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Advocates warn proposed OC Transpo fare hikes, bus route cuts will push people away from transit

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A transit advocacy group and a rookie councillor warn hiking transit fares and possibly cutting OC Transpo bus routes in 2024 could be the start of a "death spiral" for OC Transpo.

A report for the finance and corporate services committee warns the OC Transpo transit network is facing "the greatest financial challenge" of all city services next year, due to low ridership following the COVID-19 pandemic and new services such as the Trillium Line from Bayview Station to Riverside South.

"Not ideal. I've been taking the bus for seven years and you would think that it would be getting better with the train and all that, but it's just getting worse," transit rider Hannah Velemirovich said Saturday.

Staff are recommending a 2.5 per cent hike in transit fares and a 2.5 per cent increase in the transit levy next year, but the transit service is still projecting a $35 million fare revenue shortfall in 2024. The report says staff are continuing the Service Review to "reduce spending" next year, including aligning bus routes to "current ridership levels" and seeking reductions in payments to rail contractors based on current conditions.

Transit rider Carney Bourgeois says the idea of cuts to the service is frustrating.

"As someone who takes transit all the time, it's just frustrating," Bourgeois says. "I feel like because the trains are being cut, they should have better bus routes in place for people."

Coun. Sean Devine reacted to a CTV News Ottawa article about the proposed cuts to transit routes in 2024, saying those kinds of changes are "very concerning."

"And can actually lead to the 'death spiral' faced by transit systems when service continues to degrade and diminish, losing more and more riders, which leads to yet more service cuts and fare hikes," Devine said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

"And so the unintended consequences of these actions may end up far more costly and far more devastating to the city as a whole, pushing more and more residents away from transit and back into cars, with all the costs that come with that."

Laura Shantz of the group Ottawa Transit Riders says if OC Transpo and the city of Ottawa want to attract people to transit, "It has to be a reasonable option."

"It has to not take you all of your day to get to your destination. It has to be able to get where you're going in a reasonable amount of time. It has to be affordable, accessible and reliable," Shantz told Newstalk 580 CFRA's CFRA Live with Andrew Pinsent on Saturday.

"And if we start pulling bus routes and we start rejigging so you have to walk farther to your stop, wait longer for your bus and take longer to get where you're going, it's a real hard sell to people to say, 'OK, let's keep going with this,'" Shantz said.

"People who have other options when they start to see those patterns, they will use other options. They will go elsewhere; whether that means taking fewer trips, whether that means carpooling, taking their own car, biking, walking, taking fewer trips and taking an Uber when they need to go.

"They will find other ways to get around if we start seeing that transit death spiral pattern, and that is a really big problem because to make this city work and work well, we need people to take transit."

Word of the proposed transit fare hike and changes to OC Transpo bus routes in 2024 comes just weeks after the light-rail transit system was shut down for 28 days due to issues with the axle-bearing issue on the LRT vehicles, and transit riders have complained about bus trip cancellations all summer. OC Transpo and Rideau Transit Group are now running the Confederation Line with single-car service due to new requirements to replace the front and rear wheel hubs on all trains every 60,000 km and lower ridership.

Shantz says it has been a rough year for transit riders on OC Transpo.

"I'm not sure how many riders out there are going to pay more for the service we're getting right now."

Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden said on X that, "fare hikes and service cuts will not bring riders back to public transit in Ottawa."

"Consistent operational funding, reliable service, real investments and an end to the disastrous P3 model must come first."

OC Transpo is projecting a $39 million budget shortfall this year due to low ridership.

Shantz says the city of Ottawa needs to begin pressing the upper levels of government for more funding to support the current transit system and continue to expand it.

"I would be really hopeful that our city right now would be lobbying for some transit dollars to help support operations."

The 2024 transit budget will be presented to the Transit Commission and Council in November. Staff say a report will also outline the financial pressures for OC Transpo and a "description of the effects that any change would have on service for customers."

The 2023 OC Transpo budget included a fare freeze, which cost $5 million, and extended free transit for kids to include children aged 8 to 12 starting July 1. OC Transpo's operating budget is $706 million this year, according to city data. 

With files from CTV News Ottawa's Natalie van Rooy

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