Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sauce for bus riders is sauce for car drivers

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City council's decision to raise transit fares a total of 25 cents over the next year (five cents in January and 20 cents in June) is a continuation of an attack on the poor, people with disabilities, immigrants and students.

We have been nickeled and dimed to death over the last decade with yearly transit-fare increases, despite the fact that there has been a significant increase in ridership in the past eight years. Also, it is simply not true that Winnipeg Transit fares are the second-lowest in the country and that a 25-cent increase would bring us to the national average.

Transit bus riders pay about 48 per cent of operational funding for transit -- staff, administration and maintenance -- and revenue such as advertising pays another 12 per cent. The city pays 20 per cent and the rest comes from provincial transfers.

Winnipeg is currently putting 28.4 per cent of its infrastructure budget toward transit, including rapid transit and local and community transit. At the same time, 72 per cent of the budget goes towards city roads, according to the City of Winnipeg Transportation Master Plan.

In Calgary, meanwhile, 47 per cent of the infrastructure budget goes towards roads and 53 per cent towards transit.

And now transit users are expected to fund, for the first time, the completion of the southwest rapid transit corridor. This additional 20 cents will generate $6.5 million in annual revenue, which would service almost $100 million of debt or one-third of the southwest rapid transit project (which, by the way, is the amount that cities are required to kick in on major public works, with the province and federal governments sharing the other two-thirds).

No other city in North America has ever had transit users fund rapid transit, be it bus or light rail.

Why didn't the city consider other sources of revenue such as a motor vehicle tax, special gas tax, toll bridges or other levies?

Unfortunately, what is missing in these transit debates is that roads and bridges are viewed as essential public services to be paid completely out of property taxes, as are services such as ambulance and police, while public transportation is not.

The city and province share a mere 40 per cent of the cost of transit service while transit users pay 60 per cent. Why?

It is interesting to note that Chris Lorenc, of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association, has suggested that in order to deal with the significant infrastructure deficit the city faces, toll bridges be established on highways to pay for part of it.

This suggests, for the first time, that if transit users have to pay for using transit, then car owners should have to pay for some costs of the upkeep of roads and bridges.

Rapid transit will, in fact, benefit the entire community, not just transit users. More people on the bus means fewer cars on the road, reduction of congestion, pollution and wear and tear on the infrastructure.

City council's motion suggests that the transit fare increase should be set aside in the rapid transit reserve capital fund for new rapid transit developments. What guarantee is there that council wouldn't raid this fund for other projects, as they have many times before?

There is no full user-pay public transit system in North America, with Toronto paying 70 per cent and Winnipeg paying 53 per cent of operating costs, compared to a national average of 40 per cent.

Although small increases in fares appear not to have significant effects on some ridership groups, the effects of cumulative increases in fares over the past decade seem to have resulted in reduced ridership levels by certain groups, especially young people and those on limited income.

Winnipeg Transit determined that fares for regular transit should be based on a revenue-cost formula where riders pay no more than 66 per cent of the operating costs. But, in fact, in 2010 and 2011, riders were paying 71 per cent of the operating costs of regular transit.

Approximately 14 per cent of all Winnipeggers use transit as their main mode of transportation. Young people ages 15 to 24 are most likely to use public transit, women (except those 15 to 19) are more likely than men to use it.

From any point of view, increasing bus fares is not a good public policy for Winnipeg. While it may generate revenue for the city, it increases cost and inconvenience for residents.

Nick Ternette is a community and political activist, freelance writer and broadcaster.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2012 A16

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