Winnipeg Transit passengers could have to pay an extra quarter to ride the bus next year after city council made a spur-of-the-moment decision critics slammed as "policy on the fly."
On Wednesday morning, council's executive policy committee held a special meeting where they voted in favour of Winnipeg's new transportation master plan, which aims to finish the second phase of the southwest rapid transit corridor by 2016. The planning blueprint initially called on Winnipeg to build four rapid transit corridors by 2031, but earlier this week Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi argued the city should set more aggressive timelines to complete certain rapid transit projects, as it does for roadway improvements.
Coun. Justin Swandel (St. Norbert) was the only member of EPC who voted against the master plan, saying there is no funding in place and all spending on bridge and roadwork would have to stop in order for Winnipeg to meet the ambitious 2016 goal. He said Winnipeg could raise transit fares to pay for the project -- an idea he unexpectedly brought forward to city council later Wednesday morning.
Council was already set to consider a five-cent hike to transit fares starting Jan. 1 to offset the cost of rising gas prices, more expensive buses and inflation.
Swandel proposed fees increase by an additional 20 cents on June 1 and that the revenue collected go toward the city's rapid transit reserve account to pay for the second leg of the southwest corridor and other rapid transit projects.
Although approved by council, the fee hike has to be approved by provincial officials due to the province's transit-funding agreement with the City of Winnipeg.
The idea outraged ardent transit supporters, who said it would gouge transit riders who are on a fixed income.
While supporters commended Swandel for his leadership, Coun. Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas) called it a "slap in the face" to transit users and Gerbasi called the process "despicable."
Typically, city administration reviews and reports on the impact of proposed policy decisions and issues recommendations to councillors. Plans are then amended or approved by standing committees, executive policy committee and, ultimately, council. There is opportunity for the public to speak to a proposed policy change during the process.
In this case, the fee hike was approved before council consulted with Winnipeg Transit, the public, city administration and the province.
"Is it fair to just put it on the Winnipeg Transit user? We haven't even talked to Winnipeg Transit, it hasn't been discussed with administration, it hasn't been vetted through finance. It's policy on the fly," Gerbasi said.
A divided city council approved Swandel's proposal in a vote of 8-6. Mayor Sam Katz, Couns. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan), Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood), Thomas Steen (Elmwood), Swandel, Dan Vandal (St. Boniface), Russ Wyatt (Transcona) and Grant Nordman (St. Charles) supported the hike. Couns. Ross Eadie (Mynarski), Gerbasi, John Orlikow (River Heights), Pagtakhan, Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan) and Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre) voted against it.
It's now up to the province to decide whether or not to approve the 20-cent hike.
Provincial cabinet spokeswoman Jodee Mason said in an email statement the province supports rapid transit, but has not yet seen the city's proposal to increase bus fares. Mason's statement said: "A fare increase seems premature given we have no specifics yet on the corridor."
The transportation plan does not specify where the southwest corridor's second leg will run. It could either run alongside Pembina Highway or take a western detour into Fort Garry.
Even with the fee increase, Swandel said Winnipeg's transit fares are still below the national average. He said the city has a responsibility to find a way to fund its one-third share of the cost of the rapid transit corridor within the next five years and estimates the fee hike will generate $100 million of the $300-million cost.
"I guess you can talk about rapid transit all you want, but if you want to make something happen you need to identify a funding source," Katz said. "So you can either talk the talk or walk the walk."
How others stack up
A 25-cent increase would bump a regular Winnipeg Transit fare to $2.65 from $2.40.
Here's how that compares with other Canadian cities:
National average: $2.81
Mississauga, Ont.: $3
--Source: City of Winnipeg
Transportation master plan: City council voted in favour of the transportation master plan. The planning blueprint is intended to give developers and residents an idea about the location of future transportation routes. It calls for major road improvements over the next 20 years, including widening Kenaston between Ness and Taylor by 2016, and extending the Chief Peguis Trail from Main to McPhillips Street by 2021.