OTTAWA -- Starting today, you won't have to pay to use OC Transpo, the LRT, or Para Transpo for the next month.

From now to the new year, fare boxes and Presto card readers on buses will be covered and fare gates at transit stations will be wide open. All Para Transpo trips, including rural trips, will be booked at no charge. Para Transpo has also done away with the daily limit of four trips.

OC Transpo also says that U-Pass institutions willl not be charged for December and that each institution will determine any rebates owed to students. 

If you normally purchase an OC Transpo monthly pass or if you have a U-Pass you can board STO buses with no additional fare required. If you do not normally purchase an OC Transpo monthly pass, however, you will need to pay when boarding an STO bus.

The month of unlimited transit service at no cost to riders comes as the City of Ottawa tries to win back some of the confidence in the transit system that was lost following two derailments on the Confederation Line LRT, including one in September that kept the system offline for nearly two straight months.

"Look, we have a long way to go to build back confidence, but this is a small step forward," Mayor Jim Watson told CTV News Ottawa on Wednesday. "By allowing this program to go ahead in December, it helps passengers, it may attract some other people who were maybe reluctant because of price point to come on the train."

Watson first proposed the idea in September, shortly after the second LRT derailment in six weeks.

"It's a small gesture to say we're sorry to our passengers, first and foremost. Secondly, it will also help to stimulate the economy in different parts of the city by encouraging people to take this transit ride without a charge," the mayor said in an interview on the CTV News at Six on Sept. 21.

City staff estimate it would cost approximately $7.2 million to provide transit service free of charge to riders. The cost would be covered by money the city is withholding from the LRT consortium, Rideau Transit Group (RTG), following the derailments.

December transit passes are not being sold. Presto card customers with auto-renewal set up will see a one-cent charge on their cards, but that will be reimbursed. January passes will go on sale mid-December.

Transit riders who spoke to CTV News Ottawa said they appreciated the move.

"Well it’s great we are saving money. I think it’s a good gesture and I think considering the inconvenience we had when the train was not running, it’s good that we can get this free month," said Marc Ekker.

"I think it’s a great idea. It just helps people get around," Nancy Kellet said. "It doesn’t really make up for (the derailments) but it’s a very welcome bonus to have. It’s nice to be able to do this. And it’s a nice gesture on the part of the city to do it. I really enjoy using the train. I missed it when it was gone."

Some, however, believed that the ongoing low ridership didn't justify the move.

"I just hate to see money wasted just for that. I don’t think there’s enough ridership right now to justify it," Mike Letellier said.

Kyle Humphrey, a regular Para Transpo user, says the free month of service will save him a lot of money.

"It does translate to $312 per month with the four shifts I have," he said.

Humphrey also said the removal of the daily trip limit will make a big difference for Para Transpo riders.

"With this restriction, this horrible lockdown for us being lifted, it’s so freeing. And it’s so liberating for so many people who are just stuck with one service." 

Fares set to increase in 2022

The month of free service comes as the city is set to increase fares by another 2.5 per cent in 2022. Fares are not set to go up, however, until one month after 15 trains are running on the LRT during peak morning service again, following a motion approved by the city's transit commission. Right now, the light rail service is running at a peak of 11 trains. It’s unclear when 15 will become available.

Transit commission chair Coun. Allan Hubley defended the plan to eventually ncrease fares in 2022, despite calls from some councillors and citizens to freeze or reduce them.

"If we don't do the increase, or if we try to cut the fares back further, someone else has to pay for it," he said. "Some councillors want to raise taxes … (Some residents) don't want their property taxes going up for a service they don't use. We have to do a balancing act here at the city."

The temporary freeze approved by the transit commission would cost the city approximately $427,000 per month, also to be covered by RTG.

The full city of Ottawa budget, which includes the 2.5 per cent transit fare hike and LRT service-based freeze, will come before city council on Dec. 8.