By Jonathan Spicer
Toronto student leaders pushing for transit discounts think Mike Harris’ $3-billion bailout last week may have finally given them a chance.
Mike Harris may have nudged post-secondary students one step closer to getting a break on public transit. The Premier announced last week that the province will commit $3 billion over 10 years toward bus and rail systems, including the Toronto Transit Commission.
The announcement comes on the heels of a push by Ryerson and other Toronto colleges and universities to get students a break on public transportation. “That certainly improves the prospect of securing a public transportation discount pass for students,” said Andrew Noble, RyeSAC’s student issues and advocacy coordinator. “If funding comes through,” Noble said, “students can expect an affordable transit that’s working and takes the TTC out of the tight financial situation that’s an impediment to discount passes.”
But the province has a history of making funding promises that don’t materialize, Noble added. “I’ll take it as a positive, but don’t pop the champagne yet,” he said.
Noble will be meeting with representatives from the other area schools later this month to discuss the possibility of a TTC student discount.
The province reclaimed GO Transit from the Greater Toronto Services Board last week, freeing up another $50 million for the city. Combine that with the new provincial funding and the promised city funding and the TTC could raise $3.6 billion over the next decade. That changes the student discount meeting’s dynamic, Noble said. “We’ve got to move quickly to put pressure on the federal government to match provincial funding, whereas before, the challenge was influencing the provincial government,” Noble said, referring to Harris’ call for a matching $3 billion from the federal government.
“Instead of (seeking) a general response, the exercise now is for encouragement to the province and pressure to the federal government,” Noble said. He said students could start a letter writing campaign aimed at downtown MPs like Bill Graham (Toronto Centre-Rosedale). Harris’ new funding is an about face from 1998 when the province downloaded the responsibility for public transit to the municipalities. At the time, the TTC became the only major transit system in North America with no form of support from the upper levels of government.
Toronto’s next municipal election may offer another avenue to work for a student discount, suggested Noble. In 1997, former Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall promised a $60 monthly student Metropass if she was elected mega-city mayor.
Student lobbying for a transit discount has been going on for nearly 15 years in Toronto. One of the most recent attempts – in 1995 – was shot down when the newly elected Mike Harris government slashed funding to the TTC by $6.5 million, resulting in increased fares.
“The possibility of (discounted) TTC passes has been around for eight years, and it really hasn’t gotten anywhere,” Paul Cheevers, then RyeSAC president said in 1995.
In Montreal, where there is no student transit rate, both mayoral candidates for the upcoming Nov.4 election have promised to create one, said Danielle Lanteigne, vice-president of communication and government affairs at McGill University. Montreal monthly transit pass is currently $47 for adults. “We’re going to attempt to inform students of the discounts and how to vote,” Lanteigne said. “After the election, we will be applying pressure for implementation.”
The federal government has not yet committed to kick in the $3 billion for public transport that Harris requested. But, if they decide to contribute, the TTC could pursue its priority of subway expansions. “Certainly we could start looking at pushing the Spadina line up past York University and the new Sheppard line out towards the Scarborough City Centre,” Rick Ducharme, TTC chief general manager said last week.
Joel Duff, Ontario chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, applauds the initiative by Toronto universities and colleges. “The political climate is right,” he said. “Getting the subway to run right up to York University would be a great benefit.” Duff also said transportation costs should be factored into the cost of education and not just an expense on top. An adult monthly Metropass is $93.50.
“It’s really important for different schools to be coming together (for the discount),” Duff said. “W’e’re trying to bring in area colleges as well because they can all benefit. This issue has widespread support and it’s just a matter of getting it going.”
Duff points to the success at the University of Victoria in gaining a public transit discount. “It’s reduced the amount of on-campus parking (in Victoria),”he said, adding that Ryerson and U of T don’t have a lof of parking space to work with. Students at UVic are charged $47 as part of tuition fees and can use their student card as a universal bus pass – the “U-Pass” – for the semester. The proposal was passed by student referendum in 1998 with 87% support. “We’ve seen huge use of the U-Pass,” said Sarah Webb, director of academics for the University of Victoria Students’ Society.
“If you ride the bus, you benefit from affordable transportation. And if you drive, you still benefit with less parking congestion and cheaper parking fees.” Webb said UVic’s yearly parking fee of $150 is the cheapest of B.C.’s universities.
Since the U-Pass, students from both UVic and Camosun College make up 25% of all city bus riders in Victoria and the university has seen an 18% decrease in cars on campus, Webb said. “The reason (the pass) works in Victoria is because the transit system here is really underused,” Webb said.
Marne Jensen, of the University of Victoria Student’s Society, said campus livability issues, such as the amount of green space available, attracted much of the student support. “It reduced traffic and parking,” she said, “and we had to pave less of the campus.”
In Toronto, the public transit meeting for all universities is scheduled for October 22 at Oakham House. It begins at 9 a.m. and there is an admission fee of $11 per person for lunch and coffee breaks.
The meeting will be honest by former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall. Four speakers will be present: TTC Commissioner and Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevc, Gord Perks, a member of the TTC transit user group, James Mars, the director of Ryerson’s school of urban and regional planning and Ryerson professor Mike Ronson, a TTC transportation planner.