Regional chair candidate Oz Cole-Arnal wants free transit for poor

Oz Cole-Arnal, a former Lutheran minister and federal candidate for the NDP, has announced he is running for regional chair. Part of his campaign platform calls for free public transit service for people living under the poverty line.

Candidate wants to see higher minimum wage, free transit for people under poverty line

Oz Cole-Arnal ran for office once before as a federal candidate for the NDP in the 2008 elections. (Matthew Kang/CBC )

Public transit should be free for poor people, says a candidate running for regional chair who is hoping to get the attention of voters dissatisfied with the political process.

The idea is part of an election platform released Tuesday by Oz Cole-Arnal, an anti-poverty activist, former Lutheran Minister and federal NDP candidate for Kitchener Centre, in front of a small crowd outside the Charles Street Bus Terminal in downtown Kitchener.

I would say my appeal would be to the non-voter, to the disgruntled voter.- Oz Cole-Arnal, candidate for Waterloo Regional chair

The 73-year-old's platform is focused on alleviating poverty in the region. He said he was driven to run after the region decided to cut a Grand River Transit bus route which stopped by a food bank facility in order to save money.

"They could have taken the 6 bus up Bridge Street, a bus I often take, swung it around and only had to move a bus stop," said Cole-Arnal. "They couldn't even do that, and that to me just shows they do not care in this whole project for people on the margins."

Changes to public transit are one of the cornerstones of Cole-Arnal's platform promises.

He says if elected, he would push to immediately freeze fare increases for the next five years, provide free transit to people under the poverty line who receive Ontario Works or who are on the Ontario Disability Support Program. He also wants to reduce fares for certain demographics such as students and seniors.

"Most people who ride the bus don't ride it because it's nice, they ride it because they have to," said Cole-Arnal. "If you put those rates down, then that's fair taxation."

Riding free

Cole-Arnal added that his ultimate goal would be a free public transit system paid for entirely by the region.

However, Jeff Casello, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo's School of Planning, said free transit for the poor "has to be done carefully. 

"In other cities, the poor have received special fare cards that, in essence, identifies the holder as being low income.  This obviously has negative social impacts," he said in an email to CBC News.

"A more effective way is to offer reimbursement for low income travellers - through tax exemptions for example."

Casello said he doesn't agree with Cole-Arnal's ultimate goal of making transit free for everyone.

Cole-Arnal says if elected, he would donate his regional salary to local anti-poverty causes and charities. (Matthew Kang/CBC)

"The out of pocket expense for transit - the fare - is often less of a deterrent to transit ridership than the frequency of service, the reliability of service, or even the awareness of transit service," Casello wrote.

"In other words, the system is much more likely to gain more riders by improving the quality of service than eliminating the charge for service. There is lots of evidence about this around the world."

Other parts of Cole-Arnal's platform include raising the minimum wage in Waterloo Region to $14 an hour and increasing the availability of affordable housing. He also pledges that if elected, he would donate his regional salary to local anti-poverty causes and charities.

"I would say my appeal would be to the non-voter, to the disgruntled voter," said Cole-Arnal. "It's a long shot, I'm a fringe candidate, and I would be less of a fringe candidate if the very people I'm claiming to support would get out and vote."