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Slow ride: The wait for affordable bus passes is almost over

Regional Council proposed offering low income residents an affordable bus pass in 2014. So what's taking so long?

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Photo by Kim Hart Macneill

Photo by Kim Hart Macneill

Bylaw U-100 unanimously passed its second reading today, meaning Halifax will soon start the low income transit pass pilot project first proposed in 2013.

A 2014 staff report described a six-month pilot program offering 500 passes available for $39 each, which is in line with similar programs in other cities. Participants would be HRM residents who don’t receive transportation funds from the Department of Community Services (DCS), and have an annual household income below $31,000.

To put that in perspective, in 2013, 34,000 Halifax residents fell under Statistics Canada’s low income cut-off measure, which is $30,871 after tax for a family of four.

That same year, 13,000 HRM residents received Employment Support and Income Assistance from DCS. About 7,500 received some transit funding. Of those, 6,320 received exactly $78.

Regional Council supported the pilot proposal in theory, but couldn’t introduce a new fare price without a bylaw setting the rate. Enacting a new bylaw is easier said than done.

After amalgamation, HRM’s bylaws combined those of all the former regions. Some outright disagreed with each other. Untangling this bylaw cacophony started in 2015, and is ongoing.

In December, then-director of Halifax Transit, Eddie Robar, said the bylaw should arrive in time for the April release of the 2016/17 municipal budget. It didn’t. The low income transit pass last made news when I wrote about it for The Coast in January. I interviewed Terry Wilson, a 62-year-old Albro Lake Road resident who didn’t know where his next bus pass was coming from.

After rent, power and phone bills, Wilson has about $130 left for food, transportation, and other necessities. He’s too young for a senior’s pass, and thanks to two deteriorating disks in his back he’s unable to leave his home without a cane and a ride.

Matt Spurway introduced me to Wilson. At the time, Spurway was running in a by-election for the Harbourview-Burnside-Dartmouth East seat, which Tony Mancini won. Shortly after The Coast article, a reader phoned Spurway to offer Wilson a February bus pass.

In April, she phoned Spurway to check in on Wilson. The pair wished there was more they could do. “There was,” Spurway says. “We could buy him bus passes.”

Spurway started a GoFundMe campaign to buy Wilson bus passes for the rest of 2016. Within 24 hours, it collected enough donations to buy 12 bus passes.

“I think it shows that people understand very easily that transportation isn’t a luxury–it’s a necessity for everybody,” Spurway says. “It also speaks to the fact that there is a growing frustration with multiple levels of government who don’t reflect that same understanding in their policies.”

The pilot project will begin accepting applications for the 500 passes in four weeks time, and the first passes are slated to be available September 1.

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