TransLink says free transit for youth and low-income residents depends on new provincial subsidies

Apr 22 2019, 8:29 pm

In response to recent formal requests by some municipal governments that have urged free public transit or a new level of fare discounts for youth and low-income residents, TransLink has stated this is not possible without new ongoing funding subsidies from the provincial government.

A new report by TransLink staff to be considered by the Mayors’ Council this week notes the regional public transit authority would suffer from significant revenue losses if free transit or further discounts were implemented for youth and low-income residents.

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In the unlikely scenario that ridership would remain constant, free transit for youth ages five to 18 would result in an annual revenue hole of between $40 million and $50 million, while free transit for low-income residents would lead to further losses of between $25 million and $40 million. The combined losses would be in the range of up to $90 million.

Children under the age of five already ride for free.

“In practice, new discounts would lead to an increase in ridership with the scale of the increase dependent on both the extent of the discount and the price elasticity (or sensitivity) of the user and trip type,” reads the report.

“Expanding discounts would also introduce new costs if any substantial increase in service hours was also needed to accommodate corresponding increases in ridership.”

TransLink says transit fares currently cover 58% of its annual operating budget, with the remainder mainly covered by the regional property tax and the fuel sales tax.

There are three funding options to achieve free transit for these groups without new provincial subsidies: property taxes would have to be hiked by $36 to $49 per year, fuel taxes would have to be increased by 3 cents to 5 cents per litre, or transit fares would have to see an uptick of 25 to 35 cents.

A survey conducted by TransLink found that there is very low support for passing on these new costs to regular transit riders.

Instead, TransLink staff are suggesting advocating the provincial government to expand its existing discount programs for low-income residents and provide the public transit authority with new annual subsidy funding to offer free transit for youth.

“Across Canada, low-income transit discounts are funded by the levels of government or agencies with the mandate for social services delivery,” the report states.

“In the past five years, low-income transit discounts have been implemented in cities including Calgary, Ottawa and Kingston, and committed to in Montreal. In all cities, these discounts are intended to make transit more affordable and are funded by the levels of government with the mandate for poverty reduction and income redistribution.”

The provincial government already has a BC Bus Pass Program — a highly-subsidized bus pass that provides low-income seniors and persons with disabilities with an unlimited travel Compass Card for just $45.00 per year. However, it is estimated that about 45,000 active transit users in the Lower Mainland who are low-income are not currently eligible for the BC Bus Pass.

Youth between the ages of five and 18 also have access to concession fares that offer discounts of 12% to 70% off the regular adult fare, with data showing there are currently approximately 55,000 youth Compass riders.

The free transit for youth and low-income residents motion by Vancouver City Council earlier this year went even one step further by proposing an elimination of all bylaws that allow the ticketing of minors for any sort of fare evasion and the unliking of ICBC from fare evasion records for both youth and adults.

But TransLink’s report cautions this idea by pointing to a record Toronto Auditor General report that states the fraudulent use of free youth passes by adults on the TTC system is costing Toronto’s public transit system $61 million annually.

“The more attractive the discount, the greater the likelihood that more users will attempt to fraudulently use the discounted product. Accordingly, fare enforcement resources would need to be increased along with any sizeable increase in discounts,” adds the report.

Over the last six years, less than 10,000 fare infraction tickets have been issued to youth, representing 6% of all tickets issued during this period. This includes less than 1,000 tickets issued for youth in 2018, which accounts for about 4% of all ticket issued.

About 6% to 12% of total systemwide journeys on Metro Vancouver’s public transit system are made by youth.

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