OC Transpo finances in 'very, very good shape,' says city

The dire picture for OC Transpo's finances during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have improved greatly.

Despite pandemic and low ridership, city transit department not in peril for 2021

Nine OC Transpo bus routes will be suspended in mid-June, mostly those carrying suburbanites to offices downtown. More than a dozen public delegations addressed the transit commission Wednesday calling for better service, not cuts. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The dire picture for OC Transpo's finances during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have improved greatly.

Back in the fall, the City of Ottawa predicted a deficit of $73 million for transit operations, a figure that was based on what now appears to be an optimistic projection that ridership would average 72 per cent in 2021. The pandemic carries on, however, and overall ridership in the first quarter hasn't come close to that estimate, averaging below 30 per cent with far fewer fares paid.

Despite this, a report with updated projections that goes to the finance committee on April 6 will show OC Transpo shouldn't struggle this year.

"Right now you're in very, very good shape for 2021," transportation general manager John Manconi told the transit commission Wednesday.

In 2020, transit revenues suffered pandemic-related pressures of $108 million but COVID-related funding from upper levels of government covered all of it, according to a report by finance staff.

In fact, the report states $62 million was left over to be used in 2021 and spent by March 31. The Ontario government has also confirmed an extra $73.3 million for the rest of the year, for a total of $135 million in 2021. 

Meanwhile, the federal government last week announced a doubling of gas tax transfers to municipalities — the City of Ottawa is set to receive an extra $57 million, of which some typically goes to transit — and its budget still needs to be tabled on April 19. The transit department has also found several million in savings. 

Commission hears about upcoming changes

The outlook might have improved, but on April 21 transit staff will still give transit commission criteria on which to base deeper transit cuts, if they need to be made. Such cuts would take until 2022 to implement, Manconi said, but he doesn't even suggest they make them.

"This team is not recommending drastic service cuts," Manconi said.

Wednesday's meeting, however, did focus on changes to take effect in mid-June that involve suspending some bus routes, shortening others, and sending some buses by only every 30 minutes.

The moves would save $5.5 million by end of year, would reduce the workforce by 70 people through redeployment and attrition.

Route changes draw outcry

More than a dozen transit riders and advocates addressed the commission Wednesday, urging OC Transpo not to cut service and to think of riders who have no other transportation choices.

Jonathan Davis rides downtown daily with his son, and says the pair used to stand on a crowded bus before the pandemic but now sometimes find themselves alone.

Davis thinks OC Transpo should pursue new riders by offering better service and prices.

"You're making the cuts based on ridership that's decreased on these routes," Davis told commission while audibly riding the LRT. "You're not even coming close to measuring the untapped market you have in these neighbourhoods, the people you've been excluding for years."

Sofia Descalzi, in her mid-20s and has no car, said the new route changes will add 10 minutes to her commute from Beacon Hill.

"I want to live here, I want to stay here, but I do not want to live in a city that's disconnected and where it's hard to get around," said Descalzi.

Transit staff insisted the changes were not cuts, but "adjustments" because no area of the city would lose transit permanently and promised to restore service whenever ridership bounces back. 

"When you only have two people on a bus, the taxpayers of Ottawa expect us to do something about that," explained transit commission chair Allan Hubley.

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