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Ottawa needs a low-income transit pass: Advocates

Single mom Lisa Quesnel knows all too well how tough it can be to afford a bus pass when she's working minimum wage.

Lisa Quesnel, with her daughter Charlotte Seale, thinks Ottawa needs a low-income transit pass to help poor, working families make ends meet.

Emma Jackson/Metro

Lisa Quesnel, with her daughter Charlotte Seale, thinks Ottawa needs a low-income transit pass to help poor, working families make ends meet.

What if you can’t afford to go to work?

That’s a reality Lisa Quesnel knows all too well.

Working a minimum wage job to support her three kids, the single mom said there have been days when she couldn’t cover her $100 adult bus pass as well as the tickets it cost to take the kids to and from daycare each day.

“Sometimes when money was really tight, I wouldn’t go to work,” Quesnel said.

That’s a catch-22, of course: staying home from work meant smaller paycheques later.

Quesnel said it’s not an uncommon plight for people in her situation – but there is a solution.

She’s part of a growing push to bring a low-income transit pass to Ottawa.

To date, more than 2,400 people have signed a petition from the Healthy Transportation Coalition calling for the new discount pass, which already exists in Ontario cities like Kingston, Waterloo, Guelph and Windsor.

Of the 31,000 low-income transit users in Ottawa, about 8,800 aren’t covered by any sort of discount.

There are deals for students and seniors, a deeply-discounted community pass for people on disability or who use Para Transpo, and there’s funding available through Ontario Works for people on welfare.

It’s just the working poor who miss out, Quesnel said, and it’s holding them back.

“We want to contribute, we want to be part of society, and when you’re saying, ‘A discount on a bus pass will help me get to work every day,’ I don’t see why anyone would say, ‘We don’t want that,’” she said. “It helps the economy, it helps everyone if they have the pass.”

It’s not about getting a free ride: Quesnel said she’d like to see a pass around the $40 mark, similar to the community pass.

It’s about helping people when they’re down and out, she said.

“You’re working minimum wage and you’re trying to support your family, but you’re struggling to make ends meet,” said Quesnel. “Anybody can lose their job and have to start over again.”

She's been there, too.

Quesnel had been working the same minimum wage job for years. But when her boss died suddenly last year, she was left out of a job. Without any record of employment, she couldn’t easily apply for employment insurance.

Having to make “a fast decision” to keep her family afloat, she went on Ontario Works instead.

She now qualifies for transit discounts through the provincial social assistance program - just when she doesn't need to take the bus to work. But, if she went back to the workforce full time, that would disappear without a low-income transit pass in place.

The transit commission will decide in June whether Ottawa will indeed create such a pass, and what it will look like. That’s also when the commission will usher in sweeping changes to the transit network’s entire fare structure, in anticipation of light rail opening in 2018.

Right now, OC Transpo’s discount passes cost between 20 to 60 per cent less than the regular adult pass cost of $103.25 a month. That amounts to about $24.2 million in customer savings each year, according to a staff report coming to the commission Monday morning.

The city covers about $16.3 million of that, with 65 per cent from the transit operating budget and the remaining 35 per cent covered by the city’s community services department.

Extending a discount to low-income working adults would add another $1.3 million to $3.3 million to that, depending on the depth of the discount, staff found.

The extra funds could come from taxpayers or higher fares.

Most commissioners have already voiced support in theory for the pass, including chairman Coun. Stephen Blais.

Trevor Haché, spokesperson for the Healthy Transportation Coalition, said he’s heartened by the support around the commission table. But, he’s pushing hard to make sure dollars and cents don’t get in the way.

“There’s a tremendous amount of support in Canada for what is commonly referred to as progressive taxation,” Haché said.  

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