By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express
In a few short weeks, a price approved by one committee was axed by another.
Earlier this month, the region’s transit executive committee gave the green light to price increases over the next few years to the U-Pass, which allows Durham’s college and university students to ride transit at a steep discount.
However, just a few weeks later, that plan, which would have seen the cost of the pass rise to $150 in the fall of 2018 from its current $103 price tag, was voted down, with councillors instead agreeing to send the plan back to regional staff for other options.
Jesse Cullen, the president of the student association for UOIT and Durham College who appeared at numerous committee meetings to speak against the price hike, says councillors made the right call.
“We’re happy that the proposed 25-per-cent increase has been rejected,” Cullen says.
“So, this gives us that breathing room to reorganize ourselves and continue to push for the transit system that I think we all want to see.”
Cullen says that during discussions about a potential rise in cost of the U-Pass, many councillors did not initially see the amount of sway the student body of the region’s three post-secondary institutions have.
“I think it was just a matter of educating a lot of the councillors on these committees about the process that this has to go through,” Cullen tells The Oshawa Express.
“But they are always under the impression that it is strictly a negotiation between the schools and DRT, and what we informed them is any increase over the rate of inflation automatically triggers a student referendum, and we know that approximately two thirds of students don’t use the U-Pass and I don’t think they fully understood the consequences to triggering a referendum where they could potentially lose a ton of ridership.”
For much of the discussion surrounding the U-Pass at the committee level over the past few months, Cullen has raised the possibility of a student referendum killing the program. This, in turn, would lead to fewer people riding the bus in Durham Region which, as a result, could lower the amount of money the transit authority receives from both fares and gas tax funds.
When the price hike was initially passed by the transit executive committee at the start of the month, Jim Clapp, the region’s finance commissioner, told councillors that if more than 25 per cent of the students currently using transit were to stop using it should the U-Pass be killed off, then the transit authority would start being hit financially.
Clapp says that with the region’s post-secondary institutions continuing to grow, the price increase was needed to make up for the extra services they demand as a result.
“It was commanding a lot of service, and there were a lot of new services servicing students, which was fine. But obviously with that new servicing comes a lot of additional costs,” he says.
“The flip side of not having a U-Pass increase means more of a cost to the taxpayer, and…there are a lot of taxpayers who have a hard time paying property taxes, so we wanted to try and balance fairness. But obviously, the definition of fairness is different for everyone, and I understand that.”
Even if the prices were to go up, Clapp says, post-secondary students in Durham Region would still be getting a good deal with the U-Pass compared to other areas.
“When you look at the tables, it’s a pretty good deal for anybody who uses the U-Pass. It’s still not what seniors pay,” Clapp tells The Oshawa Express.
“If you have a student in high school and a student going to Durham College or the universities, even under the new rates, the university student is only paying 40 per cent of what you would for the high school student.”
Clapp adds that while DRT would see a dip in ridership as a result of the U-Pass potentially being killed off, it would more than make up for it in adult passes being purchased instead.
Cullen, however, says it would be very unlikely that the number of students switching over to buying a full adult monthly pass, which costs $112 as of May 1, is as high as Clapp foresees.
“If the U-Pass program was lost and every student was forced to buy an adult pass instead, they would, fiscally, end up in the same position they are in now,” he says.
“But we would argue that it’s highly unlikely every U-Pass user is going to buy a monthly pass. And on top of that, that doesn’t account for people who might not be able to afford to do that, and what impact that would have.”
Cullen adds that, according to research done by the student association, the region would stand to lose more than $1 million per year in ridership grants based on the possible loss of student transit users – far outweighing the $650,000 the region said it would make by raising the cost of the U-Pass.
“They seem to have omitted some of the analysis in that report to push for what, I think, is an unnecessarily large and significant increase,” Cullen says.
Clapp says it is too early to say when a new report on the U-Pass will come forward, but that the region will need to have a discussion with the schools “sooner rather than later to get something ironed out.”