What’s the fate of Ottawa’s U-Pass?

Originally posted to OpenFile.ca on January 28, 2011. Comments? Join the conversation at OpenFile Ottawa.

Interim transit commission chair Diane Deans says the city plans to fund its U-Pass for post-secondary students for another year, but then cut the $3-million dollar subsidy in 2012.

The cuts would be part of a broader program to cut costs at OC Transpo. The draft budget calls for $7.2 million in cuts in 2011, and $23 million in 2012. Deans explained the subsidy is being maintained this year in part so that students can respond.

“The recommendation currently contained in the budget is to extend the discounted pass for another year to give the university campuses the opportunity to hold a referendum,” Deans said after city council met on Jan. 26. “So then in 2012, we would be looking—if we’re going to have a U-Pass at all—to have it on a cost-recovery basis.”

“It’s not that we’d be profiting or anything else from it, it would still be a significant discount over the current student pass rate,” she says. “And it would be a semester pass. But it wouldn’t ask our other taxpayers to subsidize $3 million from cost.”

For the city to recover the cost of a U-Pass, Deans says students would have to pay $175 per semester.

The current fee is $145 a semester, or $290 for one academic year. The fee increase would mean a 20.7 percent jump in transit costs for students. Most students can’t opt out of the current U-Pass program.

If the fee increase is not approved in a referendum on university campuses, the program could be scrapped entirely.

There are pockets of vocal opposition to the U-Pass on both campuses. A small group of University of Ottawa students launched a suit in small claims court against their student union over the U-Pass. Carleton University student and 2010 mayoral candidate Charlie Taylor has also been a vocal opponent of the pass.

The pass may have a defender on council. Rideau-Vanier councillor Mathieu Fleury represents the area that includes the University of Ottawa. He says the goals of having the U-Pass—increasing transit ridership and forming good habits—are more important in the long run.

Fleury says he thinks the U-Pass fees should increase so students cover a fair share of transit costs, but the discount serves an important policy goal. He says the city should not think of revenue foregone as a subsidy, since the U-Pass has attracted so many new riders.

“OC Transpo hasn’t increased service based on this U-Pass project,” Fleury said. “So that means no extra cost on that end. What we’re doing is printing more passes for more users.”

According to the city, the U-Pass has increased transit ridership among university students to an all-time high. Since the pilot project was introduced last September, transit use on both campuses has increased by 35 percent. Overall ridership has increased by 1.35 million.

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