The venerable #1 Spring Garden. Photo by Michael Taylor.

Starting this week, Community Services will be mailing out about 3,300 new annual transit passes to Halifax residents who are on income assistance, along with their spouses and dependents. The passes will be good for all buses, including MetroLink and MetroX routes.

Another approximately 7,700 people are currently eligible to receive the passes, and over the course of the year, it’s estimated a total of 16,000 passes could be issued.

“We’re in the full swing of things on this,” says Brandon Grant, executive director of the Employment Support and Income Assistance (ESIA) program, who says the first of the annual passes will go in the mail this week. “This is an incredible step in the right direction,” says Grant.

The transit pass program is part of a larger transformation in the Department of Community Services (DCS), says Grant. “Historically we’ve been an employment-focussed program, with employment outcomes. One of the big shifts with this transformation is how well access to services like transportation improves, and how people’s quality of life and social inclusion improves.“

One of the controversial elements of the transit pass plan has been that the current system of transportation allowances — an additional monthly stipend that some receive based on assessed need — will be discontinued. With them goes an end to stringent assessment protocols that have gotten tighter and tighter over the years, but also to extra disposable income for about 6,000 people who qualified in Halifax.

The allowance system gave people the flexibility to decide where they most needed to spend the transportation allocation. Income assistance rates are notoriously low in Nova Scotia at $575 per month for a single adult. A coalition of organizations called Community Agenda for Social Assistance Reform (CASAR) has been calling for an immediate 15 per cent increase in the budget for ESIA, and a further reconciling of rates to match real-world conditions by 2020. Such increases could mean recipients will no longer rely on special allowances to meet basic needs.

Grant says that allowances will overlap with the new pass system for a few months, with the phase-out scheduled for October. “We tried to create a transition period before the change takes effect,” says Grant. “There’s a period now where people can double up. You can get your pass and your allowance will remain until October.”

As for people with particular transportation needs that can’t be met by Halifax Transit, Grant says they will be considered on a case by case basis, with no formal program in place.

Another major concern that people have had is the potential for the passes to identify someone as a DCS client. The passes do require a photo ID, but are nearly indistinguishable from those used for the E-Pass program, in which discounted annual passes are available through workplaces that have signed up. “We’re very sensitive to the idea that we don’t want to stigmatize our clients,” says Grant. “It looks like any other X-Pass that would be issued.” (I asked to see a sample, but Grant refused as he thought publishing an image of the pass would only serve to help identify small differences between this pass and the E-Pass. Notably, Halifax Transit seems to have removed images of the E-Passes from its website.)

Promotion for the E-Pass program that is offered through Dalhousie University and a handful of other employers in Halifax.

One of the better features of this new system is that the passes are annual. “We wanted to have an annual pass because a monthly pass would mean a lot of administration and a lot of work for our clients,” says Grant.

And there will be no clawback of the existing pass if a person moves off income assistance. E-Passes, though annual, are paid for through monthly payroll deduction, so employers need to retrieve them from workers who leave their jobs before they expire. Thankfully, the department of Community Services has decided to forego that logistical nightmare. “It’s a shift from how we usually do things. We realize that even if you are transitioning out of our program, you probably still need support.”

Of course, there’s always room for improvement.

The new ESIA passes are reminiscent of U-Passes, another bulk purchase scheme negotiated between Halifax Transit and university student unions. When U-Passes came online, part of the deal negotiated with Halifax Transit was for extra service to come online to meet student’s needs — the #41 Dalhousie route was created, for example. There’s no reason something similar couldn’t happen in this case. DCS has the data on where its clients live. With a little effort the department could easily collect further data on where clients most need to go. This kind of information fed directly to the city’s transit planners could and should mean better bus services for low income communities in Halifax.

Transit systems in general, not just Halifax Transit, have suffered from catering to peak hour commuters rather than all-purpose, all-day riders. I’m reminded of a Transit Centre report from 2016, looking at who was using transit (in the US), why and how. This concept stuck out from the report written by Steve Higashide:

Longstanding dogma has been that people without cars are “captive” to transit and will use it regardless of service quality, while car owners have “choice” and must be won over through better service and luxe amenities.

We can see this play out in Halifax in that our best services tend to be dedicated to suburban commuters. But now that DCS is one of Halifax Transit’s biggest clients, DCS is in a position to advocate in turn for its clients, who are more likely not to own cars, and to be all-purpose, all-day riders.

Grant is non-committal when it comes to the idea of advocating for routes or increased service to benefit the new transit pass holders in the ESIA program. “Our focus right now is we need to get upwards of 11,000 people this service in a short period of time,” says Grant. “I think it’s early days yet.”

Related stories:

Transit passes coming for 16,800 people on income assistance, but for some, this means already paltry incomes will go down

Equity in transit and the “why” of our transportation infrastructure

Why isn’t the province buying transit passes for our poorest residents?

Fast, frequent, and walkable

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  1. A friend of mine is on income assistance and has lost $78 per month.
    Unfortunately he has a phobia that won’t let him ride the buses, so his pass is useless.
    He queried this with them, but got nowhere