EDITORIAL: What would happen if Whitehorse transit was free?

If the city is considering cheaper fares we might as well crunch the numbers on no fares at all

Earlier this year Whitehorse city council began discussing the idea of offering discounted transit to people with low incomes.

It’s a worthwhile idea to consider. Spending $62 a month for a Whitehorse transit pass is a sizeable amount of money for someone on a fixed income. At the same time, access to transit — a vital public service provided by the city — is all the more necessary if you don’t have the resources for consistent access to a car.

Like any good idea dreamed up in the world of government bureaucracy, bringing this one to fruition is more complicated than it needs to be.

Considering all the time, money and resources that would likely be involved in creating a new low income transit program, would it be easier — and potentially more economically prudent in the long run — for the city to just wipeout transit fares all together and make all Whitehorse buses free?

No public transit is self-sustaining. No matter the size of the community every bus system makes less money that it costs.

In Whitehorse’s case, there’s nowhere easily accessible in any of the city’s public budgets or reports that breaks down exactly how much revenue the city gets from transit fares.

Officials have said transit makes about $1.4 million in revenue but that number presumably also includes all the money made off of ads on the inside and outside of buses and on bus benches.

Let’s assume a 50/50 split and peg our hypothetical fare revenue at $700,000.

That’s a very small portion of the more than $5 million it takes just to operate the transit system on top of the periodic infrastructure costs like buying new buses (which are often covered using the gas tax.)

City councillors have already pointed out that in situations where the municipalities offer subsidized fares for people with low incomes, the provincial or territorial governments often chip in cash.

The Yukon government should be able to find a few hundred thousand dollars between the couch cushions to contribute to either a low-income or free transit program. One or two fewer vehicles in the government fleet would cover it.

The real heavy costs for a low-income transit program likely comes from the man hours and bureaucracy that would be involved in creating one.

How do we decide what the cutoff is to qualify for a low-income program? How would a rider prove that they are under the required threshold?

It’s important that a program not create more barriers for people to qualify.

The city could choose to set the same benchmark as social assistance, but the Yukon Department of Health and Social Services is not just going to hand over a list of social assistance clients.

The health department, rightly, has layers of privacy legislation that the city would have to work through in order for municipal officials to get their hands on that list.

The same goes for hypothetically gaining access to tax information.

In either case the city would be required to write new bylaws and policies to prove that it had the ability to handle sensitive information.

That means research and development. It means manpower and resources and by extension money. Then, when the program gets up and running, it means hiring someone — or multiple someones — to run it. Those salaries also have to be worked into the equation.

Is that enough to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the city would be spending more on creating a low-income transit fare program than it makes in transit fares? No, but we’re getting darn close.

The closer we get, the stronger the argument becomes for wiping out transit fares completely. That would simplify the process and avoid the time and money involved in creating and managing a new program.

Free transit is common elsewhere in the world, particularly in towns in Europe. Luxembourg is reportedly set to be the first country in the world to make all public transport free later this year. It’s something Germany is also considering for some cities as part of a plan to lower air pollution.

Late last year Kansas City, Missouri became the first American city to make its transit free.

In 2016, Whitehorse Transit carried 616,000 riders across its six transit routes, according to the city’s transit master plan that was released in 2018 .

That’s actually a high number for a city the size of Whitehorse. The city’s goal is to increase the share of commuters who use transit from seven per cent in 2016 to 15 per cent by 2036.

Free transit would help with that.

Whitehorse council also recently joined the long list of governments to declare a climate emergency. Getting people out of their cars and onto a bus is better for the environment.

Whitehorse is already planning a handful of admirable upgrades to the transit system including a new downtown bus station, better tracking and revamps to the routes.

All of those moves will make transit use more appealing.

Whitehorse city council is right to want to make sure that there are as few barriers as possible for people using the buses.

But as staff are considering whether to start offering reduced transit fares for low-income riders, the numbers should also be crunched for free transit.

And hey, if that’s too much, just start offering Sunday bus service and we’ll call it even, ok? (AJ)