A plan, pushed by Victoria council, urging the regional transit commission to begin phasing out bus fares as a way to boost ridership has left Sooke Mayor Maja Tait questioning the wisdom of the strategy.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m fully supportive of moving more people out of personal vehicles and into buses. I love the idea from that perspective, but I have some serious concerns about the fare proposal,” said Tait.
She said part of Victoria’s proposal, which would see fares dropped for everyone under the age of 19, sounds good until you consider Sooke does not have the number of buses or routes to accommodate the needs of local youth.
“We need more buses, more routes, and a bigger yard to accommodate the buses we need to make the service usable by our residents. If you eliminate the fare box and the millions of dollars that fare box generates, where does the money come from to improve the service?” asked Tait.
Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt said he favoured that the financing of the transit system should be shifted to the tax system.
“That’s easy to say when you’re in Victoria where, to begin with, it’s a very walkable community and where they have sufficient routes and buses to provide a good service. Maybe asking those taxpayers to fund the transit system works there,” Tait said.
“Are we going to ask Sooke taxpayers to pay more property tax for a system that isn’t giving them the same level of service? I don’t think so.”
Tait recounted how she used to take the bus into the town centre and then make the walk up Otter Point Road to Municipal Hall.
She found while the trip worked on the way into the office, she had to take two buses that travelled a circuitous route that took upward of 90 minutes to get her to her home.
“That just isn’t workable, and as much as I wholeheartedly support increased transit use, you have to have the service to make it viable for people to use it.”
She added that, so long as the routes and frequency of bus service remain as they are, she doubts that it’s really the fare box that is standing in the way of Sooke residents making the shift to transit.
Ben Isett, the Victoria counsellor who introduced the fare initiative, responded to Tait’s concerns, saying that what’s been lost is that he’s also calling for an improvement of transit services.
“I agree that services in Sooke and other smaller municipalities need to improve but the tax burden that would result (from the proposal to eliminate fares) is about the cost of one tank of gas,” said Isett.
“And even now, some elements of the regional transit services work very well.”
Tait also noted that Victoria’s proposal may be premature in that Sooke is in the midst of preparing a local area transit plan that will outline interim improvements for transit service and infrastructure over the next seven to 15 years. That transit plan will be incorporated into the district’s transportation master plan. Both these studies and their recommendations are expected to be completed in late 2019 or early 2020.
“This proposal will be coming forward to the (transit) commission in June where I’m sure there will be a fulsome discussion,” Tait said.
“There is good representation around the table to represent the needs of Sooke and the West Shore where, frankly, we have more need for transit improvements than they do in Victoria.”