Victoria councillors press for free transit for region’s youth

A group of Victoria city councillors is renewing calls for a region-wide pilot program that would allow youth to ride transit buses for free.

But it will take a fair bit of convincing to get the proposal past some members of the Victoria Regional Transit Commission.

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In a motion going to Victoria’s committee of the whole Thursday, councillors Sharmarke Dubow, Ben Isitt, Jeremy Loveday and Sarah Potts note that the city’s decision to offer free bus passes for youth 18 and under has been a “big success” since taking effect in December.

At the same time, they say, the program has created unfairness across the region, because youth in other municipalities don’t enjoy similar access to fare-free transit.

“This inequity exists within specific school communities, where catchment boundaries extend across municipal borders, and the inequity also exists within neighbourhoods straddling the borders of Victoria, Esquimalt, Saanich and Oak Bay.”

The councillors want the transit commission to take another look at running a pilot project that offers fare-free transit to youth region-wide.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Dubow proposed the idea to the commission last August, but it failed on a tie vote.

Isitt said in an interview that it’s time to revisit that decision, given the positive response to Victoria’s program.

The latest figures from the city show that 2,400 passes have been distributed to city youth in January, up from 2,124 in December.

“We’re seeing the success of the City of Victoria’s youth bus pass program, and we’re also seeing the inequity in terms of young people who live outside the city not being able to access the pass,” Isitt said.

“I personally have seen a number of young people and parents come into city hall wanting to pick up a pass and then our staff have to inform them that they’re not eligible, because they live outside the city limits.”

Loveday said he has been hearing from people across the region who would like to see fare-free transit extended to all youth, regardless of where they live.

He said providing free transit for youth is “a great step forward, both to provide transportation equity and to take a meaningful step toward climate action.”

“When we get young people riding the bus from an early age, I believe that they will continue to practice that transportation method for potentially the rest of their lives. And that means one less person in a car and one more person taking a lower carbon-emitting form of transportation.”

Saanich Coun. Susan Brice, who chairs the transit commission and voted against the proposal in August, said she’ll wait to see the motion that Victoria brings forward. But she said the money needed to pay for the transit system has to come from somewhere.

The commission’s priorities have been to grow the system, expand frequency, reach into under-served areas and shift toward an electrified fleet, she said.

“So there’s the reality of how many good initiatives you can take on at any one time.”

Sooke Mayor Maja Tait, who sits on the commission, said she’s not prepared to support eliminating fares when her community is in desperate need of more buses and routes.

“I am not willing to sacrifice expansion that we need to our community [in order] to provide free fares to anyone at this point,” she said.

Otherwise, she said, expansion will require raising fares or hiking property taxes.

“I think fares are affordable at $2.50, and property taxes — we’re all trying to keep them affordable. So that’s the challenge.”

She noted that handyDART service for seniors or people with disabilities is limited in Sooke. “And these folks have to pay for it, $5 a day on a fixed income when you’re already struggling with dialysis or with other health challenges,” she said.

“We need more of this service, not less.”

Victoria plans to spend $972,000 a year on bus passes for an estimated 7,200 youth in the city — whether or not they take advantage of the program. City council is paying for the program using general revenue as well as money from new Sunday parking fees that took effect in May 2019.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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