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Local group rallies for free transit to continue

By Courtney Bachar/The Oshawa Express/LJI Reporter

A local grassroots organization is lobbying for Durham Region Transit (DRT) to recall the reintroduction of transit fares.

Amidst what Jesse Cullen of We Are Oshawa says is a global climate emergency, an economic crisis, as well as a pandemic from the Coronavirus, he says fares should not have been brought back.

“Zero fare transit was implemented when the region was hit with COVID-19 to limit interaction between drivers and riders to prevent the spread of the virus,” says Cullen. “Most experts agree the coronavirus pandemic is far from over,” he adds.

Durham Region Transit halted bus fares on March 23 due the pandemic. Service was also reduced by 20 per cent, followed by a further 18 per cent reduction of service on June 8.

“[Zero transit fare] was implemented because of the pandemic to protect the public and drivers from interacting as much as possible as a measure to stop the spread of COVID-19, and we think that’s very good,” says Cullen. “Everyone understands we need to do what we can to stop the spread, that’s number one and it took action on COVID-19.”

Cullen says the majority of people using public transit during the pandemic are essential workers, as well as lower-income earners. “Those are the people, who as a society, we are calling heroes.”

However, Cullen says in a “cruel twist,” DRT not only brought back fares, but fares have increased as well, and paper transfers aren’t being used, which means riders paying cash fare will have to pay each time.

Cash fares increased by 25 cents, and PRESTO single ride taps increased by five cents.

According to Deputy General Manager of Business Services for DRT Jamie Austin, the cash fare adjustments that have been implemented apply to single rides only, and all monthly pass rates and GO co-fare remain the same.

Austin explains through the end of June, DRT has already lost more than $6 million in fare revenue due to suspensions.

“If DRT were to continue fare suspension through the end of the year, the impact would exceed $20 million,” he explains. “By resuming fare collection on July 2, and implementing additional cost containment actions, the forecasted year end impact has been reduced to approximately $7 million.”

Cullen says without the ability to use transfers, many riders may find it cheaper to take a taxi.

“The people who pay cash fares are the least likely among those who would be able to afford a monthly bus pass – they don’t have that money all at once, so they have to pay cash fare every time they get on the bus,” says Cullen.

“This will punish riders with the least ability to pay. Residents will be forced to make impossible decisions such as whether to put food on the table or pay to get to work,” he says.

In order to address the paper transfer issue, Cullen says DRT needs to go back to not collecting fares.

“It’s the safest way to conduct transit during a pandemic. It keeps the drivers safe and it keeps the public safe.”

As part of Phase 2 of Durham Region’s reopening plan, DRT has instilled a number of additional measures to ensure passenger and operator safety.

DRT adopted the Ministry of Transportation’s recommendation that all passengers over the age of two, except those passengers with a medical reason, wear a face covering or non-medical face mask at all times while travelling on public transit.

DRT has implemented a number of other safety measures as well, including enhanced bus cleaning, pre-screening for passengers before boarding, bus change-offs if a passenger on a bus exhibits COVID-19 symptoms, and hand sanitizing stations at the front and rear doors of the buses.

Passengers are also expected to respect respiratory etiquette at all times, such as covering the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing using tissues or the crook of your elbow, keepings hands away from the face at all times, and travelling during non-peak hours and taking shorter trips to avoid prolonged close contact with others, whenever possible.

To further support physical distancing, the yellow standee lines located behind the driver are further back to enhance physical distancing, and COVID barriers have been installed between the bus operator and passengers for front door boarding.

Customer seating behind the driver, on some models, will be unavailable for customer use, and seats located within the mobility device area will remain in the upward position, and front door boarding and rear door exiting are now in place to ensure one-way passenger flow and eliminate bunching at the front doors.

For Unifor Local 222 President Colin James, the union that represents bus drivers, the health and safety of the drivers, as well as the community, is of “utmost concern” and says it’s too soon to be moving forward while a pandemic is “quite clearly still here.”

“We think it’s too soon for the health and safety of our members,” says James. “We would rather the region wait until our health and safety concerns are more or less gone,” he adds.

James says while the region is talking about physical distancing and the cleanliness of buses, he’s been hearing concerns from drivers about the difficulty of maintaining physical distancing because of the reduction of services.

“Some of the drivers are telling us, with them reducing services, it limits the amount of buses on the road, therefore, it’s harder to control the social distancing, because now you’ve got less buses for people to choose from,” says James. “The people that are essential services and going to work, this is putting them at risk as we are not able to social distance and monitor as much as we’d like,” he adds.

In a DRT press release, Bill Holmes, general manager of Durham Region Transit, says he is confident the buses remain a safe travel option for residents.

“With the health and safety measures in place for employees and customers, and our passengers’ commitment to following the requirements by the Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario and the Ministry of Transportation, we are confident that DRT remains a safe and healthy public transit option for everyone,’ says Bill Holmes, general manager of Durham Region Transit.