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Attempts to freeze transit fees fall short

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

An attempt by an Oshawa councillor to freeze bus fares before they can increase this year was foiled during a recent committee meeting.

Ward 5 city and regional councillor Brian Nicholson attempted to pass a motion which would freeze rates and stop the impending increase for one full year pending public consultation.

Nicholson told the finance and administration committee he had gone through the minutes of the December transit executive committee meeting, and had found no attempt to consult the public on the Durham Region Transit (DRT) fare strategy.

“Here we are developing a strategy that will have a great impact on the people of Durham, and it seems to be done without an opportunity for seeking public feedback,” he said.

He asked staff if they had received any public feedback on the fare strategy.

“We did not go through a public information process in terms of establishing our fares and our fare strategy,” explained DRT general manager Bill Holmes. “The fare strategy is structured around our long-term objectives in terms of growing the system, as well as increased ridership, and our commitments through adoption through the agreements that we have with PRESTO.”

The transit executive committee recently approved an increase of five cents for PRESTO card and ticket users, and 25 cents for those paying with cash. It is the first time cash fares will increase since 2016.

“In this part of the fare strategy there seems to be a process of beating up everybody that uses transit that doesn’t use a PRESTO card,” said Nicholson. “Yet, you’ve just indicated that the public was not consulted, nor was this regional council consulted… other than the transit executive [committee] members.”

He also noted he only received a copy of the report four days before it was brought before council, and he believes many councillors didn’t get an opportunity to even learn about it.

“I guess my concern is we’re developing a policy that seems to move this region to what is a no ticket, no cash, PRESTO-only scenario, yet the political leadership of Durham Region has had no input… on whether we want to actually proceed toward that scenario, and I’m just wondering why regional council, and the various bodies and staff that we have here have been left out of this process, and why our viewpoints aren’t being considered, or even sought in this process,” he asked.

Holmes explained the current agreement with PRESTO and Metrolinx resulted from reports coming forward to council.

“Our participation in PRESTO is linked to the provincial gas tax as well, so through previous years we have gone through that agreement through approvals through council to proceed in that direction,” he explained.

While seeming somewhat appeased by this answer, Nicholson turned his attention to another issue.

“If I’m a middle income or lower income person who doesn’t ride the bus on a regular daily basis but wants to use the bus, I’m paying 25 per cent more than somebody who’s using a PRESTO card,” he said.

To Nicholson, it hasn’t been an “accountable or transparent process.”

He also said he finds it difficult to speak in front of the transit executive committee, a statement refuted by Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier, the chair of the committee.

“All regional councillors are commissioners of transit. Every one is welcome and encouraged to come to the transit executive meetings. They can sit, they can ask questions, as well, every municipality has membership… and every commissioner… absolutely has the right to go to that member to ask them to bring forward motions, amendments and changes,” he said.

Collier believes the decision to raise fares was an “open and transparent process,” and it wasn’t something done “behind closed doors.”

Despite this,  Nicholson continued to push for fares to be frozen.

However, his amendment lost by a five to one vote, with Whitby councillors Chris Leahy and Rhonda Mulcahey, Clarington Mayor Adrian Foster, Pickering Councillor Kevin Ashe, Scugog Mayor Bobbie Drew, and Regional Chair John Henry voting against it. Collier had left the meeting before the vote, but voiced his opposition to it as well.

The fare hikes will head to regional council on Jan. 29 for final approval.