City of Whitehorse officials are not ruling out the possibility of a lower transit fare option for those with lower incomes, but any such program would take substantial planning and require at least some work with the Yukon government.
The idea was the focus of a discussion at a Jan. 23 council and administration roundtable meeting after the city received a letter from the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition in December.
The city does not currently offer a fare reduction based on income but does offer lower fares for seniors, youth and for some with disabilities.
There are also arrangements with Yukon College and the Department of Education where college and secondary school students receive transit passes with the college and Department of Education being invoiced for the passes.
Monthly passes, for example, are currently priced at $62 for adults, $40 for children and youth up to 18 years, $26 for seniors 60 years and over or those with a disability that falls under the criteria of the city’s Handy Bus policy.
The territory’s Department of Health and Social Services also provides transit tickets and passes to some social assistance clients. There’s also a number of First Nations and community organization who purchase passes and tickets from the city, providing them to citizens and clients, though as O’Farrell noted the city doesn’t check on why those passes and tickets are being purchased or how they’re being used.
As it stands though there is no program in place for those with lower incomes where they can purchase a cheaper option.
And looking at other communities which offer low-income fares, Jeff O’Farrell, the city’s director of community and recreation services said “there is no universal approach.”
Those with lower incomes in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan pay a flat rate of $25 for a monthly transit pass while those in Grande Prairie, Alberta get 50 per cent off whatever the transit rate would normally be.
Meanwhile, in Cornwall, Ontario there is a $46 per month pass program on a first come first served basis that’s limited to 176 people who are receiving benefits from the Ontario Disability Support Program or Ontario Works Assistance.
As for determining low-income, O’Farrell said many transit systems which offer such a fare base it on Statistics Canada low income cut off, which would be $18,000 a year in Whitehorse based on the population.
While the city may be able to access the number of those receiving social assistance in Whitehorse through the Yukon government, there would be more residents below that low income threshold who aren’t receiving social assistance and it’s unknown how many that would be.
Any such program would result in lost transit revenue, putting increased financial pressure on the city and it’s not clear that it would result in more residents accessing the transit system, O’Farrell said.
Transit manager Cheri Malo said other systems with the lower fare programs typically receive a subsidy through regional or provincial governments.
“Quite a few work closely with the province or region,” she said.
Valerie Braga, the city’s director of corporate services, also said later in the session the city currently doesn’t have access to income testing for any of its programs.
She said there would likely have to be some sort of information sharing in place with the Yukon government for any services or rates that are tied to income. And before that could happen, there would need to be work to ensure any privacy concerns are addressed.
Council members were vocal in stating they would like to see the matter added to the agenda of the next meeting the city has with Yukon government officials.
Coun. Steve Roddick argued there could be way to address the challenges. Other communities have found ways to make it happen, he said, adding that involving the Yukon government and groups like the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition may help the city get past those barriers.
Officials with the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition were also on-hand for the session.
After the meeting, coalition member Laurie McFeeters said she’s optimistic there will be more discussion, specifically with Yukon government officials.
Both she and fellow coalition member Mike Gladish acknowledged it will likely take some time to get any kind of program in place, noting the coalition is more than willing to work with the city and territory on it.
To that end, the coalition asked those at the Whitehorse Connects outreach event Jan. 21 for their thoughts on transit with a total of 32 responding.
Of those who responded, 24 said they use the system and would use it more if fares were lower. Of the eight who don’t use it, five said they would if fares were lower.
Though not a scientific poll, McFeeters said the survey on transit provides a glimpse of some of the thoughts about the system and its use.
They cited the schedule, bus stops being far from their homes, availability, cost, inexperienced bus drivers and using other means of transpiration as reasons for not taking the bus more regularly.
Improvements were also suggested including that it be cheaper and free for the homeless, offer Sunday service, longer operating hours and more frequent service.
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