One week after learning the Confederation Line would miss its June 30 deadline, Ottawa city councillors on Wednesday voted unanimously to delay a scheduled OC Transpo fare increase once again, this time until after the light-rail train has opened to riders.
A majority of council, however, refused to entertain a proposal to reduce transit fares for that period put forward by one councillor, a request that triggered a heated and lengthy debate around the council table.
Council had previously approved a transit fare freeze until July 1, 2019, after finding out the $2.1-billion LRT system wouldn’t launch in 2018.
The builder of the east-west line, the Rideau Transit Group (RTG), has since missed two other handover dates. No new deadline for the train — delayed now for more than a year — has been announced.
At city council’s meeting on Wednesday, Coun. Allan Hubley, who chairs the transit commission, put forward a motion proposing that the city implement the 2019 fare changes “on the first day of the month following the opening of O-Train Line 1 to transit customers.” Mayor Jim Watson seconded Hubley’s motion.
Continuing the fare freeze until August 1 would cost the city about $328,000, according to the text of the motion; pushing it until September 1 would cost the city a total of $616,000.
The city will initially use funds from the municipality’s transit capital reserve to foot that bill, but the motion also directed the city manager try and recoup the costs of continuing the fare freeze from RTG.
Councillor’s request to explore fare reduction triggers heated debate; proposal defeated
Coun. Diane Deans proposed an amendment to Hubley’s motion, asking staff to look into and report back on the feasibility of reducing OC Transpo fares beginning on Sept. 1, 2019 and deducting the cost of that fare reduction from the city’s cheque to RTG.
“The fare reduction should be commensurate with the reduction in service reliability and remain in place until such time as Phase 1 LRT is fully operational,” Deans’ motion read.
The LRT delays have strained Ottawa’s bus system, leading to widespread delays and cancellations throughout the winter. A number of route changes and detours were implemented in anticipation of the LRT’s launch.
Deans argued that OC Transpo riders aren’t getting what they’re paying for right now and the city needs to “show some respect” to its “severely inconvenienced” transit customers.
“When I go to the grocery store and buy a pound of grapes, if I only get half a pound, I don’t expect to pay for a pound. And it’s the same principle. If I’m not getting the full service, I don’t expect to pay for the full service,” she told reporters after council’s meeting.
A quarter of city council backed Deans’ proposal, including councillors Rick Chiarelli, Theresa Kavanagh, Shawn Menard, Rawlson King and Catherine McKenney. Carol Anne Meehan, who called the state of the city’s public transit system a “disgrace,” expressed some support for Deans’ idea but didn’t vote in favour in the end.
Other members of council fervently opposed a fare reduction, including the mayor. Watson claimed that reducing fares by 30 per cent would cost taxpayers $29 million over six months and argued that the city won’t improve its bus service by lowering fees while it waits for LRT.
Hubley said the city would be “gambling” if it reduced fares at a higher cost with no guarantee that RTG would agree to foot that bill. Coun. Keith Egli, for his part, described the proposal as “a shell game.”
“It’s a sham. It’s not going to fix the problem,” Egli said. “It sounds really good but at the end of the day it doesn’t fix the issue, which is people’s frustration with the service.”
Deans’ amendment was defeated 6-18.
“I don’t think it goes far enough just to say, ‘I’ll tell you what, the service is so unreliable we won’t charge you more for it,'” Deans told reporters.