When his friend Terry Wilson (left) lost a subsidy for a bus pass last year, Matt Spurway (right), coordinated an online fundraising campaign raising enough to buy him a year’s supply. Terry is one of many who rely on public transit for basic, everyday transportation needs.
When his friend Terry Wilson (left) lost a subsidy for a bus pass last year, Matt Spurway (right), coordinated an online fundraising campaign raising enough to buy him a year’s supply. Terry is one of many who rely on public transit for basic, everyday transportation needs.

You will, I hope, be happy to know that 717 people in this city who make less than $33,000 a year were able to purchase a bus pass at a discount this September. Some of those 717 people are newly able to afford a pass to help them get to work, school, the grocery store, their best friend’s house or wherever it is they need to go. Others, who may have forked over the full price of a pass anyway, will be left with an extra $39 to spend on other basic needs this month. Either way, it can only do this city good.

That’s the good news: we have a Low Income Transit Pass program, and it is helping 717 people this month.

The bad news is we have chosen to leave out another 137 people (and probably more) who technically qualify for the Low Income Transit Pass (LITP) program, but will not be able to buy discounted passes this year. The LITP program, unlike other pass incentive programs run by Halifax Transit, has a participation cap.

Some time in the four years it took to get this program officially adopted, city staff and council decided that only 1,000 people can qualify for discounted passes at a time. (Once you qualify, you don’t necessarily buy a pass every month. Even at $39, a monthly transit pass is a considered purchase for anyone with a low income.)

This month, that participation cap means 137 people are on a waiting list, and will remain there until someone in the program cannot afford to buy a pass for six consecutive months, getting themselves officially kicked out.

It’s needlessly complicated, and it’s unfair.

Full disclosure: I know one of the people on the LITP waiting list. I don’t know her well, mind you. She is not me or a member of my family. But I do know that she had hoped to go to an adult education class three times a week this year. Unfortunately she didn’t get her application submitted before 1,000 others did (applications opened May 8 and the program was full by July 19), and so will forego the classes that would have required her to travel more often by transit.

I gotta ask: Why on earth would Halifax Transit not want to accept $39 a month from this person? Her income is less than $33,000. (She’s proven it!) She does not drive or own a car. Her alternative is not to just fork out the $78 for a regular pass, rather it is to buy as many bus tickets as she feels she can afford and budget her transportation accordingly. And if that means foregoing opportunities like adult ed classes, then so be it.

It’s wrong. And we can do better.

Other pass programs go capless

There are well upwards of 25,000 students in this city who partake in the UPass program, a bulk-purchase contract with student unions whereby all full time students (whether they like it or not) purchase school year bus passes for extreme discounts. There is no cap on the UPass program, though to be fair, the natural cap is the number of full-time students paying fees to their local student union in a given year.

Currently there are only 800 people enrolled in our EPass program, whereby employers can help get their employees a discount on a yearly transit pass. Again, there’s no upper limit. Heck, there’s even a general consensus that we’d like that number to grow. Halifax Transit recently reduced the membership fees for its Smart Trip program in order to make it more attractive for companies to join the program.

So why, when it comes to poor people, did we decide that we needed a cap?

The answer can be found in city staff reports, though not explicitly. In reports on the LITP, transit staff generally take the time to calculate the cost of the program, in terms of lost revenue from full-price pass sales that people might have already been purchasing, before the LITP discount.

A recent report on the SmartTrip program (which is where E-pass is administered) did not include similar lost-revenue-due-to-discount calculations. In recommending reducing overall program fees to get more companies to join, the staff report posited that growth in the program might even increase Halifax Transit’s revenues:

It is possible, however, that the reduced annual SmartTrip Program fees will result in an overall growth in the SmartTrip program and help to support a culture of transit ridership and sustainable transportation mode choice in Halifax. This has the potential of positively impacting Halifax Transit’s revenue from fares.

