The politics behind Ottawa's proposed low-income transit pass

Behind every good-news announcement lurks some serious political strategizing. Mayor Jim Watson's news that the 2017 budget will include some sort of low-income transit pass is no exception.

Mayor Jim Watson refuses to provide specifics until budget

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson (left) and transit commission chair Stephen Blais take questions after announcing a new low-income transit pass will be introduced in early 2017. (CBC)

Behind every good-news policy announcement lurks some serious political strategizing — and Tuesday's news from Mayor Jim Watson that the city's 2017 budget will include some sort of low-income transit pass is no exception.

It's hard to see the introduction of a low-income transit fare in anything but a positive light. There are, after all, 8,800 people in this city living at or below the low-income threshold, who don't qualify for the existing deeply discounted senior or community passes. They could use a break trying to make ends meet.

Exactly how much of a break they can look forward to, though, remains a mystery.

Watson evidently judged the new pass important enough to tell the media about it this week, but people who will actually use the pass won't learn the details until about a month later.

Low-income fare discussed earlier

The possibility of a low-income pass came up earlier this year when the fares were being revamped for next year, in anticipation of light rail transit coming online in 2018.

At the time, OC Transpo staff provided two options for discounted fares: a 24-per-cent off monthly pass (the equivalent of the soon-to-be-defunct high school pass), which would cost $1.3 million; or a 62-per-cent off pass (the same discount seniors now enjoy), which would cost $3.3 million.

At the time, the transit commissioner did not opt for the pass, on grounds that would have meant hiking other riders' fares even more. 

But room for a low-income fare pass can be found in a $3-billion budget.

That's where Watson comes in. He seemed to feel no compulsion, however, to bring in the councillors who actually championed the idea at the transit commission — councillors Jeff Leiper, Catherine McKenney and Tobi Nussbaum — to share the spotlight with him and commission chair, Coun. Stephen Blais.

Good news now, ahead of bad news soon

Watson mentioned he sent all councillors, including those three, advance word of the announcement on Tuesday morning, suggesting they could have come to his news conference if they liked.

They did not show up.

It's not that they're uninterested. In fact, the so-called urban councillors were set to have a major discussion on funding for the low-income bus fare at their budget consultation next week, and this announcement steals some of that thunder. (The urban councillors, for their part, will likely take credit for pressuring the mayor into supporting the new fare pass.)

Making hay out of ideas planted by others wasn't a tactic invented by our mayor. It's politics, and not even unusually sneaky politics. Still, it's worth remembering the sequence of how the policy really came about.

This announcement also puts some good news in the air, before bad news blows into the city within days in the form of layoffs. Well over 100 middle managers and professional staff are expected to be let go, as the much larger follow-up to the senior management restructuring that happened this summer that was needed to more permanently resolve the deficit issue.

It will be easier to bring it about if this so-called "corporate reorganization" results in some extra money in the kitty to pay for new services like that low-income transit pass.

That may not be much solace to those who lose their jobs, but the external audience might see a positive trade-off.

Social agencies pushing for more money

And earlier this fall, Watson looked ready to take on social agencies who were organizing to ask for more money in next year's budget.

Carleton University study, partly funded by the Coalition of Community, Health and Resource Centres, argues that the city is spending relatively less on social services compared to other services on a per capita basis.

Watson's response? Order city staff to go over the numbers in the report and blow holes in it. The mayor called this off after a day — and likely after cooler heads prevailed.

It's not that there weren't elements in that report worth a close critical look, but the mayor was probably convinced he should be seen to address some of the actual problems social agencies were flagging, instead of arguing with them over numbers.

Pre-announcing the low-income transit fare may take the fire out of the social sector's fight. They were already planning a rally at City Hall for Nov. 9, the day the budget is to be tabled, in favour of the discount pass.

The gathering might now be more of a celebration — although the celebratory mood won't last if the low-income fare ends up looking less generous than the seniors' fare (about $42 a month).

That's the thing about leaving the details until later: it means the devil that lurks in them might also make an appearance.


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.