Millions of dollars is riding on a city hall plan to sell discounted transit passes to university students with the hope of increased future ridership.

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This article was published 11/8/2016 (1899 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Millions of dollars is riding on a city hall plan to sell discounted transit passes to university students with the hope of increased future ridership.

Winnipeg Transit delivered about 5,000 special student transit passes to the University of Winnipeg and has another 25,000 passes — formally known as U-Pass — ready for the University of Manitoba, which the full-time students will be required to purchase when starting classes in September.

Transit purchased nine buses to handle an expected increase in student ridership and hired 17 additional staff, including bus drivers and mechanics. It’s a move that will cost taxpayers almost $1 million this year and $2.2 million in 2017, but city hall hopes it will lead to more transit riders down the road.

"U-Pass is a long-term investment in increasing transit ridership," said Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, who was the driving force on city council for the program. "Research from transit authorities across the country has shown when you draw more people at a younger age into the habit of using transit... then that does translate into more ridership throughout their lifetime."

Students must pay an additional $260 for the fall and winter semesters (eight months) with their student fees and in return would be issued a transit pass good for an unlimited number of rides, seven days a week. The purchase of the pass will be mandatory for all undergraduate students at the two universities and graduate students at the U of M. The program was approved by separate student referendums in October 2014.

The U-Pass system was driven by student leaders at both universities and supported by campus-wide referendums. Council agreed to the proposal in February 2014 and reaffirmed the initiative in March 2015 on a four-year basis to measure its worth.

The passes are effective Sept. 1

Gerbasi said the U-Pass concept isn’t novel, adding it’s considered a best practice in many cities across the country, and she’s glad to see it’s finally going into operation in Winnipeg.

"To have everything come together the way it did took a long time in Winnipeg — the student unions, the city and Winnipeg Transit all came together in agreement to go forward," Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) said. "It’s something that’s been talked about for a long, long time, and it’s something I personally hoped to see. It’s very gratifying to see everything come together and that it’s happening."

Transit will continue to offer all other post-secondary students its post-secondary transit pass, which costs $71 monthly this year ($567 for eight months).

There was concern students at the U of M — where many drive their own vehicles to class — wouldn’t use the U-Pass, but students there did approve the initiative in a campus-wide student vote. Student leaders speculated that U of M students will use U-Pass to avoid the school’s parking fees — drive their vehicles to a free park-and-ride and take a bus onto campus.

An administrative report to council last March said the program will require an annual subsidy to cover lost revenue: an expected $994,000 for the remaining four months in 2016 ($579,500 after provincial cost-sharing) and $2,185,000 for the eight months in 2017 ($1,337,000 after provincial cost-sharing).

Transit was convinced to support the move after surveying other transit authorities across the country that offer similar discounts. Universities in B.C. and Alberta saw a ridership increase among university students of up to 50 per cent. Better still, a followup study after a three-year pilot program in Edmonton found more than 50 per cent of students who had been using U-Passes intended to continue using transit after they graduated.

Between the U of M and the U of W, Transit estimated 20,000 to 23,000 students rode a bus to class each day last year, and it’s planning for a modest bump in ridership: 20 per cent, or an additional 4,500 riders each day.

Transit will be able to closely monitor U of W ridership — the new smart card, Peggo, will be used by those students. Paper passes will be provided to U of M students.

Jonathan Borland, Transit’s information supervisor, said the U of M required more time "to integrate (the Peggo card technology) into their fee payment system," but the smart cards will be provided to the U of M students next year.

Borland said Transit will rely on its buses’ automated passenger counter to monitor ridership changes among the U of M students this year.

Most of the additional buses have been designated to routes serving the U of M. A civic spokeswoman said the impact from increased ridership among U of W students isn’t expected to stretch the transit system as those students travel to the U of W using dozens of different transit routes.

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca