Munro Watters takes public transit most days to and from her government job in downtown Ottawa. A round trip costs her more than $7 a day.
Is she interested in the Liberal promise to offer $1 transit fares for the next year-and-a-half? You bet.
“It’s something that I’m extremely on board with,” Watters told CBC. “I’ve noticed how much more expensive transit is getting for me, especially per ride … And public transit supposed to be the cheap solution and also the most eco-friendly one.”
But if her boyfriend is in town with his car, they often drive because parking and gas is only a bit more expensive than the $15.80 it would cost for them to both take transit.
On the other hand, Jamie Pudwell doesn’t think cheaper fares will get more people out of their cars.
“The reason why a lot of people don’t take transit is because it’s not actually all that convenient right now,” said Pudwell. “It’s not super integrated and it’s not particularly comfortable in many places.”
He’d like to see more train-based intercity travel — something GO Transit provides to some extent largely in the areas surrounding the GTA — and also expanded transit within communities, instead of systems that funnel riders to a central downtown corridor.
“If we had a fully integrated circle route, as you see in many cities, something like that would be a much better system,” said Pudwell.
“I’ve used them. I’ve been to cities in Japan, I’ve been to cities in Europe. You can go to any neighborhood you want. And if they were actually to integrate plans like that, using taxpayer money — totally behind that.”
He’s more interested in the NDP’s plan to pick up half the tab of cities’ transit operating costs — something the province used to do before the PC Mike Harris government of the 1990s stopped.
Of course, the two outlooks aren’t mutually exclusive — a cheaper transit fare only helps riders if there’s a bus or train that gets them where they want to go — but they are the key differences in how the province’s major political parties are framing their transit plans.
Here’s what each of the major parties are promising to do for municipal transit, if elected on June 2, and what it would cost.
In its budget released late last month, the Progressive Conservatives pledged to spend $61.6 billion over 10 years for public transit, including on the Ontario Line in Toronto, expanding GO Transit from Oshawa to Bowmanville, the London GO Rail Service, which will provide weekday GO train trips between London and Union Station in Toronto.
There are also plans to eventually connect the Eglinton Crosstown West Extension to Toronto Pearson International Airport, and the PCs are “advancing planning work for the Sheppard Subway Extension.”
In short, the PC plan for transit involves capital spending — putting money into infrastructure expansion, but not directly into municipal transit operations.
All other major parties have committed to fund the transit infrastructure projects already underway.
The New Democrats are pledging to spend $3.6 billion over four years on transit operations — they’ve earmarked $898 million per year to cover half of municipalities’ transit operations.
However, there would be strings attached to this funding.
Chandra Pasma is running for the NDP in Ottawa West-Nepean. She says an NDP government would expect that the money would go toward transit service improvements in terms of coverage and accessibility, as well as reducing the price.
When she speaks with people across her riding, Pasma says it’s not necessarily the cost that is keeping them off transit, although she concedes it is getting more expensive.
“It’s that the bus never comes through their neighborhood or that to get downtown is a 15 minute drive, but it’s an hour long transit trip that requires two buses and a train — and that’s if the train is running,” she said.
One of the earliest campaign promises the Liberals have made is their buck-a-ride pledge: any public transit ride, including on the GO Transit system, will cost $1 from September 2022 to January 2024. Monthly passes would be capped at $40 a month.
They say it will cost $710 million in 2022-23 and almost $1.2 billion in 2023-24. According to party officials, the costing is based on an average provincial fare of a little more than $3. The plan begins with ridership numbers from this winter, and assumes a 3 per cent increase in the number of fares each month, reaching pre-pandemic levels by early 2024.
The plan is being presented mainly as a way to help Ontarians save money — “affordability” is the top issue in this election — and as a way to encourage more transit use, which has plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Liberals say they estimate their fare plan would take 400,000 cars off the road.
Asked what would happen to fares after January 2024, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said late last week that he’d do whatever he could “to make sure that we continue to make life more affordable, especially as it relates to taking public transit.”
The Liberals are also pledging to subsidize municipal transit operations to the tune of $94 million in the current fiscal year and $375 million for each of the following three years.
Adding in the promise to offer veterans free fares starting next year, the Liberals are pledging to put a total of $3.4 billion toward transit fares and operations over the next four years.
Not surprisingly, the Green Party is promising to spend the most on transit operations and to “prioritize public transit in all transportation planning decisions.”
Like the New Democrats, the Greens would also fund half of municipalities’ operating costs, but would spend $1 billion a year, which is more than the NDP is estimating.
The Green Party is promising to spend $300 million to immediately cut transit fares in half for at least three months, and would spend $1 billion a year on purchasing thousands of electric buses, tripling the number of dedicated bus lanes.
Transit promises aimed at urban voters
Although transit is a huge cost of municipalities, and fares can be a barrier to some who rely on it, it’s not breaking through as an election issue, according to David Coletto, CEO of polling firm Abacus Data.
When giving a long list of issues, only 6 per cent of respondents put public transit or reducing congestion into the top three issues that will determine how they vote. One reason, suggests Coletto, is because many people are still working from home and commuting costs are not top of mind.
But of the plans being touted, the Liberals’ buck-a-ride may be getting the most traction. A recent Leger poll indicated that more than half of the respondents had heard of the $1-fare promise and thought it was a good idea. The poll did not ask about the NDP or Green plan to subsidize municipal transit operations.
While the NDP platform is promising more money for transit, it takes more effort to explain than the Liberals’ one-line slogan.
“Any time you can take a problem that people perceive and offer up a solution that’s easily digestible, it’s going to be more memorable,” Coletto told CBC. “Now, is it going to be enough? Is it the thing that people are going to vote Liberal for? I think it’s still not clear.”
The transit promises of the NDP, Liberals and Greens are clearly aimed at urban centres with more extensive public transit networks, said Coletto, especially at younger voters who “may not own a car or live in a condo in the centre of the city and lower income households that rely on public transit to get around.”
Looking for more details about the platforms of the four major parties in this June’s Ontario election? Head to this story where you can read the platforms for youself.
You can also use Vote Compass to compare your political views to those of the major parties.