Councillors at the City of Victoria are trying to install free youth bus passes regionally for a second time.
In a motion coming to the committee of the whole on Thursday, Couns. Ben Isitt, Jeremey Loveday, Sarah Potts and Sharmarke Dubow advocate for the Victoria Regional Transit Commission (VRTC) to reconsider launching a free bus pass pilot.
The idea was originally proposed to the VRTC in August 2019, but did not pass after reaching a tie vote.
In December 2019, the City voted to pilot its own youth bus pass program for Victoria residents 18 and under. The pilot is paid for through a combination of general revenues, and parking fares collected on Sundays.
Since the trial was launched in December more than 2,100 youth have accessed the program. It has cost the city approximately $81,000 per month. While the program has been popular, it has also revealed some divisions.
“Introduction of the City of Victoria program has also created a regional inequity in access to mobility for youth,” the proposed motion reads. “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.”
In other words, youth who attend Victoria schools but who live outside of city boarders are not able to get free passes.
Coun. Jeremy Loveday said he’s heard a lot of feedback since the program was brought into place.
“Fare-free transit for youth makes our community more equitable and is an important and impactful action we can take to tackle the climate crisis,” Loveday said in an emailed statement. “Since bringing in fare-free transit for youth in Victoria, I’ve continually heard from people throughout the Region who want this program to be made available to all youth regardless of which municipality they live in.”
Coun. Sarah Potts has personally seen the impact the passes have on families.
“I was waiting line to get a pass for my daughter when I met a mother of three who shared how much of a difference this would make for her family,” Potts said. “Now that we have the test case of this programs success, I think it’s appropriate to see where the willingness of the Victoria Regional Transit Commission is now. We have heard a lot from folks outside of Victoria who would like to access this program.”
Isitt is optimistic that the commissioners will be open-minded. “I’m seeing youth and parents coming to City Hall hoping to get the pass, and our staff having to turn them away,” Isitt said. “We’re hoping the commissioners will reconsider their positions”
Last year members of the VRTC were not all happy with the idea of implementing free transit passes.
“It’s a $40 million cost to do this across the board. Where will that money come from? Are we supposed to go to our taxpayers and ask how much more they want to pay so we can give away free transit?” said Sooke Mayor and VRTC Board member Maja Tait at the time.
VRTC chair Susan Brice was also against the idea.
“In a densely populated area where there’s pretty good transit service, moving towards free youth passes will be well received,” Brice told Black Press Media in August. “But there are parts of the region where you can give them a free transit pass, but if there aren’t buses going there it isn’t going to work.”
If the motion is passed, it aims to be presented at an upcoming VRTC meeting on Feb. 25.