Edmonton councillor wants free transit on election day

An Edmonton Transit Service LRT train at the NAIT station in Edmonton, Alberta. November 20, 2015. Kendra Slugoski, Global News

Councillor Aaron Paquette wants to see free public transportation through Edmonton Transit on federal election day.

He put forward a motion at the end of Thursday’s council meeting.

“A lot of [people] aren’t going to vote simply because they can’t get out to the polls because, believe it or not, $3.50 for a transit fare, or $7 if they’re going there and back outside of that 90-minute window, that’s their groceries for a week.”

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Cost estimates weren’t available for councillors to consider, but by next Tuesday, transit staff will be able to present a dollar amount for what a typical Monday cash-fare take the ETS would forgo by offering free transit on election day.

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“It’s a no-brainer,” Paquette said, adding other cities like Lethbridge and Victoria have done it. “Let’s put it to the people of Edmonton. I’m sure that they would say, ‘Hey you make it free on New Year’s Eve.’ We set off fireworks, we do a lot of things that really aren’t essential to our democracy. Why wouldn’t we do something that makes a real difference?

“If people hear more and more about voting and know that there are less barriers to voting, they’re more likely to vote.”

Paquette’s question came without much warning and thus touched off a debate.

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“I don’t know what to make of the reaction except for the fact that people want to be seen as being financially accountable. That’s absolutely what we should be. But we debate a lot less on spending an order of magnitude more,” Paquette said. “I just have a feeling this is not going to be an onerous amount.”

Click to play video: 'Transit satisfaction still quite strong but declining among Edmonton riders'
Transit satisfaction still quite strong but declining among Edmonton riders

Mayor Don Iveson said instead of making a bunch of one-off situations where transit is free, council should tackle the issue of public accessible transit through a wider approach.

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“We’ve offered a lot of targeted subsidies already to remove barriers — not just to voting; but to everyday life for people — and so I think understanding this proposal within that broader context would make the most sense.

“The auditor’s point, which I completely agree with, is that we need an overall transit fare policy that addresses all the instances where we’d offer discounts and subsidies and what we’re trying to accomplish in the process,” Iveson said.

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The mayor also pointed out that for election campaigns, particularly federal and provincial, campaign offices offer free rides to the polls for voters who call ahead and ask.

“Which is a lovely and much-appreciated public service,” Iveson said. “To that extent, this need may already be being met by the political process and that’s, I think, one of the questions that came up in debate.”

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Iveson did not know how much the city foregoes in fares when it offers free rides on New Year’s Eve. He couldn’t estimate how much it would cost to offer free transit on this federal election day Oct. 21.

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“We’re going to get some more information to understand the costs and have an opportunity to reflect a little bit on how this fits into our larger transit fare policy objectives between now and Tuesday.

“The other consideration is if we’re going to direct some resources towards voter turnout, is free transit the best solution or are there other proposals that we should consider?

“Unfortunately, it’s all a bit late in the game for us but with the benefit of some more information, we’ll be able to address this next Tuesday.”

City administration could not provide cost estimates to Global News but said the numbers would be brought verbally to council Oct. 8.

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