Two-year free transit pilot project launching in Orangeville next year

July 21, 2022   ·   0 Comments

By Sam Odrowski

Users of Orangeville’s transit system can soon leave their wallets at home.

A two-year pilot project for free transit rides, starting January 1, 2023, was approved by Orangeville council in a 6-1 vote last Monday (July 11).

The estimated loss in revenue from bus fares is $265,000 per year or $530,000 over the duration of the two-year pilot.

Coun. Grant Peters, who brought the idea forward, said while he recognizes the losses in revenue, the pilot project will go well with town’s new transit approach, featuring a new transit hub, on-demand service and a fourth route.

“I think it’s a good idea to run the pilot and hopefully we see some success, and this council or whoever’s in our chairs can make a call on it when the pilot wraps up,” said Coun. Peters.

Coun. Todd Taylor, who was the lone vote against the fare-free transit pilot project, said while he applauds Coun. Grant Peters’ “innovative thinking”, he couldn’t support it due to the lost revenue.

“With great respect to all of my council mates, I think this is a really bad idea… if I put forward a business plan where I was going to lose $500,000 over two years, with no proof that it was potentially going to have an ROI, I’d be fired,” Coun. Taylor remarked.

“I’ll be voting against this, and I’ll be bringing this up at budget time as we go forward, and showing that this isn’t something that we should be doing.”

Coun. Taylor also questioned whether the free transit would increase ridership, as forecasted in town staff’s report on the pilot project, asking if any other municipalities have data on it.

Gary Kocialek, interim general manager of infrastructure services, responded that there are no statistics from other municipalities as there’s very few who have done free transit. When free transit was offered in those municipalities it was to a certain demographic, such as seniors.

Kocialek cited increased ridership due to free transit at the Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival, which saw a 40 per cent increase.

“That sort of opened my eyes to doing something free,” he said. “Starting a new system at the same time and really promoting it does give you an opportunity to entice new riders.”

But the real value of the pilot project is determining if it’s worth doing on a permanent basis, Koicalek noted. A successful pilot would see increased ridership of 25 per cent, he said.

“Really the question is, through promotion of the new system, though the waving of fares, are we able to achieve that?” Kocialek asked.

Coun. Debbie Sherwood said she’s in support of the pilot project but questioned if she should be the one to decide on a $530,000 loss in revenue for the town over the next two years when there’s an election in October.

“This is going to happen in the next term of council and I wonder, as a current sitting member of this council, do I have the right to reduce a half a million dollars in revenue for potentially the next council?” Coun. Sherwood questioned.

Coun. Lisa Post said she had the same thought as Coun. Sherwood initially, but after giving it some thought, realized it should go through now for a few different reasons.

One was the fact that approving the pilot project now allows town staff to budget for it in 2023 and plan accordingly. Another reason was that it will tie in nicely with the new transit system that’s being launched.

“I’m in favour of this,” said Coun. Post. “I think that we have an opportunity here to do something innovative and to remove barriers of access for people who need those barriers removed.”

She said it’s a great time to enact the pilot project because residents are facing an affordability crisis, with many struggling to make ends meet. In addition, the two-year transit pilot will provide data for other municipalities to determine if they want to try something similar, Coun. Post said.

Mayor Sandy Brown echoed her comments on collecting data and spoke of the crisis families are facing due to inflationary pressures on food and gas. He said he’s travelled on Orangeville’s transit system and from what he’s observed, there’s a lot of “folks who seem to be disadvantaged”.

Mayor Brown noted the provincial gas tax rebate is based on ridership and population, so if ridership increases, Orangeville will receive more money from Ontario each year.

However, he said that depending on how the pilot project turns out, the town may have some difficult decisions to make going forward.

“Two years from now, if the changes that have been made to the transit system do not create better ridership, particularly with a free-fare, we may have to look at the viability of the public transit system as a whole because it, I believe, has been a failure,” said Mayor Brown.

“That’s why I’m in favor of going all in to see if we can do whatever we can, including the transit hub, better transit route system… and if the future council determines that the fare structure needs to be reinstituted, so be it. But by that time, hopefully, we’ll have some committed transit users.”

Town staff will update council on the progress of the transit pilot project once every four months after its enacted on January 1, 2023.

Readers Comments (0)

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.