Ottawa's transit commission has approved a $695 million budget to run public transit in 2022, despite worries it's based on an unrealistic assumption that ridership — and fare revenue — will bounce back completely by the end of next year.
The commission also backed a move by transit chair Coun. Allan Hubley to delay a planned 2.5 per cent fare increase, slated for Jan. 1, until 15 trains have been running on the Confederation Line for a month.
The current goal sees a full pandemic-era contingent of 11 trains on the tracks by the end of November, reintroduced after a derailment shut down the system for weeks, but staff could not offer a timeline when 15 trains would again be required.
Next year's budget is based on 82 per cent ridership on the bus and train on average in 2022, resulting in $166 million in fares. OC Transpo will make no cuts to service in the meantime. Ridership this October, however, was just 41 per cent of pre-pandemic 2019 levels.
Several commissioners said that was far too aggressive because the city doesn't know when, or if, its main clientele of public servants and post-secondary students will ride again in large numbers.
City staff explained the ridership number is simply one around which to build a budget. If fares don't materialize, they're counting on upper levels of government to bail out the City of Ottawa for transit shortfalls of $60 million — or much more.
"I have full confidence that we're going to receive some funding to get us through next year," said chief financial officer Wendy Stephanson, adding all municipalities are in the same predicament. "It has to happen because transit across the country has to recover from the pandemic."
Stephanson's rationale didn't sit well with many transit commissioners.
"This is a big issue for me because I think our budgets that we pass need to send a message to the public that we've done our due diligence," said River ward Coun. Riley Brockington.
"I'm not entirely sure we should be relying on money from daddy for transit," agreed citizen commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert. "I think we should be budgeting for reality."
Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower saw it differently.
Aiming low for ridership could lead to service cuts that would make OC Transpo even less reliable, putting the city in a "perpetual downward spiral," he said.
Gower would rather aim for high ridership and put pressure on employers and residents to get back in the office and to use transit as the climate-friendly mode of transportation.
"Public transit must be there before the clients come back because if we don't, for sure they won't come," explained transit general manager Renée Amilcar. "We need to be there."
Motion on free transit to age 7
Many commissioners doubt every one will come back, however, because they will work from home or have purchased cars. It's easier to keep riders than to lure new ones, commissioners observed.
Still, OC Transpo will try to get riders back after the pandemic. It has earmarked $625,000 in 2022 for a marketing campaign.
The best marketing would be a transit system riders can count on, pointed out citizen commissioner Anthony Carricato.
"I think we'd need a lot more money than that to combat some of the notions out there about our current system and the way it's functioning," he said.
Monthly OC Transpo pass prices
Meanwhile, several residents addressed the commission, pointing out those whose only transportation option is public transit are being saddled with rising prices for a public service.
"This is not fair," said Fatima Gimba from the City for All Women Initiative, which works with refugee newcomers.
Single cash fares will rise to $3.75 for an adult trip in 2022, while a regular adult monthly pass will reach $125.50 after Hubley's fare freeze ends.
In the end, only Brockington voted against the transit budget, while Catherine McKenney, Theresa Kavanagh and Wright-Gilbert voted against the planned fare increase.
The transit portion of the City of Ottawa's 2022 draft budget now rises to full council as part of the final city-wide budget on Dec. 8.
There, Brockington is expected to table a motion seeking free transit for children up to the age of seven, instead of five, while McKenney will aim to freeze fares for the full 2022 calendar year and pay for it through an increase to the transit levy on property tax bills.