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'Something has to give': Winnipeg finance committee eyeing transit fare hikes

Transit ridership is down – along with provincial funding – according to finance committee chairperson Scott Gillingham.

Transit buses in Winnipeg Manitoba, June 8, 2017.


Transit buses in Winnipeg Manitoba, June 8, 2017.

For better or worse, Winnipeg's public transportation is going to change next year.

It could be that the transit department cuts service to fill a $10.6-million funding gap—attributed to a change in provincial funding.

Or, as the city’s finance committee contemplated Thursday, the city could hike fares to help close the deficit, and potentially improve service.

The latter outcome seemed to be the better option for finance chairperson Coun. Scott Gillingham.

“Ultimately, transit is a customer service industry,” Gillingham said after the meeting. “For this 2018 budget, given the changes in the provincial funding, given that ridership is down, something has to give.

“Discussions need to happen around fare increases… and discussions need to happen around driving more efficient service.”

Committee member Coun. Janice Lukes also spoke favourably of raising fares to improve service, but called that move a “catch-22,” since a fare hike could mean some people can’t afford to take the bus.

She said the city should “really be focusing even more on our prioritization of transit funding,” or some combination of “prioritizing differently and (adding) an increase to fares.”

Gillingham noted the city has invested in transit in various ways in recent years, through continued investments in rapid transit corridors, a transit garage replacement, and a new automated fare collection system, but he questioned whether those investments addressed issues transit officials raised at Thursdays meeting.

A combination of overcrowded buses – that either pass by passengers or fill to standing room only – and “reliability issues” continue to dog the system, Gillingham said.

“Overall, what I believe they need to do is come up with a plan to address ridership—declining ridership—and the funding challenges that they’ll have,” he said, adding discussions “need to take place about fare increases.”

Peggo issues

Transit officials told the city’s finance committee Thursday that the city is still holding onto roughly $2.5 million in “milestone payments” to Garival Inc., the company responsible for implementing the faulty Peggo automated fare collection system.

They explained the contractor has yet to deploy paper “visitor” cards, and, more importantly, has failed to operate the system “with acceptable levels of stability and performance.”

Winnipeg Transit customers continually experience payment failures due to system stability issues.

Two major failures occurred over the summer, on July 11 and again on Aug. 19, when the system’s capacity to load products onto cards from online purchases was overloaded.

An administrative report explains Garival returned the system to operation, but in doing so, “caused a problem with some of the data that is responsible for transferring online product purchases to customers' cards.”

Winnipeg Transit undertook case-by-case resolution for those customers.

Finance chairperson Coun. Scott Gillingham asked senior transit officials to quantify “what this is costing transit to deal with these ongoing issues,” from an administrative end, as well as “on lost fares,” as operators often allow commuters to board buses despite Peggo card failures.

Depending on their response, Gillingham said the city may want to look at holding onto the milestone payments indefinitely.

"The deadlines have been missed many times, and now it comes to the point where we look for measure of compensation on behalf of the taxpayers, because those deadlines and those achievements haven't been reached," he said.

It’s expected transit should be able to put a number to that question by the next project update in three months.

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