OTTAWA -- Transit fares in Ottawa will be going up in 2022, but it may not be on Jan 1.

Several public delegations spoke against the increase, arguing that OC Transpo fares are becoming increasingly unaffordable, but the city's transit commission voted in favour of keeping the increase in the 2022 budget following a lengthy meeting on Wednesday, with some dissent. Councillors Catherine McKenney and Theresa Kavanagh dissented to the fare increase, as did citizen commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert. Coun. Riley Brockington dissented to the entire budget roadmap.

The increase would bring the cost of a single fare using a Presto card to $3.70 and an adult monthly pass to $125.50.

Speaking to reporters following the transit commission meeting, commission chair Coun. Allan Hubley said the increase is part of a long-term financial plan.

"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, adding that the fare increase amounts to $36 in a year for a monthly adult pass. "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 increase, however, will only come into effect a full month after Confederation Line LRT service operates with its full complement of 15 trains during the morning peak period.

Hubley moved a motion that would freeze fares at 2021 levels until full service resumes on the O-Train. The expected cost of delaying the fare increase of $426,700 per month would be funded with money that would have normally gone to the Rideau Transit Group.

Exactly when 15 trains will be running again remains a question that has no definitive answer. While staff expect 11 trains to be running again by the end of November, it may be some time before 15 are on the line.

Director of transit customer systems Pat Scrimgeour told reporters 15 trains "would be required when we get to the level of ridership that we would be expecting in this year if a pandemic weren't in place."

General Manager of Transit Services Renee Amilcar said she is hopeful more trains would be running by the beginning of next year.

Budget comes with $60M gap from COVID-19

The 2022 budget includes a $60.6-million gap based on additional costs related to COVID-19. The budget projects at $41.3-million loss in fare revenues in 2022, as well as additional costs for cleaning and lower gas tax revenues because of lower gasoline sales.

The city expects other levels of government will cover the funding gap, as they have for 2020 and 2021. Should other levels of government not come through, OC Transpo has contingency plans that include delaying infrastructure projects, freezing hiring, and—as a last resort—having council consider service cuts or increasing fares or the transit levy on property taxes.

The budget is based on a ridership estimate of 82 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, suspecting 2022 will begin with approximately 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, increasing to 100 per cent of pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year. The estimate is based on the expectation that more federal government workers would return to their downtown workplaces, more post-secondary students would return to in-person classes and more riders would use the system as the tourism industry rebounds.

Some free service debated

McKenney's motion to provide free transit passes to emergency shelter clients passed at Wednesday's meeting. It calls on the city to develop a plan to provide up to 2,000 transit passes per month to local aid agencies, in a mixture of weekly and monthly passes, to give to clients.

Brockington moved a motion to make transit fares free for children seven years old and under in 2022, but he lacked a cost offset, so the motion has been referred instead to city council. Brockington's motion made note that while many cities in Canada offer free transit for children as old as 12, Ottawa only does it for kids up to 5 years of age. Brockington's plan would cut approximately $207,000 worth of revenue, something Scrimgeour said would need to be made up elsewhere.

"Anything that would take $200,000 out of our budget is something we'd need to plan to do $200,000 less of," he said.

Brockington's motion would also ask the city to look into the cost of making transit free for children 12 and under in Ottawa as part of the 2023 budget process.

A motion by McKenney to request that staff review the possibility of freezing Community Pass, Access Pass, and EquiPass prices for the entire next term of council (2022-26) was also approved.

Finally, a motion by McKenney calls on the mayor and transit commission chair to write to the federal government to ask for additional funding which would allow the city to offset the share of the budget that falls on riders through fares, which is currently 55 per cent. That motion was also approved.

The budget will be voted on by full city council on Dec. 8.

Some delays on LRT Tuesday

The commission meeting also comes a day after the first hiccup for LRT since partial service returned on Friday.

A stopped train at Bayview Station caused some delays for Tuesday afternoon commuters. Normal service resumed just after 4:30 p.m.

Commission heard that the train's operator heard a noise that kept getting louder and stopped the train out of an abundance of caution. The train underwent inspections on the line and at the maintenance yard. 

"The operator of the train heard something, did the right thing and reported it," director of transit operations Troy Charter said. "The sound appeared to be getting louder—stopped the train. Safety first."