A Saanich councillor questions whether free transit passes would make any difference in encouraging more transit use.
“Quite honestly, if free transit passes were so great, every jurisdiction in the world would be doing it,” said Coun. Judy Brownoff. “What I hear on the street is that people want more service.”
Brownoff made these comments as council debated and supported a motion from Coun. Nathalie Chambers that eventually calls on Saanich to support efforts by the Victoria Regional Transit Commission. It asked staff to report back on the effects of eliminating user fees for people under 18 with an eye towards launching a pilot project in the 2020-21 budget. Staff will reports its findings next month.
Other councillors agreed with Brownoff’s argument, including Couns. Karen Harper and Zac de Vries, who pointed to areas with limited service in Saanich.
“Some areas of Saanich, your combined time of walking to the bus stop and waiting for the next bus to come is well over two hours, and those are things that we need to be addressing if people are going to be able to take transit across our municipality,” said de Vries in calling service levels the “paramount issue.”
But if councillors generally agreed with the need for improved service, the public also heard concerns about funding levels.
Coun. Susan Brice, who chairs the transit commission, said it has three sources of revenue: the gas tax, the property tax, and the fare box in noting that a free youth pass would actually lower available revenues.
Turning to the issue of funding, Brownoff said the provincial government also has a role to play in funding transit for low-income families in warning that a free youth pass might actually create a substantial revenue hole.
Coun. Colin Plant welcomed the discussion, noting that the City of Victoria is moving ahead with free youth passes after the regional commission voted to grant the city subsidized pass system to Victoria residents aged 18 and under. The passes will be similar to those offered at the University of Victoria and Camosun College, where students pay $135 as part of their student fees for a subsidized pass, except that the City of Victoria will cover the bill, partly through funds from Sunday parking fees.
While this move has drawn praise, critics say it treats youth living along or near key roads differently, depending on which side of the Victoria-Saanich border they find themselves, a point found in Chambers’ initial notice of motion. It called on staff to look for alternative funding options with an eye towards offering the same service in Saanich.
Plant said he would have been curious in knowing the direction of that research in expressing support for free youth bus passes. “I may be in the minority on this council,” he said.
While acknowledging the need for improved service, municipalities should also work to create life-time transit users, he said.
Plant also said that Saanich residents might be willing to support a one per cent property tax lift to fund a free youth bus pass. “But I am not comfortable tonight to say that this is the way we should go,” he said.
This said, he believes council would support a free youth bus pass if Saanich had the same lever as Victoria. “That being said, we don’t have a lever to pull and that is something we will have to consider.”