Jon Willing Updated: June 5, 2019
City council will consider how much money might be needed to buy the loyalty of OC Transpo customers, while the agency struggles to maintain confidence in a public transit system that desperately needs the LRT.
On June 12 council could be faced with two choices on fares, although only one seems likely to receive majority support.
Coun. Allan Hubley, chair of the transit commission, said he’ll ask for support to extend the fare freeze until the LRT system opens.
Coun. Diane Deans said she’ll ask for a reduction in transit fares until the trains are running.
The finance and economic development committee learned on Tuesday that the Rideau Transit Group, builder of the $2.1-billion Confederation Line LRT system, won’t deliver the 12.5-kilometre rail line by the end of June. RTG has not yet provided a handover date.
The current fare freeze, implemented in recognition of the LRT delay, expires on July 1. A 2.5-per-cent increase is currently scheduled to happen on Canada Day.
Transpo needs a decision on the fares at the June 12 council meeting, since July passes go on sale June 16.
There seems to be a citywide consensus, even at city hall, that Transpo bus service is horrendous right now.
“It is painful out there for the customers,” John Manconi, the general manager in charge of Transpo, acknowledged during the committee meeting.
Bus trip cancellations are at record highs, he said.
The delay of the LRT system means buses are still slowly rumbling through the downtown, at times backed up during rush-hour traffic, while following more detours caused by major construction projects, like the Elgin Street tear-up.
The added rub is that Transpo can’t implement $5.1-million in bus service improvements provided by the 2019 municipal budget until the LRT opens.
Deans said she’ll ask for council’s support to reduce transit fares, since customers have been unfairly saddled with poor bus service. To pay for the fare decrease, she suggested that RTG could be sent the bill.
“We’re still charging full fare for a subpar system and we’re asking our customers to bear with us,” Deans said, “and to tell you the truth, as a member of council, I’m kind of tired, I’m done of defending it.”
Keeping a fare freeze from July 1 to Aug. 1 would cost the city $320,000 in lost revenue. A fare freeze from July 1 to Sept. 1 would cost of $600,000.
Mayor Jim Watson said extending fare freeze is affordable and justifiable, but any suggestion to reduce fares is simply political pandering to transit riders. Reducing fares now will only create a substantial fare hike later for a transit agency with fixed costs, Watson said.
“Taking less money out of the fare box is not improving service. It’s going to denigrate service even further,” Watson said.
With the mayor’s position known, the fare freeze is the odds-on favourite to win at council.
Watson tried his best to talk up the transit service, saying he hears from riders who share both positive and negative opinions of Transpo.
“Not everyone is having a bad experience,” Watson said. “A lot of people are, but not everyone.”
Bus operations have been intimately impacted by LRT construction. The Transitway conversion to rail means buses need to use city streets.
There are now what-if scenarios floating around city hall: What if LRT isn’t ready for September? What if Transpo needs more staff to run buses when there’s a seasonal spike in bus ridership? What if Transpo doesn’t have enough buses to meet the demand?
Manconi said Transpo has the right number of operators and it’s holding on to buses that were to be sold, even the inefficient hybrid buses, which now need new batteries.
There still doesn’t seem to be any interest in reversing the bus route changes implemented last September. The changes happened in preparation for the start of LRT, which, at the time, was expected to launch by the end of November.
The annual summer reduction in transit service will begin as scheduled on June 23.
Transpo keeps extending the employment of many bus operators who work with the understanding they’ll be laid off when the LRT opens.
Staff have given up long-weekends and days off to meet service demand, Manconi said, and Transpo will be offering premiums for operators to give up their vacations.
RTG is getting billed for transit cost overruns — including the fare freeze, staff overtime and hybrid bus batteries — under the city’s reading of provisions in the LRT construction contract. RTG, however, disputes having to pay
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