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Some councillors call for free transit to compensate OC Transpo riders for latest LRT shutdown

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Some Ottawa councillors want the city and OC Transpo to provide free transit to riders to compensate them for the disruptions caused by the ongoing O-Train shutdown.

Ottawa's light-rail transit system will remain out of service until at least the second week of August to allow Rideau Transit Group and Alstom to work on the tracks and replace axles on trains before service resumes. The city announced on Friday that RTG would perform "additional actions" to ensure there is no contact between the train wheel and the restraining rail, which could take at least 10 days.

 The O-Train has been out of service since July 17 after an axle-bearing issue was discovered on one train during routine maintenance.

With the O-Train out of service, OC Transpo has been offering R1 replacement bus service along the Blair-Tunney's Pasture line. However, riders have complained of packed buses, long waits between buses at stations and longer commutes through the city.

Now, some councillors say it is time to discuss possible compensation to transit riders dealing with long delays.

"It’s obvious that we will need to work to rebuild the trust of our ridership," Coun. Laine Johnson said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. "I will ask my colleagues to consider a period of free transit to compensate for the problems this has caused."

Coun. Ariel Troster supported Johnson's suggestion.

"We should be compensating people for their lost time and incredible frustration. Transit users deserve better," Troster said.

The head of OC Transpo has been noncommittal to the idea of free transit or reimbursing transit riders when asked several times this week. Transit Services general manager Renee Amilcar says her focus is on resuming O-Train service, before exploring free transit or refunds to riders.

"Seriously, my goal here at OC Transpo is to make sure that I can resume the service as soon as possible and we can think about compensation and this is a Council decision." Amilcar said Friday. "I would like to at least be able to say, 'OK, we can compensate for something that works."

Speaking on Newstalk 580 CFRA Saturday morning, Coun. Wilson Lo says it is worth discussing the idea of compensation for riders following the shutdown, but the focus should be on resuming service first.

"It is absolutely worth talking about because when consumers don't get what they expect from a business they do expect that compensation," Lo said.

"At the moment, because we don't know how long this is really going to go on for, we don't know what that compensation will look like or how much it's going to be. This is why I think we should wait until it's fixed before we start thinking about it so we know what sort of compensation we're looking at and how much it's going to be."

OC Transpo is projecting a $39 million budget deficit in 2023.

Based on the projected OC Transpo 2023 budget, fare revenue for the O-Train and Line 1 ranged from $9.9 million in August to $16 million in October. 

The Transit Commission and Council would decide whether OC Transpo offers free service on the O-Train and on buses. The next Council meeting is scheduled for Aug. 23, while the Transit Commission will meet on Sept. 13.

The chair of Ottawa's LRT subcommittee says with OC Transpo facing a multi-million budget deficit, providing compensation to riders may be difficult.

"I'm not going to make a commitment that we're going to provide compensation and dig a deeper hole financially in our budget that may result in higher transit fares or higher taxes," Coun. Steve Desroches told Newstalk 580 CFRA's Ottawa Now on Friday.

"It would be easy for me to say, 'Yes, we'll give compensation' and that may give some temporary relief to people, but I'm not confident we have a source of funding that would provide that.

"I think the best way to attract people back and regain that confidence is step-by-step fix that system and work on the reliability of the system."

OC Transpo offered free transit in December 2021 to apologize to riders after a derailment on the Confederation Line shutdown the O-Train for 54 days. The month of free transit cost OC Transpo $7 million.

In February-March 2022, OC Transpo offered free rides on the O-Train and 15 OC Transpo bus routes serving Centretown and Rideau-Vanier for 30 days following the demonstration against COVID-19 mandates in downtown Ottawa. That was expected to cost the transit service $1 million.

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