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Reality check: Will Scheer’s promised public transit tax credit help the environment?

WATCH: Conservatives propose public transit tax credit to help combat climate change.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is promising to bring back the public transit tax credit, aimed at decreasing the number of people driving to work, as part of the party’s environmental platform.

“By making it more affordable for Canadians to use public transit, we will reduce the number of cars on the road,” Scheer said in a statement. “This will decrease congestion, allowing Canadians to get home faster at the end of the workday. It will also help our environment as more Canadians choose public transit.”

The Conservatives say the plan, called the Green Public Transit Tax Credit, would give people a 15 per cent credit at tax season.

WATCH: Scheer promises public transit tax credit as part of climate change plan

Federal Election 2019: Conservatives say if re-elected, Trudeau will increase ‘carbon tax’
Federal Election 2019: Conservatives say if re-elected, Trudeau will increase ‘carbon tax’

The party says a family of four that regularly takes transit in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) would save nearly $1,000 per year. Monthly and weekly transit passes would both be accepted under the proposed tax credit, as would electronic fare cards, provided they are used for an extended period.

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A similar tax credit was previously scrapped by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, who said it was too expensive — at a cost of about $200 million a year — and raised concerns that it didn’t effectively lead to more people taking public transit.

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A 2016 University of Ottawa study, which looked at transit across Canada, found the tax credit increased ridership by roughly 0.25 per cent to one per cent and that “the large majority of recipients of the (public-transit tax credit) are those who would have taken transit regardless of the availability of the tax credit.”

University of Ottawa economist Nic Rivers, who co-published the study, said these types of boutique tax credits don’t have a significant effect on changing individual behaviour.

 “Most of the people that rode the bus continued to ride bus, and most that drove their car continued to drive the car.”

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The non-partisan Parliamentary Budget Office, which all parties are using to cost election promises, pegged the cost of the proposal at $57 million in 2019-20 before gradually increasing to $306 million in 2028-29.

Other reports from the federal government have suggested these tax credits are not effective in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The federal auditor general wrote in 2017 that the credit would have a “negligible impact on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

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When the transit tax credit was phased out, the TTC noted in a 2017 report that it would result in 2.5 million fewer rides and a loss of $5 million in 2017 alone. However, Rivers noted that 2.5 million is the equivalent of about 0.3 per cent fewer rides — a “very, very small impact.”

“If your goal is [to] reduce emissions or reduce car transport, this is a really expensive, ineffective way to go about doing it,” he said.

Global News reached out to the Conservatives for comment in response to criticisms about its proposal but has not yet received a response.

A direct appeal to GTA voters

Scheer made the announcement on Friday while campaigning in Mississauga, a key battleground in the GTA.

Darrell Bricker, CEO at Ipsos, said the pledge is directly aimed at voters in the ridings around Toronto, who often swing in big numbers from election to election.

“This type of public policy is really direct, and people can actually understand how it affects them,” he said. “The more people can see the impact on them personally, the better it is from a political perspective.”

A spokesperson for the Liberals said Friday’s announcement is evidence the Tories don’t understand how to create “meaningful change” when it comes to transit.

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“We know that the way to improve access to reliable, quality public transit is to make strategic investments, and that’s exactly what we did through our historic $180-billion plan to help strengthen communities, shorten commutes for families and reduce pollution,” Joe Pickerill, a Liberal campaign spokesman, said in an email.

Andrew Cash, NDP candidate for Davenport, said his party would focus on creating more low carbon transit projects in communities across Canada.

“A New Democrat government would be a partner in modernizing and expanding public transit in communities across Canada and ensuring an emphasis on scaling up low carbon transit projects like zero-emissions buses and electric trains, with the goal of electrifying transit and other municipal fleets by 2030,” Cash said in a statement.

Global News has reached out to the Green Party for comment and will update this story with their response.