Fare hikes are an issue in any major city, but they seem to be especially of concern for Ottawa residents. And for good reason: Besides Gatineau, Ottawa has the highest cash-fare for transit of any major Canadian city. (Gatineau is slightly ahead.) Bringing down fare hikes is certainly an issue for many of Ottawa's transit riders.
However, mayoral candidate Alex Cullen doesn't think that bringing down fare hikes would work in Ottawa's growing transit system--in fact, he's not sure further fare hikes can be avoided.
You can’t avoid fare hikes, unfortunately, but you want to mitigate them. There is a demand curve, and elasticity. We have two clienteles who use the bus: Those who do not have an alternative; they’re low-income, and they don’t have an alternative, so they have to eat the fare increases, even though they have the least capacity. But those who have an alternative tend to be price sensitive, lo and behold. They’ve got cars, they’ve got a means to get about town, they take the bus because it’s convenient, but as soon as that equation shifts, we lose them.
An option that has begun gaining steam in Ottawa is finding a way to make fare increases match inflation--but Cullen isn't even sure that will work for Ottawa, especially given the labour costs at OC Transpo and the city's hesitancy to risk another transit strike.
If you only follow the inflation rate, you only follow inflation. But if you want to expand service, then that’s an additional cost above inflation. We’re going to be stuck with whatever the price of gas is, although, yes, our new buses are far more fuel efficient, and we’re making some savings on that. You want to look at those efficiency factors to mitigate the pressure of inflation.
And the other major component to inflation, of course, is wages. Did I mention ‘strike’? We just went through a difficult strike experience, and I don’t think we want to repeat that again. So we do want to ensure that there is scope to increase transit service.
Still, Cullen doesn't think fare hikes are the only way to offset expansions to Ottawa's transit plans. Although he didn't go into specifics, Cullen suggested that finding room in other parts of the budget to invest into transit could lessen the impact of any fare hikes.
The transit portion of the city’s budget is going to grow. Of course, this doesn’t happen in a vacuum; can we free up some money because of the upload of social services by the province? That gives us some tax room.