Updated March 1, 2011 at 7:00 pm:
To no great surprise, the TTC Board today endorsed the staff proposal to do away with Post-Secondary Student Passes for part time students. This was done after a few hours of well presented, cogent deputations from a variety of speakers who, for their troubles, were greeted with a Blackberry wielding board who spent little of their time paying attention. In one case, a presenter was finishes, but Chair Karen Stintz was so busy with her email that she didn’t notice for some time.
The common thread through the deps was that the concept of “part time student” is not consistently defined either between institutions or even programs within the same university or college. About 20% of students today are “part timers” mainly for economic reasons (they cannot afford to pay the fees for a full time program in one go) or because the program they are in is defined as “part time” (regardless of its actual course load). This cohort of students is growing, and they are also penalized by being ineligible for various loans and grants offered to “full time” students.
Yet another group not covered by the policy are those who are in “certificate” programs which may have just as heavy a course load, but don’t lead to a degree.
As one speaker put it, “students are students”, but the convoluted definitions and practices lead to artificial distinctions between them.
At the end of the deputations, Commissioner Palacio put forward a motion in the best tradition of appearing to be supportive while doing precisely nothing. He wanted the Commission to reiterate that part time students have access to the “VIP Pass” discount program, and wanted the staff to write to university and college administrators urging that they extend their current VIP Pass program for staff to the part time students.
This proposal, which passed, of course, insulted the speakers who know perfectly well that a VIP Pass (which costs about $10 more than a student pass) was available, provided that their institution actually was part of the VIP program. The problem is that this is not universal, and depends on an institution (or a group like a student union) setting itself up as a VIP Pass vendor.
Finally, Chair Stintz thanked everyone for “making their voices heard”. “Heard” is not the word I would use, as “listen” was certainly not what much of the Commission was doing most of the time. If she had really “heard”, she would have acknowledged that there is a problem with definitions, not to mention the larger issue of other groups who make claims for discounted fares, and sent the whole issue off for a detailed report. This change won’t have much effect until fall 2011, and there was no need for a definitive decision today.
But no, that’s not what happened. Mayor Ford’s minions were in and out of the meeting to ensure that the vote went the right way, and the students didn’t have a chance.
[The original article from February 28 follows the break below.]
The ongoing debate over fare policy will take another spin at the TTC Board meeting on March 1, 2011, with a proposal to discontinue Student Metropass availability for part time post-secondary students.
The linked report contains a history of the student pass issue. There are various classes of students involved:
- Students at degree or diploma granting institutions (typically universities and community colleges)
- Students at private career colleges
- Full time students (defined as those with 3.0 credits or 20 hours/week of instruction)
- Part time students
Originally, in July 2010, students from private career colleges were not included. When this was changed in December 2010, eligibility was extended to the private colleges, but only for full time students. Also in December, the Commission asked for a report on part time students, and the current proposal is the result.
TTC staff estimate that the post-secondary passes are costing the system $7.7-million per year for a ridership gain of roughly 500k. Of this, $1.4m and 100k rides are due to the part time students. Nearly 85% of students at this level are TTC users, and of these, almost 2/3 were already Metropass users before the new pass was introduced.
The report contains no estimate of the number of trips actually taken by each group, only the difference induced by the availability of a cheaper pass. Therefore, it is impossible to know how much subsidy per trip the post-secondary pass confers.
However, we do know that a post-secondary pass is $22 cheaper than a Metropass. Presuming that students are frequent TTC riders averaging at least 60 rides per month, then the added subsidy per ride is below $0.40. How does this compare with subsidies to other classes of rider? Nobody knows because we never have a wide-ranging debate about fare policy.
The proposed removal of subsidy for part time students is expected to provoke a string of deputations at the meeting, and much hand-wringing. I am not particularly sympathetic to this cause, however, because like so much fare policy, the post-secondary pass decision takes place in a vacuum.
There are two issues here.
First, there are other deserving people who can make a claim for cheaper transit fares, notably various low-income groups dependent on public subsidy programs. They are not as well organized as the students. They do not fill Council Chamber to establish a presence at meetings, and probably could not afford to be there either due to work commitments or the cost of a round trip to attend a meeting where they are ignored.
Second, recent budget debates included passionate calls for the retention of off-hours service, and the general argument that preservation of service is more vital than fares. Any decision to retain, expand, or reduce the post-secondary pass eligibility will be directly link to discussions about service.
It’s no secret that 2012 will be a brutal year for the budget at the City and its agencies, including the TTC. We will hear a lot about service quality and fares, but if 2011 is any indication, these will be hostage to two entirely political arguments:
- the “no new taxes” crowd will call for yet another fare freeze in the hope that this will force “efficiencies” on the TTC, and
- service will be ruthlessly evaluated to find “poor performing routes” where service, sadly, must be cut “for the greater good”.
Will we discuss what TTC fares should be, including subsidies and eligibility? Will we discuss the effect of service standards, and what changing them will do to the transit network? Unlikely in both cases. Politicians hate complex technical papers, especially when at the end of the day they must choose among unpalatable alternatives. Better that the staff cook up a recommendation, flawed though it might be.
As we move into an era of fare integration with GTA systems and new farecard technologies, we must face more complex problems such as the relevance of fare by distance or by time, and the true integration of fares (not just service) among GTA systems. Will we preserve big subsidies to long distance commuters, a comparatively affluent class, while denying subsidies to those less able to pay? What, indeed, do we mean by “less able”?
I have some sympathy for the part-time students who won access to the post-secondary pass only to see it snatched away less than a year later. However, we must have this debate in the larger context of TTC funding generally and fare policies for low-income groups.
The rush to approve a 2011 budget at Council was based, we are told, on a desire to have as much time as possible to work on 2012. Rather than more ad hoc tinkering with the fare structure, now is the time to review and debate fare and service options in general. Toronto does not need another round of last-minute announcements, nor the shrill “we must do it now” tenor of what passed for “debate” only weeks ago.