That’s a nice thought, and I don’t disagree. I just think we need to apply the same reasoning to folks making less than $33,000, because the LTIP program stands just as much a chance of supporting a “culture of transit ridership” as SmartTrip/EPass.

Sure, there’s some uncertainty involved in the budgetary impact. Halifax Transit can’t be sure if it’s handing out discounts to those who would have ridden anyway. But come on, this is transit fare revenue we are talking about. It is by nature unpredictable, and even fluctuates with the seasons. What’s more, a similar unpredictability applies in the case of EPass. But with EPass, it’s been decided the risk is worth the potential for growth. In the case of LTIP, it’s been decided it’s not.  We need to reconsider that decision.

Further issues with LITP

The participation cap is not the only issue with the LITP program. This September, the are 283 people who decided not to purchase a monthly pass, some of whom, no doubt, found the $39 price tag still not quite affordable on a regular basis. Calgary’s Fair Entry program has a sliding scale for its low income subsidies, giving Calgary’s very poor access to bus passes for as little as $5.05 a month. Happily, Halifax council requested a city staff report on the Fair Entry program as part of its approval of the LITP program in February.

There are also those who do not qualify for the LITP because they receive a transportation allowance via Nova Scotia Community Services’ income assistance program. The city excludes these people from the LTIP in order to avoid “shift[ing] the responsibility of providing a social assistance benefit from the Province to the Municipality.”

Both the city and province have said they are pursuing a solution, possibly looking at a bulk purchase program for all income assistance recipients, which, as I’ve reported before, the province could easily afford within its current budget and still have some leftover to help people with other transportation costs. Unfortunately, there is still nothing concrete to report on this solution.

Both a Fair Entry-style sliding scale and a UPass-style bulk purchase are ideas worth pursuing, but based on the timeline for acceptance of the LITP program, they will each take dogged determination by city staff and council to make happen. In the meantime, there are 137 people who could benefit this year from one simple move by the elected representatives on Halifax Regional Council.

If councillors believe in the principles of Low Income Transit Pass program, they should vote to lift its participation cap as soon as possible.

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  1. Free transit 10 – 3 for seniors, disabled and people receiving social assistance.
    Apparently painting multi-coloured cross walks is more important.

  2. We could even go a step further – people who are eligible for the program but don’t use it and don’t own cars should just get the money it costs to subsidize their transit passes.

  3. Excellent article. There is another group that could benefit from the LITP, and that is seniors. Socialization is important for growing number of seniors who live alone and are isolated. While grateful for the free rides between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm on Tuesdays. seniors cannot always schedule appointments then, nor would they necessarily have the funds for groceries and necessities on a Tuesday. When you add the physical challenges that many seniors experience, good health, and socialization via the bus system could significantly change their lives.

  4. It’s ridiculous this is even being discussed. If a household income is less than $30,000 or a combined $60,000 – bus passes should be reduced. It’s good for everyone. It puts more money in the system and helps people get to work and school.

  5. No caps on the program, a true sliding scale for pricing, family discounts, and coordination with Department of Community Services. Too much to ask? I don’t think so.

    Also, let’s improve routes to serve people who need transit for everything, and not just a 9-5 commute downtown.

    There are more costs that $. Time is also a critical currency which our lower-income friends and neighbours are also struggling with.

    I was talking to a friend of mine today with three kids and no car. She told me how she did a time budget exercise recently and discovered she’s spending more time each week on the bus than she is sleeping.

  6. I think the way we treat poor people – especially considering the fact that there are many people who cannot be economically employed through no fault of their own (there is simply nothing they can do which produces more than ~$15/hr worth of value) is a complete shame.

    I don’t have much love for the sort of welfare program which essentially launders money through poor people then gives it to the rentier class (like a Wal-Mart employee spending their food stamps at work… , or a government subsidy that helps people meet rent in their privately owned apartments) – I think that the state should directly or through regulated free markets provide housing and food to people who cannot provide those things for themselves – and transportation is right up there with housing and food in terms of necessities.