Ottawa

Councillors predict Ottawa transit fares will be a fall election issue

The first overt references to the upcoming municipal election were heard around the Ottawa city council table Wednesday, as councillors predicted that how residents pay for OC Transpo — whether at the fare box or on their property tax bill — will become a campaign issue.

City staff to look at how much it would cost to study dropping fares from OC Transpo

An OC Transpo bus approaches Parliament station in Ottawa in January 2021. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

The first overt references to the upcoming municipal election were heard around the Ottawa city council table Wednesday, as councillors predicted that how residents pay for OC Transpo — whether at the fare box or on their property tax bill — will become a campaign issue.

Some councillors have often argued the city should freeze fares, reduce them, or eliminate them on certain days to get more residents using environmentally friendly mass transportation and reduce traffic. 

On Wednesday, Capital ward Coun. Shawn Menard asked staff to consider studying fares. He suggested looking at waiving fares on the busiest streets, or for youth, and said staff could analyze the city's own recent experiences with dropping fares.

As a gesture, the city opened LRT fare gates and didn't charge for rides in December after a series of LRT derailments, and also waived fares on some downtown routes after the truck convoy protest.

Instead, council voted unanimously Wednesday to back a more detailed replacement motion from Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley, chair of the transit commission.

The motion identifies benefits to waiving fares such as increased ridership, and extra costs such as increased maintenance, along with looking at how the measure would affect property tax bills.

"Free transit is an option," said Hubley. "I have no doubt it will be a discussion in the fall election campaign on how much tolerance there is to raise taxes to provide good things, that we can all agree would be great for the community."

Long-term financial plan for transit coming

Staff will advise the finance and economic development committee in June about how much it would cost to study the pros and cons of "removing the need for riders to pay fares." Politicians and city staff don't call it "free transit" because the service still comes at a cost through taxes.

At that same meeting, financial staff will present an updated plan for how to pay for the transit system in the long-term.

Ridership has not nearly recovered from the pandemic, and many councillors worry federal office workers might never return to daily commutes in the same numbers.

The city currently increases transit fares by 2.5 per cent each year and the transit levy by three per cent. The goal is for fares to cover 55 per cent of operations. An adult monthly adult pass will cost $125.50 when new fares kick in May 1, and a single cash ride will cost $3.75.

"We have to look at our ridership. We have to look at our sources of revenues. We have to look at potential increased expenses, and things like that," said chief financial officer Wendy Stephanson.

Some councillors who have no vote on the finance committee asked that the transit commission also hold a special meeting to discuss the future plans, but that motion was voted down.

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, meanwhile, said council should avoid locking in the ratio of how much transit is covered by fares compared to taxes, because he expects it to be a "significant question" during the campaign.

"Let's make sure we're leaving ourselves some flexibility in the next term of council to adjust that, according to what the electorate tells us they want to do from now until October," Leiper said.

Mayor Jim Watson isn't running for re-election, but would watch from the sidelines.

He said campaigning candidates should be "crystal clear" that all transit comes at a cost, even if residents don't see their money being spent tapping Presto cards on buses or at LRT stations.

"If you're prepared to go and offer people 100 per cent tax-supported transit, be honest with people and tell them that your taxes, your property taxes, are going to go up significantly," said Watson.

WATCH | Outgoing mayor's take on transit and taxes: 

Mayor Jim Watson issues warning on 'free' transit

10 months ago
Duration 0:44
Ottawa's outgoing mayor says the hike in property taxes is a key in discussing the option of free public transit, which could be a key ballot issue in the municipal election.

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