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Transit commission approves 3-month OC Transpo fare freeze in early 2020

Ottawa's transit commission discussed proposed transit spending in the city's 2020 draft budget on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019.
Ottawa's transit commission discussed proposed transit spending in the city's 2020 draft budget on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. Beatrice Britneff / Global News

Ottawa’s transit commission on Wednesday unanimously endorsed freezing OC Transpo fares for three months early next year as it deliberated and approved the city’s proposed transit budget for 2020.

The draft municipal budget, tabled two weeks ago, accounted for a 2.5 per cent fare increase going into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

However, amid ongoing service issues with the city’s new light-rail transit (LRT) system, Mayor Jim Watson and transit commission chair Allan Hubley asked city staff to plan for a three-month fare freeze from Jan. 1 to Mar. 31, 2020, as calls for a suspension amplified following the draft budget’s release.

READ MORE: Ottawa mayor, transit chair call for transit fare freeze following LRT woes

At its meeting on Wednesday, transit commission voted in favour of a motion to delay the scheduled fare increase for three months. The fare freeze still requires approval from Ottawa city council.

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Coun. Catherine McKenney moved a motion asking to extend the freeze to 12 months, starting Jan. 1, but the proposal was defeated 7-4.

The commission heard that OC Transpo’s long-range financial plan would be impacted if the city doesn’t increase fares next year. The transit agency would have to implement a larger fare freeze down the road to make up for the lost “base” income, City Treasurer Marian Simulik said.

If the problems with the Confederation Line persist into late March, Hubley said he’d support extending the three-month freeze “until the service has improved.”

Politicians, media ride LRT trains ahead of Confederation Line’s handover to city
Politicians, media ride LRT trains ahead of Confederation Line’s handover to city

The three-month freeze will cost the city $980,000 but that money won’t come out of the 2020 budget, or out of the city’s coffers at all, Simulik told councillors. The city plans to charge that amount to the builder of the Confederation Line and its maintenance division.

(A full-year freeze, by comparison, would have cost just shy of $5 million, according to Simulik.)

The most recent fare increase, delayed until the Confederation Line was carrying riders, came into effect on Oct. 1, 2019.

Transit commission endorses OC Transpo spending for 2020

Commissioners on Wednesday spent more than nine hours debating proposed transit expenditures in the 2020 draft budget, ultimately voting 8-3 in favour of the financial plan. McKenney, Coun. Riley Brockington and citizen commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert dissented on the overall transit budget.

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That budget includes an extra $7.5 million to improve bus service and reliability on OC Transpo routes after a tough year for Ottawa’s public transit riders, including a rocky service transition after the launch of the Confederation Line.

That chunk of cash will cover the cost of continuing to operate 40 buses that were brought out of retirement and put on routes with “chronic issues” earlier this month, as well as the addition of 19 new buses for the fleet.

READ MORE: OC Transpo can’t say when Ottawa’s LRT will be stable: ‘The system isn’t good enough yet’

The budget also proposed an extra $2 million for increased Para Transpo service and recommended freezing the cost of an EquiPass, Community Pass and Access Pass at 2019 rates.

Members of the commission also supported a motion moved by Coun. Riley Brockington to implement OC Transpo’s family day pass during periods when children are off school in 2020, including the March, summer and Christmas breaks.

The family day pass allows a family group to ride all day on a single-day pass for $10.75 and is currently only available on Saturdays, Sundays and statutory holidays.

The city also has capital investments planned across the service in 2020, including $15 million to implement bus detours for the closure of Trillium Line as Stage 2 LRT construction work ramps up.

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The 2020 budget is based on ridership increasing by 2.6 per cent compared to the last 12 months. The city forecast $202.6 million in revenue from OC Transpo fares and $2.1 million from Para Transpo fares next year, but those figures were based on the implementation of the 2.5 per cent fare increase.

READ MORE: OC Transpo to use 20 new buses as ‘dedicated’ fleet deployed when LRT service is down

Earlier during Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners heard that OC Transpo got its hands on 20 new buses that it will use as a dedicated backup fleet when LRT service is down, starting in early December.

While OC Transpo boss John Manconi couldn’t specify how much operating that backup fleet will cost, he said the city plans to make the consortium contracted to build and maintain the Confederation Line pick up the tab.

Apparently none of the emergency transit measures rolled out over the past month will affect the 2020 draft budget, commissioners heard. Nor will OC Transpo have to tap into other departmental budgets for cash — something Hubley had previously speculated might have to happen.

“I’m very happy with that,” Hubley told reporters about the end result.

“By working with staff, we were able to find that money we need without touching any other budgets, which is great news for the taxpayer.”

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READ MORE: Some highlights from the City of Ottawa’s draft 2020 budget

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Since being tabled on Nov. 6, the draft municipal budget has been divvied up by department and sent to the relevant committees for debate and consultation.

The 2020 budget is scheduled to go back to city council for approval on Dec. 11, 2019.

Politicians, media ride LRT trains ahead of Confederation Line’s handover to city
Politicians, media ride LRT trains ahead of Confederation Line’s handover to city