Liberal 'buck-a-ride' campaign promise met with skepticism in northern Ontario

Transit riders were listening with interest on Monday as Ontario’s Liberal party made a campaign promise to ease some financial burdens for users.

Municipal leaders saying bus schedules, consistency and reach more important than fares

As Ontario Liberal Party leader Steven Del Duca hits the campaign trail with promises of $1 bus fare for municipal transit, Northern political leaders are saying they're on board, with reservations. (Matthew Pierce/CBC)

Transit riders were listening with interest on Monday as the Ontario Liberal Party made a campaign promise to ease some financial burdens for users.

Party leader Steven Del Duca said if his party is elected, they'll cut transit fees across the province to $1 per ride, until 2024, including all municipal services, as well as GO Transit and Ontario Northland.

In a news release, the Liberals say the proposal would cost about $710 million in 2022/2023 and roughly $1.1 billion in 2023/2024, and the government would replace all lost revenue to transit services.

"Ontario is gripped by an affordability crisis and families expect their government to act," says Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca in the release.

"Our plan will provide families with immediate relief within the first 100 days of being elected, by slashing the price of transit to a buck-a-ride."

But the Liberals aren't the first party to propose cutting transit fares. In March the Green Party of Ontario called on the province to reduce fares by half. 

In a statement yesterday, Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said he looks forward to working across party lines to make transit more affordable. 

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Progressive Conservatives issued a statement touting the party's investments in northern highways, and the plan to reinstate Ontario Northland passenger rail service. 

Incumbent Sudbury MPP Jamie West says the Liberal promise of $1 bus fares is 'gimmicky.' (Youtube )

As for the New Democrats, Sudbury MPP Jamie West said the Liberal promise was "gimmicky," at best.

"It reminds me a lot of the 'buck-a-beer' promise that Doug Ford made. And I don't think that even lasted until September," West said, citing Ford's 2018 campaign promise to bring the price of beer in the province down to $1 a bottle. 

"What we really need is an interconnected transit system and a long term commitment to affordable transit long term."

"What you need to do is enshrine the legislation in your budget that we're going to provide the funding," he added. "So that it isn't a flashy election promise that you can just sort of backpedal away from afterwards."

West said he supports the idea of lower transit fares, but has little faith the Liberal promise will bear any fruit if they are elected.

"Even though Del Duca was transportation minister under the Kathleen Wynne government, they had the opportunity to take care of the rising cost of transportation, and they were in power for 15 years," he said. 

"But the cost of transit rose every year while they were in power. And so now coming forward and saying, 'oh, we're going to fix the things that we've failed to address for the last 15 years.' It just doesn't make any sense."

According to CBC's Poll Tracker, the Liberals trail the Progressive Conservatives by 8 percentage points, while the NDP are trailing by 15 points.

Northern leaders react

Chris Mayne, a city councillor in North Bay, and the chair of the city's Infrastructure and Operations Committee, said the Liberal promise, if delivered, would add another $1-2 million to the city's coffers.

"It's a great idea. I hope it does work its way forward," Mayne said. "But if a city the size of North Bay, with 50,000 people, receives a $2 million subsidy for transit every year, and you multiply that amongst the number of municipalities across the province, that's a significant undertaking."

While Mayne said he'd applaud a move forward on the promise, he said it wouldn't necessarily address transit riders' concerns.

Chris Mayne is chair of North Bay's Infrastructure and Operations Committee. (Supplied by Chris Mayne)

"Most of the concerns we get are on the schedule rather than the affordability of the bus service," he said. "For most people, it's still a reasonably inexpensive way to get around if you don't have your own car or if you just prefer to take transit, which benefits the environment."

Naomi Grant, who speaks for grassroots group Coalition for a Liveable Sudbury, said she was initially pleased to hear that a political party was making transit an election topic. 

But like North Bay, Sudbury's transit riders aren't necessarily concerned about bus fare.

"What we've heard from transit riders in Sudbury is that any type of free transit or lower cost transit can never be at the cost of making the service better to meet their needs," Grant said. 

"They're looking for improvements to service rather than reductions."

Grant added that most concerns raised by riders centres around schedules, or accessibility for users.

"Generally, people want transit," she said. "And just like any other mode of travel, they want it frequent, direct and convenient."