Regina’s underwhelming bus system gets more expensive

by Bryn Hadubiak


city-tagAs we all know by now, taking the bus in Regina will become more expensive following city council’s unanimous Sept. 22 vote to hike fares.

Fares — currently $2.50 for adults — will rise 25 cents each January for the next three years, to$3.25 by 2017. Monthly and annual passes are in the city’s sights, too: post-secondary passes will jump by $25 ($78 per month) and adult passes will raise $30, to a total of $92 per month. Seniors will see their annual passes zoom on up by an extra $100 over the three years to a whopping total of around $300.

The last time rates went up was in 2010.

The city is adamant this increase isn’t for improving transit but to maintain service as it stands now. Operating costs are up by 13.7 per cent, says city administration, and the costs of fuel and fleet maintenance aren’t going down.

Their goal is to reach a 45 per cent cost recovery ratio, as opposed to the current 37 per cent, and the rate hike is expected to offset the change a little. Fares, however, aren’t reinvested directly into transit — they’re lumped into the city’s general revenue funds.

All this leaves some residents, students and one vocal city councillor questioning whether riders are getting their money’s worth, and how the service could be improved.

That councillor? Ward 3’s Shawn Fraser, fresh off his latest Transit Week Challenge, where he used only the bus (and, presumably, his feet) to get around the city for a week.

Before council voted, Fraser took a few moments to point out some of the benefits and “holes” he found while riding in the system to city council. Of the positive elements, he noted the express routes and the TransitLive system which allows riders to track buses in real time using a phone app.

Problems? Fraser listed the current frequency of buses (terrible), overcrowded buses passing over people (especially on three routes — #2, #4 and #21 — according to his website), a lack of service to some of the new neighbourhoods and a lack of service on some stat holidays.

Nonetheless, Fraser voted in favour of the fare increases, which will generate around an extra $1.5 million next year, stressing them as a needed step towards the transit system’s improvement.

My sense is that it’s the state of our system that’s holding a lot of people back versus the cost of our system,” Fraser says. “So, ultimately, we need to invest in our system, partly through fare increases, partly through council stepping up to put general funds back into the system. Everyone benefits from that. It’s not just about attracting new riders, but offering more consistent and better service for those people already riding the bus.”

Ridership increased by 12 per cent from 2012 to 2013. This year is on track for a nine per cent increase, with an estimated 6.6 million rides given in total.

Fraser also told council running Sunday service on the buses during stat holidays would only cost around $22,000 per day.

The problem, though, is raising fares doesn’t come without cost to those most vulnerable to the higher price, he adds.

We have to keep in mind that for a lot of people who ride transit it’s their only option, and a lot of people are on a fixed income, so we shouldn’t take it lightly,” says Fraser. “A few dollars for some people is different than a few dollars for other people.”

David Vanderberg, with the Regina Green Ride Transit Network, and URSU president Devon Peters say they aren’t convinced the system’s level of service reflects the price point the city proposed.

We’re in favour of [the fare increases] in the sense it shows the city wants to put some money into transit,” says Vanderberg. “The question is: where should that money be coming from? Should it be coming from the riders, or should the city be subsidizing more by offering more service?”

Raising fees isn’t enough to cover cost recovery; people need to be using the bus, and for that to happen, the bus needs to be something people want to ride, Vanderberg says. And fare revenue shouldn’t be going into general revenue, but instead be reinvested into the system, he argues.

The city has to be accountable in showing all of this money that’s being generated in this increase in fares has to go back into transit,” he says.

As a way to increase ridership, Vanderberg and Peters proposed the city to provide a U-Pass, a special discounted pass for University of Regina students that allows unlimited travel during a semester, to be a part of tuition costs. The addition, however, can’t be made without a referendum of University of Regina students first. In the last referendum in 2009, students voted ‘no’ to the U-Pass, unlike the University of Saskatchewan, which voted ‘yes’ to a one-year trial in 2013, and ‘yes’ to making it permanent this year.

The U-Pass will be going up for vote again at the U of R in March 2015, and if passed, says Vanderberg, won’t be mandatory for all students — they can opt out if their circumstances negate the need for one, such as living outside the city’s limits, or living on campus.

The city also voted to add six new, low-floor buses to replace aging ones in the fleet, but Regina resident and transit activist John Klein argues ordering only six isn’t enough. If people are being abandoned at stops because of overcrowding, especially when they’re forced to wait an extra half-hour to an hour in below minus-10 C temperatures, then more buses are needed, and the number ordered ought to be doubled, he argued before council.

We’re going to have to make this investment, regardless of the politics around it all, because it’s how people are going to have to travel in a more expensive gasoline environment,” says Klein.

Debate over transit funding is expected to continue this fall with the city’s 2015 budget discussions.