Student bus pass issue back to council

OTTAWA CITIZEN

Committee votes to reverse age limit

By Kate Jaimet

OTTAWA — Mature students were given hope for cheaper bus passes Tuesday as city council’s transit committee unanimously passed a resolution asking council to reverse its decision to cap the age for student transit passes at 27.

However, the resolution still has to be debated by full city council next Wednesday, and it’s expected to face a rough ride from councillors unwilling to re-open the city budget.

“When it rises to council next week, it will take 18 votes out of 24 to reverse that budget decision taken last year,” Bay Councillor Alex Cullen said. “We will have to deal with, where does that extra $220,000 come from? Because we are not going to send out an extra tax bill.”

City council is under no obligation to revisit the bus-pass decision. In fact, unless Mayor Larry O’Brien rules there are relevant new facts that might have changed the outcome of the vote, it will require three-quarters of councillors to agree even to discuss the matter. (If they do, a simple majority is all it would take to change the decision.)

“I hope we get enough sense in ourselves at council to rescind,” Rideau-Rockcliffe Councillor Jacques Legendre said.

Cullen warned the students not to take such a decision for granted.

“This is eight votes,” he told them at the close of Tuesday’s debate. “I suggest you find 10 more.”

Council voted during budget discussions last December to limit student bus passes to those under age 28 as a way to save $220,000 a year.

Monthly student passes cost $65.25, compared to $84.75 for adult passes. Annual student passes cost $626.40, compared to $895 for adults.

Council made its original decision reasoning that people would normally graduate from a PhD program at age 28. That age limit was actually more generous than the original proposal before council, which would have capped eligibility for student passes at age 24.

University administrators and representatives of student groups gave the transit committee an earful Tuesday, arguing that a student was a student, no matter how old.

“We are challenging you to broaden your concept of a student,” said Doug Wotherspoon, executive director of advancement at Algonquin College, adding that many people who had lost jobs through the decline of the forest industry, the closing of the Hershey plant at Smiths Falls, and the collapse of Nortel were seeking education and retraining in mid-life.

“Most have spouses, most have children, most have mortgages,” Wotherspoon said. “That they have chosen to return to school is inspirational in itself.”

Some of the students argued the council’s original decision was based on incorrect information contained in a staff report stating that comparable Canadian cities imposed even stricter age limits on student bus passes.

OC Transpo general manager Alain Mercier stood willing to defend the report.

Comparisons can be difficult. The Toronto Transit Commission doesn’t offer a blanket discount for postsecondary students, though it has discount deals with certain institutions. Vancouver’s TransLink has a “U-Pass” program with the city’s two biggest universities and one college, which supplies discounted transit passes to all students at those schools — and collects fees from them — whether they want the passes or not. Calgary has a similar arrangement with its postsecondary schools. None of those three cities imposes age limits on those programs. Edmonton has a partial U-Pass program and also offers slightly discounted passes for postsecondary students at other schools, in both cases without an age limit.

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