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Council approves free transit for youth and seniors on an 8-7 vote

Free transit for youth and seniors, and no to the inter-governmental affairs and advocacy hire.
Oakville Transit Bus | Oakville Transit | Oakville Transit
Oakville Transit Bus | Oakville Transit | Oakville Transit

Is free the answer to getting more people on buses?

A little over half of town council thinks so.

On an 8-7 vote, council approved a plan to spend about $1.6 million a year to provide free Oakville Transit rides to anyone younger than 19 or older than 64.

The hotly contested issue was the topic of the night as town council approved a 2023 budget increasing Oakville’s residential property taxes by 6.07 per cent.

When combined with regional and educational tax levies, the overall property tax hike works out to be 3.79 per cent.

Homeowners will pay an extra $28 per $100,000 of assessment, meaning someone with a property assessed at $1 million will pay $280 more in taxes this year.

Fare or no fare?

The proposal for free transit to youth and seniors split councillors almost perfectly along the town’s QEW dividing line.

Councillors representing southern wards opposed the plan, while councillors from the north supported it. Ward 4 councillors Allan Elgar and Peter Longo split their votes, with Elgar opposed and Longo in favour.

Mayor Rob Burton broke the tie, voting in favour of the initiative.

Ward 5 councillor Jeff Knoll spoke most eloquently in favour of free transit, arguing that the move is an investment in seniors, young people and the future of the environment.

"We need to make a paradigm shift, and we need to make it soon," he said. "I think one of the best ways you can start getting people on the bus is to infiltrate their minds when they are young."

"If we can get kids on buses today – if we can make it as automatic as walking on a sidewalk or using any other municipal service – then we have a really good chance of having them avoid that early first car purchase and possibly a second car purchase when they are a young family."

For seniors, free transit will provide greater independence and quality of life by helping them stay active and involved in the community, according to Knoll.

Other councillors echoed those arguments, suggesting the initiative would remove the cost barrier to transit use and allow people to see the convenience of the bus.

"I think the more we get people used to the idea of just hopping on a bus and moving, the better we’ll be," said Ward 5 councillor Marc Grant, who added he is the only member of council to regularly use the town's bus system.

But councillors opposed argued it was an expensive, last-minute scheme proposed by the budget committee against the advice of transit staff and without data to support it.

"Politicians are not transit experts," said Ward 1 councillor Sean O’Meara. "I think we dive headfirst into dangerous waters, presupposing we know more than they do."

Ward 3 councillor Janet Haslett-Theall urged waiting on transit staff analysis planned for this year to determine the best way to increase transit ridership.

"The assumption is that we know why people are not getting on the bus and that free is why they are not getting on the bus," she said, adding that there's no evidence to support that theory.

Finally, Elgar noted that the town already spends over $33 million – or 14 per cent of the total tax levy – to operate Oakville Transit.

With council's approval, free transit for seniors and youth is set to begin in May.

Voting in favour: Ward 4 councillor Longo, Ward 5 councillors Grant and Knoll, Ward 6 councillors Tom Adams and Natalia Lishchyna, Ward 7 councillors Nav Nanda and Scott Xie, and Burton.

Voting against: Ward 1 councillors O’Meara and McNeice, Ward 2 councillors Cathy Duddeck and Ray Chisholm, Ward 3 councillors Haslett-Theall and Dave Gittings, Ward 4 councillor Allan Elgar.

While the transit initiative survived a close vote, the budget’s other controversial issue – hiring a new staff member to manage intergovernmental affairs and advocacy – failed on an 8-7 vote.

That vote saw Burton, Adams, Chisholm, Longo, Knoll, Nanda, and Xie vote in favour. Opposed were Duddeck, Elgar, Grant, Gittings, Haslett-Theall, Lishchyna, O’Meara and McNiece.