It's pretty amazing to think that the City of Ottawa's U-Pass pilot project has become such a hugely divisive issue. The project, for those who use public transit regularly, means a 50 per cent savings for those with a regular student pass (based on an eight-month school year). And since it qualifies for up to and including rural express fares, it means a nearly 60 per cent savings for 'express' students, and a massive nearly 70 per cent discount for 'rural express' students.
The problem, though, arises when considering those students who don't use transit. And maintain that they won't, whether or not they're given a pass. Without an opt-out clause, it means a $290 tuition increase for those students who don't use transit that comes without direct benefit.
Charlie Taylor eventually lost his run for Ottawa's mayoralty, but his campaign was memorable for his passionate calls to end the U-Pass project, which he called an "unethical" tax on students
who choose to walk or bike rather than take the bus or train. He mustered a small but active following based on his stance.
Complaints about the U-Pass have peppered local papers for months now. Quebec residents, for instance, are not eligible for the pass. And there was the memorable case of a Carleton University student caught in a sting operation trying to sell her non-transferable U-Pass
on Kijiji. For her efforts trying to recoup the $290 expense, she was fined $610 for illegally trying to sell her pass.
The story prompted a bit of a back-and-forth in the Ottawa Citizen
's letters to the editor, beginning with a letter of support from a University of Ottawa student who said the pass, and the charge therefor, are "unfair"
because all students must pay for a service that not all students use.
That letter was followed by a rebuttal validly pointing out how commonplace it is
for municipal services to be paid for by all, but only used by some. Take, for instance, OC Transpo itself, which is hugely subsidized by Ottawa's taxpayers--a 50 per cent subsidy--even though far from all residents in the city use the service. The author of the letter also cited other social programs, like employment insurance, welfare, and, fittingly, higher education, as instances where all must pay for the benefit of some.
Some history on the U-Pass: It was heavily promoted by the student federations at both the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, as well as the Canadian Federation of Students. Reluctantly, OC Transpo agreed to a pilot project for the U-Pass after referenda at both universities passed (albeit with characteristically low student-voter turnouts). But it's still a pilot project: Right now it's for one year, and OC Transpo hasn't really changed anything in preparation for the project--although they seem to expect lost revenue as a resul of the project--because they're waiting to see what becomes of it. From the 2010 city budget:
Council implement a two-semester pilot program establishing a U-Pass for $145/semester, beginning in September, 2010 with no changes to the service levels and with any resulting revenue deficit in 2010 to be taken from the Transit Reserve. Staff to evaluate the actual costs and benefits of the pilot program after the first semester and provide a report to City Council prior to the 2011 Budget.
So there's nothing permanent here: The city, OC Transpo, and--one would assume--the student federations are waiting to see what comes of the pilot project. But this also means that students outraged by the project have plenty of opportunity to make waves during this year's student elections, either by running directly for positions, proposing referenda, or just getting their peers out to vote.
This isn't something that's been forced on students. And if students are looking to change it, they have every opportunity to do so. But if other students want to keep it around, they'll have to be vocal about it, as well.