Transit Commission greenlights $39 million hole in budget

Commuters walk down the platform at Rideau Station in Ottawa on January 10, 2023.  The city's transit commission has set a ridership target of 70 percent from pre-pandemic levels.  (Matthew Kupfer/CBC - photo credit)

Commuters walk down the platform at Rideau Station in Ottawa on January 10, 2023. The city’s transit commission has set a ridership target of 70 percent from pre-pandemic levels. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC – photo credit)

Ottawa’s proposed $706 million transit budget anticipates $47 million in savings and deferred spending and includes a $39 million hole that the city hopes another tier of government will fill.

“I still have significant concerns that the 2023 budget is projecting a deficit that city officials have not been able to fully explain how we will cover,” River Coun said. Riley Brockington, who voted against it at the end of an 8.5-hour Transit Commission meeting on Thursday.

The number of transit drivers has been hit hard by the pandemic, and in recent years the province has made up the difference.

The Ontario Ford government gave Ottawa a $65 million grant last year did not cover the city’s transit deficit. The city had to use up its transit reserve fund, which is currently in the red at $2.5 million.

Last year, transit workers based their 2022 budget on ridership returning to 82 percent of pre-pandemic levels — a level few thought realistic.

In fact, the average number of passengers last year was only 52 percent.

This year, Ottawa — like most Ontario communities — is counting on aid to prop up its transit budget. The city has set a ridership expectation of 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, which seems more reasonable given that ridership exceeded 60 percent in three of the last four months of 2022.

In September and November, Statistics Canada’s average urban transit ridership was over 70 percent.

Passenger numbers in transit and COVID

Ottawa’s transit budget is facing pressures including a fare freeze, higher fuel costs and $16 million related to the launch of the Trillium rail line, which is expected in early September.

OC Transpo proposes saving $4.4 million by retiring 117 older buses that managers say are no longer in use and expensive to maintain.

City of Ottawa

City of Ottawa

OC Transpo is also reducing the amount it is setting aside for its capital reserve fund by $42.6 million. It said it will save money to prepare for things like preparation for the western extension of the LRT and reduce bus detour expenses for the LRT construction due to lower passenger numbers.

The city didn’t specify how much money would be saved for each individual item.

Capital Shawn Menard disagreed with the $42.6 million reduction in capital contributions but voted on the remainder of the transit budget.

You want to improve the service

More than 20 public delegations spoke to a transit service they could not rely on, with buses that were late or never showed up. Many spoke of being late for work or school and sometimes having to take a taxi or having to travel by taxi which they could not afford.

The transit commission heard on Thursday that there can be 400 bus cancellations on a bad day.

Despite the tight budget, Renée Amilcar, General Manager of OC Transpo, was optimistic that the service would become more reliable in 2023. The Transit Department continues to hire new drivers, and getting rid of these older buses means maintenance staff will pay more attention to newer ones.

OC Transpo will hire 112 new full-time employees, some of whom will work on the 13-stop North-South Trillium Line.

The budget does not envisage any cuts in services, but it also does not envisage any expansion of the routes. A major restructuring of the route is to take place before the end of this year.

An approved motion submitted by Brockington would allow children up to 12 years of age to ride for free from the current age of eight, although the city council must work with employees to raise $87,000.

The transit budget has yet to be approved by the full council at its meeting scheduled for March 1st.


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