Tuesday, November 2, 2010

U-Pass controversy getting out of control

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.


Steve said...

I just don't understand the outrage over the U-Pass.

It's not just at the municipal (and provincial... and federal...) level that everyone pays for services used only by some. This has long been the premise of mandatory student fees, of which the U-Pass is but one.

For example, Carleton undergrads pay a $147.76 per term mandatory fee for use of athletics facilities. What percentage of Carleton students actually use the gym? And where are the complaints about the "unfairness" of this fee from the students who don't?

(a list of mandatory student fees for Carleton undergraduate students can be found here... scroll down to "Compulsory Miscellaneous Fees"

Charlie Taylor said...

All in all a balanced take on the issue. I won't get into my reasons as to why the U-Pass is an unethical and illegal policy as these are well documented in all manner of media and are a matter of public record. I would however like to make a couple of corrections to minor factual errors in this article:
One: Quebec residents are not exempt from being forced to buy the bus pass, only residents of Gatineau who live within STO service area are exempt. That means, if you live in, say, Buckingham, you still have to buy the pass even though you most certainly don't get OCTranspo service where you live.
Two: To say that a writer "validly" pointed out that it is commonplace for municipal services to be paid for by all is a value judgment which fails to take into account that these taxes are levied by municipalities. Universities are not one of the bodies legally allowed to levy taxes under the BNA and so are not allowed to charge for municipal services. This makes the U-Pass different from say, library fees, which are a service provided by the university. The U-Pass is unconstitutional, which will be one of four major legal points we will be pursuing in our class action lawsuit on behalf of U-Pass victims.
Three: The student federations are NOT waiting to see what comes of the pilot project. They actively campaigned during the municipal election to try to get candidates to guarantee they would support a permanent U-Pass. They also staged events and circulated propaganda suggesting students shouldn't support candidates who don't support extending the U-Pass. That is hardly a wait and see attitude.

denialawareness said...

I would like to address Charlie Taylor's point Two: "To say that a writer "validly" pointed out that it is commonplace for municipal services to be paid for by all is a value judgment which fails to take into account that these taxes are levied by municipalities."

To say that something is "valid" means that it is true; it's not a "value judgment." And the comparison between the U-Pass and OC Transpo IS valid because both are based upon the reality of people paying for services which they themselves do not use. Whether or not the BNA includes university fees is irrelevant. There are many examples where we citizens pay for things we do not use in order to help others; whether through taxation (health care for example) or as the article points out, athletic fees at Carleton. To try to make some sort of case that these are totally different is invalid. Paying is paying. Money is money. The U-Pass is an issue within the university and the debate needs to take place there. I do not understand your passion, Charlie. Why do you care?