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Delayed report on free bus passes for low-income residents irks advocates
February 2, 2016
WATERLOO REGION — Anti-poverty advocates are wondering why it's taking the Region of Waterloo so long to report back on offering free bus passes to low-income residents.
A delegation from the Alliance Against Poverty spoke again to the community services committee on Tuesday, urging action to help those who can't afford public transit but rely on it.
The issue was raised by a delegation to the committee in April 2015, and staff said they would study the feasibility. Initially, the report was expected to be brought back to council in May or June 2015. Now staff is saying it will come back late summer or early fall.
"I'm a little disappointed it's moving so slowly," Oscar Cole-Arnal told the regional committee. "I think poor people can't wait."
Committee chair Coun. Geoff Lorentz asked Cole-Arnal to be patient while staff looked closely at all the implications.
"It's not something that we want to rush," Lorentz said. "We want to make sure we cover all the bases."
Douglas Bartholomew-Saunders, commissioner of social services, said in an interview it's much more complicated than he first anticipated.
Some of the region's programs that offer free or subsidized passes or tickets are mandatory and others are discretionary, and it wants to avoid any unintended consequences for people on federal or provincial benefits.
The money a person gets monthly could be reduced if a free pass is viewed as additional income or funds for a transit pass are specifically included in a stipend.
"Are we in fact disadvantaging them by providing a free bus pass," Bartholomew-Saunders asked.
Cole-Arnal is frustrated by the delay and said in an interview that the region is full steam ahead for light rail transit, regardless of the cost. It's all about priorities.
"Our priority is people on the margins," he said.
"It's study after study after study, and nothing gets done," said Brayden McNeill, spokesperson for the Alliance Against Poverty.
The group would like to see at a minimum free bus passes for those on welfare and disability benefits. Ideally, the region would give them to all people below poverty line, including Canadian pension and employment insurance recipients.
The region provides an average of 2,130 bus passes and 9,160 bus tickets monthly to the working poor or social assistance recipients through a number of programs.
Discounted bus passes are available to low-income residents, but there is currently a waiting list of more than 475 people. Free bus passes or tickets are also available to people receiving social assistance who are attending employment programs, upgrading their education or going to meet with caseworkers. Social service agencies can also buy tickets at a reduced rate for participants.
The budget for this year is just over $1.5 million.
Martin Suter, who spoke to the committee last spring, said he doesn't understand why there would be a waiting list for subsidized passes since the region is already paying to put the buses on the streets.
"It's not really a cost," Suter said. "If you're not taking the bus, you're not giving them any revenue anyway."
Suter depends on the food bank and soup kitchen to get by on his meager income, and the only way he can get there is on the bus.
He's frustrated to see empty buses roll past his house when he knows many people can't afford to ride them, and for him it is a big cost.
"Most people in my income level aren't even taking the bus."