Terry Wilson and Matt Spurway, as pictured in an online fundraising campaign for transit passes.
Terry Wilson and Matt Spurway, as pictured in an online fundraising campaign for transit passes.

Last week, in about 24 hours, Matt Spurway raised enough money to buy a year’s worth of bus passes for his friend Terry. The Go Fund Me campaign pitch outlined Terry’s situation:

At 62, with severe arthritis and two deteriorated disks in his back, Terry can barely make it a few blocks on foot. He used to receive a bus pass from Community Services. Now he doesn’t. Terry used to visit Margaret’s House for food, but now he can’t. He used to be able to visit his friend at the hospital but now he can’t. Without a bus pass, Terry is trapped.

In our sprawling city, access to the transit system can mean access to a life.

At some point this year, 500 people with low incomes may have improved access to transit as part of a pilot project testing out a low-income transit pass, an idea first put on the table back in 2013 by Councillor Jennifer Watts.

In the coming weeks, city councillors are expected to see a transit fare bylaw come across their desks, which will at last make way for the pilot project.

It’s something that Matt Spurway has been waiting for. When Spurway ran in a January byelection to fill a vacant seat in Harbourview-Burnside-Dartmouth East, he campaigned on affordable transit.

“It seems transit has always been focussed on the 9-5 commuter and trying to convince them to leave the car in the driveway, and doesn’t give much consideration to the people for whom transit is their only option,” says Spurway. “The health of our citizenry, social engagement, access to employment, to training, to volunteerism — getting out and about is incredibly healthy for individuals and communities.”

According to a March 26, 2014 report to council’s Committee of the Whole, the low-income transit pilot project would give 500 HRM residents whose household income is less than $31,000 (according to their federal Notice of Assessment) a letter allowing them to buy half-price transit passes for six months.

One of the main problems with the pilot is that it excludes the poorest among us. If I am receiving income assistance in Nova Scotia and qualify for their transportation allowance (usually about $78, the price of a monthly bus pass), I won’t be able to purchase the city’s low income transit pass. The reason? Fear of jurisdictional creep.

“If HRM establishes a permanent low income transit pass program that recipients of ESIA are eligible for, the Department of Community Services would have the ability to dramatically reduce the funding they provide to residents for transit passes… This would shift the responsibility of providing a social assistance benefit from the Province to the Municipality,” states the staff report.

But maybe instead of worrying about taking on social services, the city should see this as an opportunity to grow transit ridership. And equally, Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services (DCS) should see an opportunity to get more bang for its clients’ bucks.

In January 2014, DCS allotted at least $500,000 in transportation allowances for about half of its Halifax clients. (The half that successfully jumped through the right hoops in order to get the allowance.) But what if DCS could have spent half of that funding in a bulk purchase of transit passes that could serve twice as many Halifax clients?  What if we put an end to the arduous qualifying process for access to transit, and replaced it with automatic access to transit?

We are already doing bulk purchases with universities. Almost all post-secondary students in Halifax buy their transit in bulk. And because they pay up front for eight months of transit, they get an amazing rate: about $18.75 per month, per student. At this same rate, DCS could buy all 13,000 of its clients annual bus passes, and still have roughly half of its transportation funding available for clients with other transportation needs, beyond transit.

All it would take, of course, is for two levels of elected governments and their staff to sit down and hammer out a deal.

“There’s a huge missed opportunity right now,” says Spurway. “The municipality and the provincial government should be getting together and sitting down and working something out. There’s no need to be charging someone like Terry $78 a month.”

Of course, switching bus pass funding from a cash allowance in the amount of a monthly transit pass to an actual monthly transit pass does have the undesirable side effect of robbing people of control over their personal budget. Under the current system of transportation allowances, some might choose to buy a transit pass, but others may choose to spend the money on bus tickets, gas, taxi fares, or even supplements for paltry food and shelter budgets.

Based on current figures, and if a deal similar to U-Pass could be reached with Halifax Transit, we know that DCS would be able to offer all of its HRM clients an annual pass while still supplementing their transportation allowance with additional cash. It’s just a matter of having them commit to doing so.

