Tuesday, June 29, 2010

2010 Election: Cullen on building public transit

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with mayoral candidates, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

First up is Alex Cullen, current Bay Ward councillor and chair of the transit committee. During our interview, Cullen talked about nearly every hot topic in Ottawa transit right now, from the LRT plan, the DOTT, Lansdowne Park, and many other topics. Including how to promote public transit, and improve service in order to increase ridership in the city.

Cullen discussed the "modal share" of transit in Ottawa--basically, the percentage of transportation trips on public transit. Currently, it sits at 22 per cent; the city has set 30 per cent as a target, and Cullen acknowledged that it won't come cheap.
That’s going to put continuing pressure on both taxes, and fares, and service for the next 20 years because we’ll need more buses, and we’re going to have to fund this expansion of service. We’ve gone through three years of record fare increases, and that was a struggle to keep the funding ratio at 50/50 between taxes and fares. There is an older target of 55 per cent from fares, 45 per cent from taxes; there is a little inconsistency, because if we’re going to expand service, it has to be paid for, but if we make price a barrier for users, that will run counter to our goal of increasing ridership. So we do have to be conscious and cautious of the role that price pays in attracting ridership.
In discussing that funding ratio, Cullen mentioned the practices of a few other Ontario cities, and suggested he would support a change from the current 50/50 model to one that puts a higher investment from the taxpayer into public transit.
Transit is a public good, so there is an argument to engage the taxpayer in investing in a system that improves quality of life, and reduces traffic on the street; you don’t have to be a user of OC Transpo to be a beneficiary of it. Council’s formula for sharing these costs over the past three years has been 50/50 between users and taxpayers. Other cities use other proportions: Hamilton uses 60 per cent taxes, 40 per cent fares. Toronto is 80 per cent fares, 20 per cent taxes—now Toronto is a little bit different, because they have a much larger ridership base. But those are political decisions. [...] I would support the Hamilton model of 60/40, 60 per cent from taxes, and 40per cent from users. I think that is going to be more successful in helping us reach our goal of 30 per cent of all transportation trips by transit.
Of course, going into an election campaign discussing such possible measures isn't something most taxpayers in Ottawa want to hear--but Cullen understands that, and thinks the way to soften the blow is to underline the positives that come out of a further investment into public transit.
How do we manage our fiscal resources, make it palatable for both the user and the taxpayer to fund this? That takes leadership. You have to go out there and tell people that this is better than widening Carling Avenue, or widening Richmond Road, because the cost of maintaining those roads, or building new roads, is more expensive than this investment. So that’s the challenge.