Anne Roberts: Vancouver needs U-Pass for the working class

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      For the past few decades, some people have been given a free ride in Vancouver: the real estate developers and speculators. They’ve been making billions while working people are seeing our rent go up faster than wages.

      It’s time to end the free ride for the rich, and give a break to working people. That means a Rent Freeze, but it also means making transportation more affordable. That’s why COPE has a “U-Pass for the working class” plan.

      There are three parts to the program. First, free transit for kids aged 18 and under. There are 86,000 kids in Vancouver between the ages of 5 and 18, and 17,000 of them live in low-income families. Their families are already struggling to pay rent. Why would we make them pay for a 5-year-old child to take the bus?

      Second, we’ll extend the low-income seniors B.C. Bus Pass program to all low-income people. There’s no logical reason why a 65-year-old person with low income gets basically free transit, but a 64-year-old with low income has to pay $174/month for a three-zone pass.

      There are 80,000 people in this city who live in low-income households who could benefit from a transit pass. Calgary has a cheap bus pass for low-income people. If Calgary can do it, so can Vancouver.

      Third, we’ll extend the universal bus pass that we have at colleges and universities, which costs  $41/month, to all working-class people with low to median income—that’s people earning between about $25,000 to $65,000 per year, depending on family size. There are 186,000 adults who would be eligible for this U-Pass for the working class.

      It doesn’t cost much to reduce fares. We’ve done the math to make sure we can pay for what we propose. Free fares for kids would cost $10.5 million, low-income passes $29 million, and middle-income passes, between $20 to $40 million. The total cost for these U-Passes for most needy in our city will be well under $80 million.

      Of course, TransLink cannot absorb those costs. Our plan is to use the funds obtained by the recently announced increases in carbon tax. Just the increase in Vancouver’s portion of the carbon tax would pay for it.

      By eliminating and reducing fares, more people will take transit. Immediately, there will be 20,000 new transit commuters, and 40,000 in the long run. To meet this demand will require more buses and transit infrastructure. Those buses plus more drivers and other operational costs would be under $50 million per year in the short term, and under $100 million per year in the long term.

      We need more buses across Vancouver and the region. This means that we have to work with the provincial government and Translink to put more and more of the carbon tax revenues toward buying more buses.

      The province said in its budget this year that “revenues generated from carbon tax increases will be focused on three broad areas: carbon tax relief for low- and moderate-income British Columbians, support for emissions intense industry to transition to a low-carbon economy, and new green initiatives to grow innovation and investment”.

      We think that reducing fares and increasing transit ridership dramatically meets all three of these goals.

      Let’s move the conversation about the carbon tax forward. The B.C. NDP argued in 2013 that the carbon tax should go toward transit. They criticized the B.C. Liberals’ Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark for not doing so. Last year the TransLink Mayors' Council argued that carbon tax revenues should help with transit expansion. We agree. Now let’s make it happen.

      COPE believes the U-Pass for the working class will be a very popular use of carbon tax revenues. To date, carbon tax revenues are given away as tax credits to corporations, or disappear into general revenues. Do “low- and moderate-income British Columbians” feel like they’re benefiting from the carbon tax? Do they even know what it’s being used for? People may show more support for the carbon tax if it’s helping them save money on buses, getting more buses, especially electric buses, and letting them leave their cars behind.

      This program will not be free, but there is no better way to spend carbon tax revenues: If we want to fight climate change and reduce harmful air pollution in our city, we need to get people out of their cars and get on transit. We’ve all heard the phrase: you can’t build your way out of congestion. But you can provide enough affordable and attractive transit to take 40,000 cars off the road.

      With the U-Pass for the working class, no one will be left on the curb.