Transit cuts the 'last thing we need' OC Transpo boss says

The head of OC Transpo says it is too soon to start talking of route cuts, layoffs, or fare hikes, even as the public transit system continues to experience low ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking to reporters following Wednesday's transit commission meeting, Transportation Services General Manager John Manconi said discussions of cuts or fare hikes is 'premature.'

"We're still in a pandemic," he said. "The thought of scaling back right now is too premature. The last thing the community needs is changes and a step down in a very essential service that has proven itself in a pandemic."

Ridership levels dropped by up to 90 per cent on some routes as COVID-19 lockdowns in the spring kept people at home. In a presentation to transit commission, staff said ridership had climbed to about one-third of the normal level in August.

Despite getting some funding from higher levels of government, the transit system remains in the red, with a forecast deficit of nearly $60 million by the end of 2020, according to documents prepared for the transit commission.

Manconi said OC Transpo has applied to the Ontario government for additional funding and he is confident Ottawa will get it.

"All indications are that we would get it because we meet the requirements," he said. "Thanks to both the provincial and federal funding, we will make up about 90 to 92 per cent of the shortfall up to the end of September. Then, we're going to be looking for future funding to get us into the end of this pandemic and into next year."

Fares on OC Transpo were frozen at the start of 2020 as part of the budget, due to ongoing issues with the Confederation Line LRT, but the freeze was extended indefinitely in February. Manconi said he's not at the point where discussing the next fare increase is on the table, but he suggested it won't be a large one to make up for lost revenue.

"I think it's a bit premature to do the what-ifs on the fare piece without the context of the budget," Manconi said. "We're going to look at everything we can, to continue to do what we've always done, which is incremental, consistent fare increases. There's no appetite for large fare increases."

Transit Commission Chair Coun. Allan Hubley said OC Transpo's financial situation are part of the budget discussions this fall.

"We're going to work with the province and the federal government and take every step we can to continue to provide the best service possible for our ridership," he said.

"The governments at all levels have demonstrated that they understand the vitality and continuous need of transit is so essential to communities to continue to thrive and get through the pandemic," Manconi said. "Rather than talking about cuts, I think it's a rallying point about how important transit is. It's a very critical service that people understand is important in good times and in challenging times."