At last week's Executive Committee meeting, the subject of increasing the city's subsidy of bus passes for those on social assistance came up. One of the problems that I have with Executive Committee meetings as they are currently structured is that we vote on things, the vote is not binding, but it tends to get reported in the media as though it is, causing public outcry as though the decision has been made. But actually, the final vote will be at the Council meeting this week, and things could always change.
The issue is that the price for the subsidized pass, $15 a month, hasn't increased since 2008, so the proposed increase of $5 a month is making up for six years of increased costs. It's still a very good deal - $20 for unlimited bus service for a month, but it is also a 25% increase. The dollar number may seem low, but the percentage increase is more than, for example, the recent rate increase for using city facilities.
I would like more information about the current subsidized usage - how many people take advantage of this opportunity? Are passes transferable, or is there photo ID on them that limits the usage to one person? How often does a pass holder use the pass in a month? If it's only a couple of times, perhaps it would be cheaper for Social Services to provide single use tickets, rather than a pass.
I wish that we had a standard practice for dealing with costs like subsidies and user rates. I think that it would be preferable to have such things reviewed and increased on an annual basis, rather than our current practice of dealing with increases sporadically. For one thing, it means that the increases, when they happen, tend to be larger than current inflation rates because we're trying to make up for increased costs over a longer time frame, which is upsetting to people. For another thing, it means that we're running at a deficit, instead of making sure that rates are adjusted as costs go up. For sure, the increases to fuel costs alone over the last six years are greater than the proposed $5 increase.
I also wish that other members of council would recognize the incongruity of resisting these increases, but also resisting tax increases. Someone has to pay for increased costs, and it's going to be either the user or the tax payer. It's also incongruous to hear some councillors objecting to a bus subsidy increase, because it affects lower income people, but on the other hand supporting flat taxes, which shift more of the tax burden to mid- and lower income residents.
I also wish that the provincial government provided money for public transit, as is the case in other provinces. I think that encouraging the use of public transit is a broad public good, resulting in less wear and tear on infrastructure, fewer traffic and parking issues, and reduced environmental impact, and it should be directly supported by all levels of government.
As so often happens, there are more questions than answers when we're asked to make a decision, and it's not a simple issue. The bottom line is that costs for everything go up, and we need to have a consistent approach that recognizes this, and is applied as fairly as possible to all residents. Of course, getting to such an approach isn't simple either, but I need that we think to look at our problems from this perspective, rather than looking at each problem in isolation - that only seems to lead to inconsistency.
"Giving subsidies is a two-edged sword. Once given, it's very hard to take a subsidy away." Najib Razak