Ottawa to introduce low-income transit pass, but offers few details

The City of Ottawa is introducing a low-income transit pass, Mayor Jim Watson announced Tuesday morning. But there are no details on what it will cost, or who will pay for it.

Mayor says pass will be available to 8,800 people living at or below low-income cutoff

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)

The City of Ottawa is introducing a new low-income transit pass, but isn't offering details about the cost of the pass or how the city will pay for it.

Mayor Jim Watson said at a news conference Tuesday morning the pass could help approximately 8,800 residents who live at or below the low-income cutoff.

That's Statistics Canada's threshold beneath which individuals or families devote a larger-than-normal share of their annual income to necessities such as food and shelter.

The threshold for a family of four, for example, is $38,000. For an individual the cutoff is $20,000.

"This helps us identify which individuals and families are most in need of a solution," said Coun. Stephen Blais, the chair of the city's transit commission.

The pass will be included in the city's 2017 budget, and will be introduced in the first three months of that year.

Officials were unable Tuesday to say how much the pass will cost, but said it will not be subsidized by other users of the transit system and won't affect how other fares work.

"We believe this is a fair way to reach more people without harming other pass holders," he said.

"My objective was not to increase taxes to pay for this, but to find the revenue stream within the city."

More details on the pass will come when the draft budget is tabled Nov. 9, Watson said.

Asking province for $3.3M

Blais said the pass will be available to people who can't take advantage of other discounted fares, such as a senior's pass.

"In addition to low income earners, this new transit pass will help us create an even more affordable city for unemployed residents re-establishing themselves in the labour market, for single parents, for recent immigrants settling to Ottawa or those temporarily out of work due to injury," he said.

Transit users will have to register with the city each year to be eligible for the pass, Blais said.

In May, the city's transit commission voted to ask the province for $3.3 million to help fund a low-income pass after hearing from staff that approximately 8,800 of its 31,000 low-income transit users didn't get discounts or reimbursements.

At that May meeting, city staff said a low-income pass could be a 24 per cent discount on a regular pass to resemble a student discount, which would cost the city $1.3 million a year, or a 62 per cent discount to bring it to the level of a senior or Para Transpo pass, which would cost the city $3.3 million a year.

Watson said the city is still working with the province to try and secure funding for the pass, which he said could make what they're planning cost even less.

"We are not giving up on our goal of getting the province to come to the table," Watson said.

Advocates happy

Dozens of community groups have been asking the city for a low-income transit pass as a way to make life affordable for people in need.

Some of those groups said Tuesday this news is a big step in the right direction, but the details are key.

"We'll be looking to ensure that they understand the pass should be as affordable as possible for low-income folks," said Trevor Haché, president of the Healthy Transportation Coalition.

"What we've been calling for is it shouldn't cost any more than the community pass [for Para Transpo and ODSP users], which is $41.75 a month. Right now the [regular adult] pass is going up to $112 a month as of January."

"This is a starting point," said Lisa Quesnel, who has advocated for the pass as someone who would use it.

"If it's $41.75, great. Fantastic. Our job is done. If it comes higher, let's say 80-something dollars, it's at least a starting point.... I think right now the fact that it's been acknowledged that this is a need and they're trying is a big step."

Haché said his group wants transit to be as affordable as possible for all users so he's happy other fares aren't going up to pay for this one.

Pass supporters are planning a rally at City Hall the morning the draft budget is released, Haché said, adding it would likely be more upbeat than before Tuesday's announcement.