Helps: ‘Ridiculous’ city on hook for thousands of unused bus passes

Youth in Victoria are expected to continue riding the bus for free until the end of the year, but the city will only buy monthly passes for those who want them, instead of the previous agreement with B.C. Transit to buy passes in bulk, which cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in unused bus passes.

The agreement struck in December with B.C. Transit saw the city purchase thousands of bus passes that were never used, a problem that got worse when transit ridership tanked due to the pandemic.

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In June, the city issued about 620 passes, which means 6,580 passes purchased went unused. When the city launched the program in December, it agreed to purchase 7,200 passes — the number of school-aged children in Victoria — at a discounted rate of $11.25 per pass per month for a total of $81,000 per month.

At a committee of the whole meeting Thursday, Mayor Lisa Helps said it’s “ridiculous” that the city is on the hook for the full $81,000 a month, despite drastically reduced ridership in Victoria.

The low youth ridership in June means the city spent $130 per youth issued a pass, well above the regular $45 cost of a monthly pass.

Deputy city manager Susanne Thompson told Helps the city did not pay the monthly fee from mid-March to the end of May when transit was free. However, the payments kicked in again in June, when B.C. Transit started charging again.

The contract with B.C. Transit required three months’ notice to change or terminate the agreement, Thompson said.

“Why wouldn’t we have terminated when transit became free, why wouldn’t we have triggered that termination clause?” Helps asked.

Thompson said city staff was not aware that B.C. Transit would start charging again in June. “Had we known that, then perhaps we would have terminated.”

Transit ridership in Victoria was down 62 per cent for the week of June 22, according to a staff report.

The new agreement was unanimously approved by councillors at a committee of the whole meeting Thursday and will receive final approval at a council meeting next week. It will cost the city $40.50 per monthly pass, or about $30,000 at current ridership levels. The city has budgeted up to $200,000 for the four months in case the number of passes issued exceeds $30,000 a month.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the city issued an average of 2,367 passes per month from December to March, still well below the 7,200 passes purchased.

Council watchdog Stan Bartlett of Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria said the youth-bus-pass pilot project is the latest example of city council straying outside its mandate with expensive consequences.

Bartlett said the city should have based its youth-ridership estimates on the B.C. government’s 2019 Active Transportation Survey, which found that 27 per cent of school-aged children reported taking the bus or public transit, with 29 per cent walking and five per cent cycling.

Coun. Jeremy Loveday said the free-bus-pass program is in line with the city’s goals for sustainable transportation and climate action, but the revised agreement with B.C. Transit takes into account the unpredictable nature of the economic recovery, and uncertainty about whether youth will be attending school in person or online come September.

Post-secondary and high school students have been told to expect more online classes this fall.

The bus-pass program is funded through parking fees collected from on-street meters on Sundays, but so far, that revenue has not been enough to fully cover the cost. The balance is funded through the city’s contingency fund.

The motion asked staff for funding options to continue the program or establish a U-Pass program as part of the 2021 financial planning process.

Youth or their parents can apply for the bus passes online and the passes will be mailed to their homes.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

• Go to upass.victoria.ca.

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