Orangeville Council discusses fare free transit system

March 10, 2022   ·   0 Comments

By Sam Odrowski

The logistics of providing transit services to Orangeville residents free of charge was an area of focus during Council’s Feb. 28 meeting.

A report from Town staff came forward at the meeting, analyzing the potential impacts of such a move, and made the recommendation to maintain Orangeville Transit’s current revenue model of cash fare, tickets, booklets, and monthly passes. The recommendation also said that Town staff would continue to investigate the implementation of an electronic fare system as part of the upgrade and expansion to four routes.

Coun. Grant Peters, who’s in favour of doing a pilot project for a free transit system, said other municipalities are proposing the same and there are benefits to consider.

“Beyond the [positive] environmental impacts, there are social inequity impacts that would result from a fare-free structure,” he noted.

When looking at the financial impact of free fares, in 2019, which was a normal year for transit, revenues were $166,000 from fares. Historically this accounts for about 35 per cent of the operating cost for transit.

Orangeville treasurer Nadini Syed said the Town is projecting transit fares to be close to $180,000 in 2022, which would account for a 0.48 per cent tax levy increase.

A free transit system was ran locally from April 2020 to March 2021, and while it didn’t appear to disrupt ridership, Town staff’s report to Council on fare-free transit did note that such a policy could impact service levels, particularly with the upcoming expansion to four transit routes from three.

“Research has also found that fare-free transit impacts active modes of transportation, like walking and cycling. Users of alternative active modes of transportation have the potential to shift to public transit which can also result in additional trips and impacts on service levels and costs,” read the report.

“Perhaps the most significant impact Staff have found in their research with fare-less transit, is the increase in non-destination, disruptive riders. Fare-free service eliminates the potential for conflict arising from an operator requesting evidence of fare from a passenger, however, transit systems invariably report an increase in disruptive riders with impacts to the bus operator morale and safety, including other transit riders.”

The report noted that through the Town’s Transit Optimization Study it learned from residents that reliability of service is more important than cost, and concluded that a fare-free system is likely to result in a poorer transit environment. As a result, Town staff recommend against implementing a fare-free system.

However, Coun. Peters noted that in terms of efficiency, Town buses don’t always run on schedule currently, and fare collection plays a role in slowing down routes.

At an approximate cost of $166,000 a year, he said doing a pilot program for three years would cost around $500,000, which is about two per cent of the $24.25 million coming to the Town from the recent sale of property from the Orangeville railway in Brampton.

“I looked at the capital budget, as a group we approved in 2023 potentially about $7.8 million in road upgrades,” Coun. Peters said.  

“We supplement the car system quite heavily., and for a fraction of that cost – $166,000 versus almost $8 million, we can offer people the chance to hop on a bus at any time, and get anywhere in town.”

Coun. Peters recommended doing a three-year pilot to collect more data on fare-free transit.

Orangeville’s manager of operations and development John Lackey was asked by Mayor Sandy Brown how the gas tax revenue received by the province would be impacted if ridership increased due to a fare-free system.

Lackey noted that the gas tax funding is calculated by population and ridership so there would be an impact, but he isn’t familiar with the calculation so he couldn’t give an exact number.

Deputy Mayor Andy Macintosh said Council should watch other municipalities pilot programs closely and see how they turn out before making any decisions.  

“I don’t know if we need to be the first ones to do it,” he remarked.

“I just don’t like the idea of giving away that type of money just yet. Let’s look into it a little more, and let’s not be the first. Just my thoughts.”

Mayor Brown said he doesn’t feel $166,000 is a lot of money for the Town, considering how much is being spent supporting the “car culture we live in” through road repairs.

He said he’s not sure about a three-year pilot but he would be in favour of testing out the idea for a shorter period.

“Just to remind councillors, we’ve made decisions in the past few months on spending – $5 million on swimming,” said Mayor Brown, with respect to the Alder Recreation Centre pool replacement project.

“As much as that needed to be done, and it’s an unfortunate expenditure, it does give some context to $166,000,”

He added that the people who use transit are often those who need it to access shopping, social services, medical appointments, and other necessities, so the Town should help remove whatever barriers there are for getting them around Orangeville.

Coun. Lisa Post said she’s supportive of Coun. Peters’ message, being chair of the Town’s Accessibility Committee, and hearing one of the main messages from seniors being unaffordability for trying to get around town.

“This is a way that we can really help,” she remarked.

Coun. Post voiced support for a three- or one-year pilot program to gather more information on the free fare policy.

“It’s a way to address some of the inequities that we do have and some of the struggles that our residents are facing from a financial perspective and help to make things a little bit more economically equitable,” she said.

Meanwhile, Coun. Todd Taylor said he wouldn’t be in support of a fare-free pilot project.

“I just would be hard pressed at this point to support something [that’s] $180,000, and in my mind, I just wouldn’t feel good about it,” he noted. “By the way, I didn’t feel good about the pool either, but I did it. We all know we needed to do it. I don’t feel like our back is against the wall here.”

Coun. Taylor said he’s always interested in finding out more information and he applauds the thinking around free fares but he won’t be voting in support of it.

“If we had to vote today, I would not be voting to spend $180,000 to give people free rides on the bus,” he remarked.

Mayor Brown recommended that Coun. Grant Peters looks into the issue further and bring forward a motion at a future meeting, directing Town staff to analyze what’s been happening in municipalities that have implemented a fare-free system, and just collect more information in general.

Coun. Peters said there’s several examples in Europe that could be looked at, and he’ll bring something forward at a future meeting, so Council can get all the necessary information on the matter before making any decisions.

Council’s next meeting is scheduled for March 21.

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