Transit fee increase doesn’t help those who pay it

The first formal rapid transit study for Winnipeg was brought before city council in 1959, nearly 53 years ago. Written by Norman D. Wilson, who by then had planned Toronto’s subway system, the study called for the construction of three subway routes which would wind their way across Winnipeg’s irregular grid pattern. An ambitious plan, it would ultimately be destined to be forgotten by everyone but a few obsessive transit nerds.

By 1974, Winnipeg was making much more modest plans for rapid transit, abandoning subways for a dedicated “rapid bus system,” with the first planned route linking downtown to the University of Manitoba.

Thirty-six years and five mayoral administrations later, construction of the first leg of this bus rapid transit corridor began.

In November of this year, city council approved another transportation master plan, which includes three new rapid transit corridors built over the next 20 years. Details are vague, and even the most immediate question of where exactly will the second phase of the U of M route be built, is not answered in this master plan.

Still, council has one definite course of action toward future rapid transit development: a 25-cent increase in regular bus fares, from $2.40 to $2.65.

Following a recent council meeting, I noticed a local reporter’s tweet on Twitter that St. Norbert Councillor Justin Swandel remarked that transit fares could be raised by 25 cents, to help pay for “rapid transit development.”

This seemed like an off-handed suggestion, too crazy to be taken seriously, particularly from a Councillor who in the first three quarters of 2011 has billed the City for $8,459 of his own car-related expenses.

But Swandel’s comment turned into a motion, and before the afternoon was over, council approved increasing fares by 20 cents (in addition to the five-cent increase already passed earlier in the year). No studying, no consultation, no sober second thought.

The increase passed 8-6. For anyone keeping score at home, the votes in favour of the hike were: Katz, Browaty, Havixbeck, Nordman, Steen, Swandel, Vandal and Wyatt. Opposed were Eadie, Gerbasi, Orlikow, Pagtakhan, Sharma and Smith.

And so fares will increase by five cents in January, and another 20 cents in June, all to pay for a rapid transit system with no real timelines or costs.

When I first began regularly using transit, fares were $1.60.

While that might make me sound like an old-timer who lived through an age of steady inflation, I actually just lived through a decade of a city council that did not care about transit or its riders, and simply saw transit as something they could bleed to death while they kept property taxes ostensibly frozen.

In that same time, frequency of buses on major local and express routes has been frozen, even as buses become increasingly crowded.

There is a case for privatizing the transit system and letting the market determine prices. Or, all things being equal, to create toll roads or charge motorists to enter certain areas, similar to London’s congestion pricing system.

There is also a case for actively lobbying the provincial government for a share of the gas tax, or for the city to have greater taxation powers generally.

There is also a case for raising property tax rates. Crazy stuff, I know.

If Councillor Swandel or Mayor Katz were actively pushing for any one of these things, I could take a 25-cent fare increase as a principled (if still bad) idea.

But they are not, and this is simply an easy way to suck some more money out of citizens who don’t matter.

Robert Galston has written on urban issues since 2005 in his blog The Rise and Sprawl, and for the Winnipeg Free Press and The Uniter. He is currently studying at the University of Winnipeg and is employed at the Institute of Urban Studies.

Published in Volume 66, Number 14 of The Uniter (November 30, 2011)

Related Reads