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City blazing a new trail

First in Canada to propose transit users pay for rapid transit project

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/11/2011 (2075 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WINNIPEG appears headed down a road no other Canadian city has taken by forcing those who ride the bus to cover a share of rapid transit upgrades.

But it remains a mystery how much money will be generated by a snap council decision on Wednesday to hike fares by a quarter. No one has done the math to explain the bottom line to riders and those responsible for the next chapter in the city's transit upgrades.

A welder works on a section of the rapid transit corridor near the Osborne Street underpass Thursday.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A welder works on a section of the rapid transit corridor near the Osborne Street underpass Thursday.

Mike Pagtakhan

Mike Pagtakhan

Greg Selinger

Greg Selinger

Sam Katz

Sam Katz

The latest transit troubles were sparked Wednesday when council voted on a last-minute idea to add 20 cents to a planned five-cent transit fare hike in 2012 to cover part of the cost of extending the city's first rapid transit line to Bison Drive near the University of Manitoba. The move means a regular cash fare will increase by five cents on Jan. 1 and an additional 20 cents on June 1, which brings the total cost of a regular fare to $2.65.

The additional 20 cents will go toward the city's rapid transit reserve. The province must also sign off on the plan, as it determines the level of subsidy to Winnipeg Transit.

St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel proposed the larger fare hike one day after Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi amended the Transportation Master Plan to stipulate the southwest rapid transit corridor be completed by 2016. Council did not consult anyone about the proposed fare increase, including Winnipeg Transit, corporate finance officials or the public.

While Swandel projects the additional fare hike will generate $6.5 to $7 million annually, he has not calculated what portion of transit passengers pay full cash fares, and how many others use monthly or weekly passes or pay reduced fares. Neither Swandel nor Winnipeg Transit officials have figured out how much more passes, tickets, and reduced fares for seniors and students will cost.

A spokesperson from the Canadian Urban Transit Association said Winnipeg appears to be the only city in Canada trying to fund a rapid transit project in this way. Other cities have used various sources -- including property taxes and gas taxes -- to pay for new public transit projects.

Mayors from 22 municipalities in metro Vancouver finalized an agreement with the B.C. government in October that will see the region receive an additional two cents per litre of gas tax to fund a new rapid transit line. Toronto Transit Commission spokesman Danny Nicolson said the city plans to fund its portion of a new subway extension from its general revenue fund, while another new streetcar project will be entirely funded by the Ontario government.

Winnipeg Transit uses a formula that charges pass holders, students and seniors proportionally less than people who hop on the bus and pay a cash fare. City spokeswoman Alissa Clark said in an email statement Winnipeg Transit does not have a detailed analysis of the fare increases, and department staff are still reviewing the motion adopted by council.

Some councillors are still stunned by city council's decision, including Point Douglas Coun. Mike Pagtakhan who called it a lesson in how "not to govern." Pagtakhan said the fare increase will have a negative impact on people of lesser means who rely on transit, including new immigrants, seniors and single mothers.

He said he would have liked to see council investigate other funding options such as a modest vehicle fee. Pagtakhan wants to investigate whether Winnipeg can extend transfer times to reduce the impact on passengers.

"In almost a decade here on council I've never seen anything like this where it was really just shoved down everyone's throat," he said. "Honestly, I'm still in shock."

Mayor Sam Katz said he would have preferred the increase be approved through a different proces, but maintains that Winnipeg needs to find a way to fund rapid transit.

"The elected officials are there to make decisions on how to move the city forward, and that's what they did, it's quite simple," he said.

Katz said the province and city have a 50-50 transit funding agreement, and the province could decide to claw back a portion of the additional fare revenue to their general revenue fund. If that occurs, Katz said Winnipeg would not have enough money to finish the second phase of the southwest rapid transit corridor.

Premier Greg Selinger said there may be better ways to support rapid transit without placing the financial burden on transit users, many of whom are of limited financial means.

"We'll take a look to see whether there's way to advance rapid transit without putting all the pressure on the fare box," Selinger said during an interview on CBC Radio.

Katz said he will keep an "open mind" about other funding options the province may suggest, noting the city has met regularly with the province to discuss different ways of funding municipal infrastructure.

The first phase of the $138-million busway, which is slated to open in April 2012, was financed with the help of $90 million in city-provincial borrowing. The city and province intend to recoup the cash from property taxes flowing from new developments along the line, but no detailed financial analysis of this plan has ever been made public.

 

-- with files from Bartley Kives

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

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