Whitehorse’s mayor has written to the territorial Community Services minister regarding the “continued confusion” created by the free transit commitment in the confidence and supply agreement between the Yukon Liberal Party and Yukon NDP caucuses.
The deal pledges to “provide funding to the City of Whitehorse to replace fare-generated revenue and make public transit free in Whitehorse.”
Currently, bus riders must pay a fare to ride the bus.
In her May 1 letter, Mayor Laura Cabott points to what she calls a “considerable gap” between the number being cited by Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn and the actual amount of fare-generated revenue budgeted by the city.
“Since the announcement was made earlier this year, we have learned of a perception that $1.5 million is an amount sufficient to replace fare-generated revenue. This amount has been referenced by you in meetings and in public,” the mayor wrote.
“I wish to be very clear that such an amount would not come close to replacing fare-generated revenue.”
Cabott argues that making transit free would require at least $6 million per year from the Yukon government given the costs to run Whitehorse Transit as paid for by citizens through a combination of fares and property taxes.
In her letter, the mayor shows her work for the minister.
The letter notes that fare-generated revenue typically covers about one-third of transit’s operating expenses, with the remainder of the money coming from property taxes. It notes transit operating expenses are budgeted at $6.2 million and grow to $6.9 million in 2024 and then $7.3 million in 2025. Revenues are budgeted at $1.7 million in 2023 and then increase to $1.8 million in 2024 and 2025 given fare-generated revenue recovery rates.
Cabott expresses being unclear about whether the $1.5-million pledge from the Yukon government is a one-time contribution until the confidence and supply deal ends or an annual contribution during its course.
Furthermore, Cabott wonders what happens when the deal ends. In her letter, she asks if the Yukon government will cover the costs of replacing fare-generated revenue or if the city is expected to absorb the loss of fare-generated revenues.
“Doing so would represent a significant property tax increase for Whitehorse residents,” Cabott wrote.
“As you can imagine, reinstituting transit fares after a long period of free transit would be exceedingly difficult to implement.”
The city is undertaking a free fare transit study this year to assess the benefits and impacts of free transit, explore what other jurisdictions are doing and analyze whether the city’s existing fleet can accommodate increased ridership that could come from free transit. The study is intended to help the city make “informed decisions about free transit into the future.”
The letter was also sent to opposition parties and local media.
All the power
In a May 5 response, the Yukon NDP is pledging to make Whitehorse transit free in perpetuity.
In their letter, MLA for Whitehorse Centre Lane Tredger said the Yukon government will be providing $1.5 million annually over three years based on projected transit revenue.
“The Yukon NDP commits that we will use all the power we may have in the future, as a government, minority government partner or opposition party, to maintain funding for free transit,” reads Tredger’s letter.
But since the projections have gone up and the money budgeted will not be enough, Tredger is asking the city to break it down into how much is expected from fares and how much is expected from other sources such as advertising and existing transfers from the Yukon government.
“While the Yukon NDP cannot independently promise that money, we are willing to negotiate to make sure that the city has enough funding to replace the money that would normally be received from transit fares,” reads Tredger’s letter.
Tredger’s letter notes the commitment is to replace the money from bus fares.
On May 9, city communications manager Oshea Jephson said Cabott will be responding to the letter.
A working group made up of a Yukon NDP MLA and a Yukon Liberal Party MLA has been struck up to work with the city on this.
Renée Francoeur from cabinet communications said Mostyn met with the city as part of a tripartite meeting last week.
“Conversations about funding to replace fare-generated revenue are ongoing and we will continue to meet with the working group to move forward,” she said.
“An update will be provided once final decisions have been made.”
Changes to transit routes will be coming on July 1.
A May 8 release from the city indicates the modernized routes translate into more service hours, a more efficient and timelier network and more transit options for riders.
The changes include an added route to Whistle Bend.
Changes to the system’s northern routes will be implemented this summer. Further changes will be made to southern routes in 2024.
According to the website, the phased approach limits the impacts on the overall network and gives riders a chance to get familiar with the changes.
Contact Dana Hatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org