A transit system travesty

The Advocate article on Tuesday said Red Deer is the largest city in Alberta that has no program for a lower-cost transit pass for low-income and disabled people. While that is true as far as it goes, the reality behind this is actually worse.

The Advocate article on Tuesday said Red Deer is the largest city in Alberta that has no program for a lower-cost transit pass for low-income and disabled people. While that is true as far as it goes, the reality behind this is actually worse.

Red Deer doesn’t have a subsidy program for the people who must stretch pretty hard to afford the cost of a bus pass, but who must rely on public transit the most for their mobility in the city. But Red Deer’s transit system does get a five-figure subsidy, courtesy of some rather ceaseless fundraising by a local non-profit.

The day before the Advocate story appeared, Red Deer Action Group donated just under 2,000 regular single-use bus passes and about 485 student/senior bus passes to Red Deer agencies that serve people in crisis.

The money for that was raised through their inaugural Donate-A-Ride campaign, which began in May.

Fundraising for next year begins again in November.

But that’s not the only program for which the Action Group raises money. For three years now, the agency has been providing cash refunds to low-income and disabled people who rely on monthly passes to be able to move through the city.

Anywhere between $7,000 and $10,000 a year is raised, says Action Group director Jean Stinson. People bring in receipts and those whose incomes are below $24,000 a year (that’s a lot of people in Red Deer), can get a partial refund on their bus passes, up to $150 per person per year.

Stinson says the money goes pretty quickly, but they try to help as many people as they can. The poor, the elderly, people on disability, the sick (some people even use subsidized bus passes to get dialysis treatment, she says) and new immigrants can use the program.

Stinson agrees that it does not make sense for the city to simply reduce fares below the $2.50 regular ticket that now stands.

Looking at the experience in Edmonton, from which Stinson copied the Donate-A-Ride program, transit needs to earn its way in order to survive and grow as a vital city service.

But even at $2.50 for a one-way pass, some people who need the service are excluded. And these are people who have few if any other options. It’s $5 for a round trip or you don’t see the doctor, or don’t arrive for therapy, skills training — or any of the multiple reasons people need to get from Point A to Point B and back again.

So rather than break the bank — and probably harm the service — by keeping fares low, other cities have found that a tax-subsidized program for passes for the lowest income groups works better.

Those of us who can pay, do. And those for whom even a regular bus ticket presents a financial barrier, a subsidy program can increase ridership on our transit system as whole.

The very fact that volunteers need to spend long hours organizing and fundraising for this service is proof enough that the program is needed and the subsidies are appreciated.

But something as basic as transportation in the city should not be the purview of non-profits.

Think of it this way: how many hours are you willing to put in, writing grant applications, attending meetings, writing policy, and generally begging for money, month after month, year after year — to fix potholes on our streets?

You wouldn’t do it. Properly-maintained streets are a basic service you expect for your tax dollars.

The elderly who can’t drive, people on disability, people in crisis fleeing family trouble, people too sick to work — they still need to move through the city, and nobody asks them if they’d want the potholes fixed rather than get a monthly bus pass they can afford.

As it is, Red Deer taxpayers are being subsidized by volunteers who have to work pretty hard to raise money for a basic, vital service for seniors on fixed incomes, people living on a disability allowance and people in crisis who have no income at all. Shame on us. Other Alberta cities smaller than ours have managed to write policies that work to figure this out. The program in Edmonton, for instance, can be applied here almost cut-and-paste.

Stinson says she’s been told for years, by elected city officials and professional managers, that “we are looking into it.” What’s to look?

She and the Action Group are doing the city’s work for it, for free. Shame.

The city needs to step up here. Either take over the subsidy program or give the volunteers the money so they can do the job for them.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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