the University of Alberta, MacEwan University, NAIT, and NorQuest College this semester. 

Six municipalities — Edmonton, St. Albert, Strathcona, Leduc, Fort Saskatchewan and Spruce Grove — participate in the U-Pass program charging all students for discounted access to regional transit services. 

Carrie Hotton-MacDonald, acting branch manager of Edmonton Transit Services, said with the majority of classes offered online next semester, the partners chose to cancel the U-Pass for 2020.

Council agreed to give students two alternative options to the U-Pass, which was $170 for a four-month term in 2019 or about $42 a month. 

This fall, students may access the expanded Youth Fare Program for $72.50 a month, temporarily open to students of all ages. 

Or they can apply for the city's subsidized pass for low-income earners, the Ride Transit Program. Under the program, an individual earning $29,000 may be eligible for a $34-a-month pass. 

A single person earning up to $33,000 would pay $48 a month.

The cost of a regular adult pass is $97.

City administration presented the alternative options at the council meeting, where 13 representatives from the students' unions said the discounts didn't go far enough for everyone.

'Better than nothing'

Rowan Ley, vice president of external for the U of A students' union, noted that 6-7,000 students will need to get to campus this year for classes of some kind. More will want to access the libraries, gyms, lounges and Wi-Fi services. 

He said the Ride Transit Program has some flaws. 

"Though it is a great program and is considerably better than nothing," Ley told CBC News in an interview. 

International students are not eligible for the program, Hotton-MacDonald confirmed to council.

In applying for the Ride Transit Program, there are documentation categories for refugees and permanent residents but not international students because they're covered under the U-Pass agreement. 

Ley said they're still expecting more than a thousand international students on campus this year.

"A single year of tuition for an international student at the U of A is more than the entire income cut-off of the Ride Transit Program," he said.

"There is a persistent rumour that all international students are rich, and I would like to be clear: that is not true." 

He said many families from overseas are spending all their money to get their children a better education. 

Ley noted that resident services at the U of A have set up measures to make sure students can quarantine safely when they arrive from abroad. 

Ley had proposed the city implement a youth pass, discounted to a level closer to the cost of the previous U-Pass, and available to all students. 

'I feel torn'

Coun. Ben Henderson, whose Ward 8 covers the U of A, said he was worried how the alternative passes will work. 

"It will be imperfect, I'm not sure how we can make it perfect," Henderson said. "I trust we will keep an eye on it, I trust the students will let us know if it isn't working."

Coun. Andrew Knack was also uncertain about approving the alternative passes.

"I feel torn on this," he said at the end of the meeting. "I'm uneasy about the international student piece, knowing the type of tuition they're paying."

Sean Waddingham, president of the Students' Union of MacEwan University, expressed concern to council about rising costs for students, from tuition to books. 

"This is the worst possible time for students not to have an affordable alternative to U-Pass, considering low student income and high student costs at this time." 

Hotton-MacDonald said students can apply for the discounted passes online, by phone or automatic debit. 

If the U-Pass comes back next year, the automatic monthly renewal for the alternative passes can be cancelled. 

The U-Pass agreements are four years in length and the current one expires in August 2021. Negotiations are underway for the 2021-2026 agreement, the city said. 


Natasha Riebe


Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.