The City of Victoria is looking to eliminate user fees on the BC Transit system.
Coun. Ben Isitt and Coun. Sharmarke Dubow put forward a proposal to phase out user fees in a motion that passed 7-1 at a Thursday committee of the whole meeting.
Isitt said the move comes at a time when the region is trying to increase transit ridership to reduce its carbon footprint, something that cities in Europe and Ontario have already undertaken.
“More than half of community greenhouse gas emissions in the region come from the transportation section,” Isitt said. “So shifting from private vehicles to public transit has the potential to make the biggest impact in community-based emissions.”
Dubow, who seconded the motion, echoed Isitt’s thoughts.
“The planet and the capital regional district and Victoria are facing a climate emergency and we don’t have to say more than that,” Dubow said. “We must do everything we can to reduce our carbon emissions, and user fees are a barrier to public transit.”
Isitt said along with eliminating barriers to those with financial constraints that more changes would be needed to make transit as accessible as possible.
“Along with the proposal to develop an implementation plan to phase out user fees, [the motion] proposes a corresponding improvement on service levels,” Isitt said. “I think that along with the financial barrier, I think the current inadequate service levels are a major barrier to a mode shift.”
Service improvements could include expanding bus lanes, extending service hours and routes and adding more buses to the fleet.
All of these changes would need to come about by shuffling how fares are paid for. Currently, BC Transit is paid through a combination of provincial subsidies, municipal property taxes, federal gas tax transfers, advertising and bus fares.
The new system would require a shift in how revenue from property taxes are utilized, and potentially how taxes from the province and the gas tax are used.
Coun. Geoff Young was the only person on council who was hesitant about the idea.
“I think it goes too far,” Young said. “I’m already troubled in Victoria by someone taking a crowded bus for six blocks downtown pays the same fare as someone who is commuting for an hour from Sooke. The cost to the public on those two trips is enormously different. While we certainly want to move people towards transit we don’t want to suggest that travel, in the ultimate, should be free.”
It is uncertain how the matter of non-residents will use the transit system, though a couple of ideas are being floated.
“My gut feeling is that the cost of administering fares might outweigh what would be taken in revenue from visitors,” Isitt said. “There are two options; one is we’d have a pass for everyone that lives in the region as a way to identify them as a resident… or you would eliminate the fares, and then you wouldn’t capture fare from the people visiting.”
Isitt said he leaned towards the second option.
The motion passed at council on Thursday night.
Next, the proposal will be brought forward to the Transit Commission Strategic Planning session on Monday.
The city first proposed eliminating fees for youth 18 and under by instating street parking fees on Sunday, which will come into effect on May 1.
Free fare for youth 18 an younger will be piloted in 2020, with early hopes of having free fare for everyone around 2022.
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