Bus fares to rise in 2019

A Prince Albert city bus sits on display in Memorial Square outside of City Hall. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Single day rates and Seniors passes still going up, but not as high as originally proposed

Prince Albert transit users will have a more expensive bus ride starting on Jan. 1, but the final tally isn’t as high as it could have been.

On Thursday, city council voted to increase fees for riders of all ages, although the seniors rate was slightly lowered following extensive debate. Originally, administration recommended that riders ages 60 and over pay $35 for a transit pass. That number was lowered to $30 by council, which still marks a $5 increase over what seniors paid in 2018.

Council also voted to change the single day transit rates. They’ll pay $2.25 instead of $2.50 as proposed. Single day fares for 2018 were $2.50 for adults (ages 18-59) and $2.00 for seniors and youth.

Mayor Greg Dionne said the city needed a well-run transit department, but argued the city couldn’t subsidize it without help. That sentiment was common among city councillors, who said recent price decreases hadn’t lead to enough new riders to justify continuing the current fare rates.

“I think we need to find more of a holistic approach, review this again after a period of time and see how we are doing,” Ward 8 Coun. Ted Zurakowski said during budget deliberations. “I still remember that crowd of people came here who rode the buses … and they said, ‘yes, we would rather have better service. Make it clean. Make it reliable. Make it safe. Increase the routes and increase the fees.’ The mayor asked them, would you pay more money? They said collectively, yes.”

The new carbon tax is also a concern for the city, which aims to recover at least 40 per cent of transit costs through bus fares and other revenue.

“We will probably hit more than $1 million in subsidy (for transit) because this is where carbon tax is really going to hit,” Dionne said. “(The tax) is on fuel, and this is one of our biggest fuel users.”

The change moves bus fares back to where they were before a temporary trial run was approved in 2017. Monthly bus passes were dropped to $25 for seniors, students and children in an attempt to generate more riders. Earlier changes in 2016 also lengthened hours and added routes in an attempt to provide better service. City council also purchased seven new buses, and offered free transit periods to convince new riders to come on board.

Some, like Ward 6 Coun. Blake Edwards, said the city had made a good-faith attempt to increase ridership and it wasn’t working. Given the result, raising fares was completely justifiable.

“This council voted to reduce the rates and try and increase ridership, and I supported that,” Edwards said during the meeting. “I held my hand up and I said, ‘yes, let’s try that,’ and after two years, we can see that trial didn’t work, unfortunately. It increased (riders) but we lost revenue, so now we have new buses and we’re losing revenue and that’s not good.”

Edwards added that he wanted people to know council was not looking to take advantage of riders. They were just going back to close to where rates were before council initiated the trial run.

“Let’s not be looking like the bad guys here,” he said. “We tried, and it didn’t work, so here we are going back to where the rates were.”

Not all councillors were on board with those arguments. Ward 1 Coun. Charlene Miller and Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp both voted against the proposal.

Lennox-Zepp argued that the trial hadn’t had enough time to truly change anyone’s behavior. Instead, she wanted city council to give potential riders more time to jump on board.

“I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Lennox-Zepp said. “In this discussion let’s remember that we have increased our ridership, and we want to see that trajectory continue to go up. That’s how we then can increase revenue over the long-term, and often these things do take years to have people getting on board.”

Ward 3. Coun. Evert Botha also expressed some hesitancy to raise bus fare, although he did vote in favour of the motion. Botha argued that too many residents didn’t know about the rates changes, and were pleasantly surprised if they did find out.

Botha focused on seniors, who purchased 792 single use tickets over the last year, an average of 2.1 riders per day. He said the numbers should be higher considering the reduced rates, new buses, and the city’s large seniors population.

“We need to get our message out to the seniors that we have a safe, affordable, reliable service,” he said. “If it’s two seniors paying $2 a day to hop on to the bus, we’re not getting the message out there effectively. I don’t think it’s an affordability issue whatsoever.”

The new rates will come into effect in 2019.