OC Transpo fare freeze extended again

Ottawa city council voted this week to extend the OC Transpo fare freeze that was put in place as a reprieve for riders frustrated with the unreliable LRT.

The motion puts senior city staff in charge of deciding when the 2.5 per cent fare hike will take effect. 

It was originally scheduled for Jan. 1, then rescheduled to April 1.

Coun. Allan Hubley, chair of the transit commission, said the change will allow its members to focus on service issues.

"Councillors will be able to come to transit commission and talk about the actual service issues if they continue and so on. We're not taking away that discussion," he said Wednesday.

The April fare increase depended on whether the Confederation LRT was running up to the service standards in the city's contract.

Citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert had proposed extending the fare freeze to June 30. She's concerned putting staff in charge of the decision muddies accountability.

"If transit commission, at the end of the day, disagrees with the decision by [management], there is nothing we can do about it," Wright-Gilbert said.

"It's those councillors and commissioners that will need to answer to constituents as to why the rates went up."

It would require a new, separate motion for this fare increase change to be undone.

Matthew Kupfer/CBC

Ottawa Transit Riders board member John Redins said riders don't want to pay for service they aren't getting and politicians should take responsibility for the decision. 

"They want to wipe their hands clean," Redins said.

"Nobody wants to be accountable for anything. It's frustrating for the ridership. It's frustrating for the employees that are working there."

'It's a high standard'

City manager Steve Kanellakos and transit general manager John Manconi will determine whether standards are being met.

They'll provide customers and council at least one month's notice.

Andrew Lee/CBC

Manconi told councillors Wednesday he will be watching for any "slippage" from builders and maintenance company Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM) on meeting their standard.

"It's consistent rush-hour period service and then throughout the day, consistently, stations opened and all the equipment working. It's a high standard," Manconi said.

The city says it's losing $340,000 a month in foregone revenue from the fare freeze.

Those costs are being covered using payments withheld from RTM as a penalty for poor service.

Freeze has compounding effect

City staff previously said a year-long fare freeze in 2020 would cost $4.9 million.

Staff told councillors on Wednesday that it would also have a "compounding effect" on the base of the transit budget over time. 

Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower said he cautioned councillors that a year-long freeze could create a larger hole in the transit budget over time.

He said he supports the extended freeze, but asked whether at some point the money withheld from RTM could have better uses.

"It's certainly beneficial and a good gesture to riders, but would that money be better spent to invest in more buses, more operators, expanded service, more bus shelters and things like that?" Gower asked.

Jean Delisle/CBC

Alta Vista Coun. Jean Cloutier also spoke in favour of the freeze, but said the city only has three options in front of it on transit — paying with taxes, fares or reducing service. 

"Fare freezes that go on forever will do nothing to improve services," Cloutier said.