“I think the two [levels of government] need to sit down, at a leadership level, not at a staff level, and say this is clearly something that has to happen and surely to goodness we can come up with a system that works well for both parties,” says Matt Spurway. “If transit can actually increase revenue and ridership, and the city benefits from our citizens getting around more, being more employed, and community services benefits because their clients are that much healthier or better fed or finding employment, then maybe they both take a cut off the top of what they were hoping to spend or save and see how it works out.”

Here’s hoping our elected officials will wake up soon and smell the win-win situation.

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  1. Questions

    1. Doesn’t Scott Ferguson need a work visa or green card to work in the US
    To get one, someone would have to prove that there is no one in the US qualified to do the job – right? How can this possibly be true?

    2. Why have the fish harvesters waited until the turbines are just about to go in the water to try to stop it, should they not have acted at the beginning? There seems to be something missing in this report – WHY NOW?

    3. Bloomfield – I keep reading that the province paid 15 million dollars for this property but I have not once read to whom this money was paid – who got the 15 million ?

    Sorry for saving up all these questions, but I just could not hold them in anymore.

    1. The $15 million was never actually paid. It would’ve gone to the city. Instead, the city just gets the nonrefundable downpayment that is forfeited by the province, around $700,000, airc.

      I’ll take the other two questions as rhetorical, as I can’t answer them.

  2. This would be a good step, but it’s a piecemeal and complex solution to both ridership and poverty issues. A simpler (and bold) solution is to simply make transit free. Ideally, other solutions to poverty like increased minimum wages and a guaranteed annual income would eliminate the need to make special transit arrangements for low income folks. It’s a band-aid solution, and while band-aids have a place, we should not lose sight of long term solutions.

    1. I disagree enormously with free transit. While affordability is clearly a large issue for some riders, it is not the major reason why many people choose NOT to ride the bus. Many people with other choices don’t use transit because it is slow, infrequent and unreliable. Making the bus free will not fix these issues one bit, rather, they would likely make service poorer by removing a huge amount of funding, fares. This would have the unintended consequence of reducing quality service for those who need it most. Targeted free passes or reduced-price passes is a much better approach.

      I agree 100% with Matt Spurway that too much service and focus is placed on the 9-5 commuter, at the expense of people who need high-quality service throughout the day.

  3. Refugees were given bus passes by HRM – good decision, but assisting refugees is not the responsibility of municipalities unless a mayor is seeking a new voting bloc.
    It is shameful/disgusting that Mayor Savage has stayed silent on the miserly decision of his Liberal friends in government to take away free transit passes for social assistance recipients. Obviously the poor don’t matter to Liberals.

    1. I have to agree. I’m not anti-refugee, but it does bother me that our local poor are ignored in favour of people from halfway across the world.

      1. When the elderly, the poor,and refugees ride the bus there are many empty seats and HRM doesn’t lose a penny. Savage is no more a liberal than Donald Trump. He’s been lazy on social issues and should be defeated.

    2. “The poor are always with us.” But helping the refugees made for good press. And the lack of leadership on this issue by both levels of government…

    3. Just to provide some numbers context to the refugees versus poor Canadians transit passes discussion:
      The city has given 825 “Welcomed In Halifax” passes to refugees, which provide one year of free transit and access to rec programs.
      There are about 13,000 people getting income assistance in HRM, and about 6,000 of those have gone through the considerable application process to get a transportation allowance. And there are more like 30,000 people who will qualify as low income according to the new pilot program that has been proposed.
      So there’s a big difference in scale between these two groups.

  4. I love the idea of people on social assistance getting monthly bus passes. Mobility is often an issue. Allowances are small enough that bus tickets would often be the first expense to drop off somebody’s list. Great to have transportation access in case of an emergency.

  5. Terrific article, Erica. I support the idea of the Province & Municipality working on this together – what an amazing difference it would make to so many aspects of these folks’ lives.

  6. You say that university students buy their transit in bulk – but this is only half-true, you are required to pay for a bus pas (at least at Dalhousie). The non-riders and occasional riders (for whom the coin fare would still be less than $18.75/mo) subsidize the people who actually use it. If students had a choice about whether to buy a pass, then Metro Transit would not offer such low rates to the universities because they would know that the purchasers actually intend to ride the bus.

    I don’t mean to be critical, after all, what are most government services but mandatory use-it-or-not group purchases of services?