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Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.

Low-income transit pass: Where there's a will, there's a way

The announcement that this year's budget will include a low-income transit pass is to be welcomed, applauded – and followed up with unblinking scrutiny.

Even with details tantalizingly unavailable for now, the announcement that this year's budget will include a low-income transit pass of some sort is to be welcomed, applauded – and followed up with unblinking scrutiny.

Emma Jackson / Metro Order this photo

Even with details tantalizingly unavailable for now, the announcement that this year's budget will include a low-income transit pass of some sort is to be welcomed, applauded – and followed up with unblinking scrutiny.

Even with details tantalizingly unavailable for now, the announcement that this year's budget will include a low-income transit pass of some sort is to be welcomed, applauded – and followed up with unblinking scrutiny.

But, wow, after a year of temporizing, what a rush. Gone were the too-familiar caveats over, say, which budget would yield the money, which equivalent cut would offset it, or whether the province might pick up the tab (Mayor Jim Watson now says the city will go ahead, and offer a deeper discount should the province get onboard).

Not that the ifs and buts of the matter aren't important practical considerations, but they all too often seem to be a way of saying “We can't do this,” rather than, “How are we going to do this?” I always cringe to hear civic officials preach the gospel of living within our means to citizens with the least means. It was stirring to simply hear a commitment to just do it and then sweat the details.

We'll see what comes out the other end of the sometimes hope-grinding budget process, but since this idea failed to squeeze into the fiscal picture last year, those ifs and buts have gotten some useful scrutiny, including the estimated annual costs of various versions of the low-income pass, from a bare-bones $1.3 million to the deluxe $8.2 million.

One middling option, a 62 per cent discount for low-income riders who don't qualify for a Community Pass, would cost about $3.3 million annually – coincidentally equal to OC Transpo's projected surplus this year.

The idea's far from radical. Targeted discounts already abound on the transit system. Last month, OC Transpo, in reply to an inquiry from transit commissioner Francois Malo, broke down the annual subsidies already afforded to different categories of transit rider. None of these would be easy to argue against, and all point to one obvious omission.

The seniors' subsidy is the priciest, at $6.9 million ($4.9 million for seniors' passes, $1 million each for cheaper single-ride fares and free Wednesdays). And it's not means-tested, as the proposed low-income pass would be – if you're 65 or older, you're in.

Given the political clout of seniors – higher voter turnout, growing numbers – few politicians would dare touch this (and it's a braver columnist than yers truly who would argue that, after coughing up a whack of taxes over their six-plus decades, our elders haven't paid their dues).

The second-biggest chunk, $5.7 million, goes to ODSP recipients who buy a Community Pass. This one comes not from OC Transpo, but the Community and Social Services budget, which in turn mostly comes from the province. The city considers a low-income pass a social service, hence their argument Queen's Park should shell out.

We also give breaks to students ($3.5 million), ParaTranspo registrants ($200,000) and everybody on Canada Day ($200,000). The only glaring absence from the list of those helped aboard the bus is, well, people who simply can't afford the stiff and ever-rising fare.

Using the low-income cutoff (LICO) of around $20,000 for an individual or 38,000 for a family of four will still leave some less-than-flush riders at the curb, but it's a great start. Let's go.

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