OC Transpo fares to rise 2.5% in new year

OC Transpo fares set to rise 2.5 per cent on New Year’s Day and routes will remain intact for the foreseeable future, despite the pandemic.

Transit commission approves budget in 6-3 vote

Majority of commissioners agreed to stick with city council's long-held policy to increase fares annually. (David Richard/CBC)

OC Transpo fares are set to rise 2.5 per cent on New Year's Day and routes will remain intact for the foreseeable future, despite the pandemic.

Ottawa's transit commission talked through a number of uncertainties and risks related to ridership and funding on Wednesday, before voting six to three for a $672-million operating budget that appears to be business as usual, at least on the surface.

Commissioners Sarah Wright-Gilbert, Catherine McKenney and Theresa Kavanagh opposed it.

'Morally wrong to increase fares'

Wright-Gilbert said freezing prices for only low-income pass and fares in 2021 wouldn't go far enough during a pandemic, especially when the "goodwill bank" is already "in the red" after LRT's rocky first year. 

"It is morally wrong to increase fares," she said, after hearing from a dozen public delegations. Many urged the city to focus on those who still ride transit to retail or hospital jobs, and don't have their own cars.

The commission also rejected a move by McKenney to have staff look into sliding scales for transit fares based on income, a method used by other municipalities.

But the majority of commissioners, including chair Allan Hubley, agreed to stick with city council's long-held policy to increase fares annually by 2.5 per cent. 

"If we don't do a fare increase, where's the money going to come from?" said Hubley, pointing out residents will also pay for transit on their property tax bills, and that levy is going up 4.6 per cent.

Officials explained to reporters that the city will seek reimbursement from the Rideau Transit Group for a fare freeze last year, implemented when LRT was causing rider delays.

Post-pandemic predictions

The commission did approve a move by Coun. Kavanagh to ask the federal government to contribute to running transit systems, not just building them.

The transit department will indeed require big injections from other levels of government.

The budget was crafted using normal expectations of 100 million rides per year, even though ridership in October stood at just 28 per cent of pre-COVID levels. 

The picture officials actually project is 70 per cent ridership on average for 2021, leaving a $50- to $60-million shortfall it hopes other governments will cover. 

Transit system too expensive already: councillor

Plan B would see deferring tens of millions of dollars worth of projects, such as refurbishing buses and replacing bus radios. In a worst-case scenario, or Plan C, there would be no government funding after March 31, leading to tough decisions in June to cut routes.

Tyler Paziuk, a public servant working from home, suggested the transit agency overhaul the system now to cater to those who most need it and not count on government workers resuming their daily commutes downtown.

"OC Transpo hasn't really adapted to our new reality. You're acting like the old normal is coming back any day now," he said. 

Longtime councillor Diane Deans agreed.

"We need to rethink the key pillars of our transit system now, because affordability [of the system] is just not there," she said. 

The draft transit budget now goes to full council for final approval on Dec. 9.

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