By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express
Two months after voting against it, the region’s finance and administration committee has changed its mind on a proposal to make a bus pass for university and college students more expensive.
At the committee’s latest meeting, a majority of councillors voted in favour of raising the price of the U-Pass – which is given to all full-time students at Durham College, UOIT and Trent University’s Oshawa campus – to $135 per semester starting in the fall semester of 2017 before going up to $150 per semester the following fall. According to a report presented at the committee, this increase would generate an additional $650,000 in revenue for the region. The report adds that starting in the fall of 2019, it is possible U-Pass rates would see annual increases based on the rate of inflation.
Currently, students pay $103 per term, with the price set to go up to $120 this fall.
With the exception of proposed inflation-based rate increases in 2019 and beyond, the rate increase schedule mirrors the proposal presented to the transit executive committee in late March and to the finance and administration committee in mid-April.
“This is keeping, effectively, with the original report. I didn’t go away and not look at things,” Jim Clapp, the region’s financial commissioner, told councillors during the meeting, referring back to councillors at the April meeting calling on staff to come back with an alternate proposal.
“We tried to do a lot with the numbers, but the short period of time that we had to deal with it, and I know in talking at the meetings we had with the universities and Durham College, they did not really want to move to a per-semester kind of rate change, which was fine. So this is the same recommendation.”
Kevin Ashe, a Pickering councillor, voiced his opposition to the proposed increase, saying that it could have similar repercussions to when school boards backed out of a deal with regional transit in 2013 after it proposed hiking rates nearly 50 per cent, resulting in a drop in ridership.
“I’m concerned that we’re going down the very same path, that we’re going to be coming up to having a referendum, it won’t pass, and we have the potential to lose another million riders,” Ashe, who opposed the original motion in April, said at the latest meeting, also citing concerns that a possible student referendum would kill the U-Pass.
Regional chair Roger Anderson defended the proposed cost increase, saying in reality, it does not add up to a lot of money for students, adding that the region deals with the schools, not the students when it comes to transit fares.
“This is a fair recommendation, and as far as the president of the student association and the new board, I as chair of (the transit executive committee)…will be happy to meet with the new president and explain our position – not negotiate with them. We negotiate with UOIT, Durham College and Trent. I want everyone to remember that. That’s who our agreement is with,” he said.
“How Trent and them deal with their students in referendums…if they’re going to do a referendum on (an extra) dollar a week for transit, I can’t wait to see some of the other things that will be on that referendum that they’re going to charge for at UOIT or Durham College or with increases.”
“Setting ourselves up for failure”
Also present at the meeting was Jesse Cullen, now the former president of the student association at Durham College and UOIT, who has done several delegations to the committee on how an increase to the price of a U-Pass would result in it being discontinued under a student referendum.
Unlike previous meetings, however, Cullen was not permitted to speak, with a majority of councillors voting against his late submission to be a delegation.
“In all my years of being around council or participating in the local democratic process, any time I’ve ever missed a deadline for a delegation request, that courtesy has always been extended to allow myself the opportunity to speak,” Cullen tells The Oshawa Express. Committee agendas are typically posted on Friday evenings, with the committee meeting taking place the following Tuesday. Delegation requests are due at 9:30 a.m. on the Monday prior to the committee meeting.
“I think it actually kind of demonstrates how weak of an argument Roger Anderson has with respect to this U-Pass increase, and I think he’s worried that even giving someone a small amount of time to speak on behalf of students at this committee meeting…was enough of a threat to this report that they denied me the opportunity to speak.”
When asked for his thoughts on the proposal being passed, Cullen says he believes the motion is being put forward with the expectation that the U-Pass will be killed in a student referendum.
“I don’t think there’s a good chance for this referendum to pass. And I think they’re going into this…with an end game to get rid of the U-Pass. I think the region is staging this for a fight, and I think they’re done subsidizing students,” Cullen says.
“I think they’ve made a decision that they’re no longer going to invest in the knowledge economy and students in our community.”
During the committee meeting, Whitby councillor Elizabeth Roy said the report reads like the region is getting ready to ditch the U-Pass.
“Reading the report, it looks like we’re setting ourselves up for failure. We’re giving highlight to the fact that we’re talking about the ability (to maintain revenue) if we lose 22 per cent, if not more, off of our ridership. For me, it’s looking at how can we make more people ride our buses, how can we utilize transit better within our community, how can we get people into those buses.”
Cullen is one of three people currently on the agenda for the next meeting of regional council to discuss the proposed U-Pass price increase. As he, along with the other two, did not speak at the committee level, he will require a two thirds majority from councillors in order to speak.