The city's transit chief is putting the brakes on hopes for citywide free transit as compensation for the summer LRT shutdown, saying she can't afford it amid a gaping budget deficit.
Transit services general manager Renée Amilcar pegged the cost of one month of free service at $15 million.
"I don't have the money now to do so," she said, adding that the final decision would be up to councillors.
But councillors are now floating two separate proposals that could cost much less, including one that would offer free bus service along five busy arteries.
Capital ward Coun. Shawn Menard asked OC Transpo to pin down how much it would cost to provide free bus service for six months on Bank Street, Hazeldean Road, St. Joseph Boulevard, Montreal Road and Carling Avenue.
Menard said he chose those roads because they would spread the benefits across the city and could help reduce congestion.
But transit commission chair Glen Gower pitched a different idea. He prefers free LRT service on the Trillium and Airport lines in south Ottawa once they open, and has already asked staff to study it.
"If we're looking at any compensation, it was due to the issues with train service in the summer and I think it should be linked to train service," said Gower.
Menard framed his idea as a bold move. He cited cities across North America and Europe that have used free transit to boost ridership.
"I don't think we're going to get any big shift in transit with tinkering or small moves. I think we need a big move," he said. "We need to start doing things differently here, or we're going to keep going down this hole we're in."
Renée Amilcar, OC Transpo's general manager of transit services, photographed at a transit committee meeting on June 29, 2023. (Jean Delisle/CBC)
'Zero dollars' for LRT contractors in July
That hole is already deep enough. OC Transpo is now forecasting a deficit of $40.8 million for this fiscal year, according to a report presented to transit commission on Thursday.
That comes amid revenue losses pegged at $51.3 million, as ridership plummeted during the pandemic and still hasn't recovered. That's partly offset by vacancies, a pause on hiring and lower maintenance costs for the Confederation Line.
Amilcar told transit commissioners she isn't paying contractors anything for July in light of the LRT shutdown.
"For July, definitely, it will be zero dollars to [Rideau Transit Group]," she said. "This will be firm. I'm working on August and potentially September as well."
The city pays about $4.5 million to $5 million monthly for maintenance. Amilcar said there are rules to follow in the project agreement with RTG, and that made it easy to decide on withholding payment in July. But she's still looking at how to apply the agreement for the other months.
Amilcar noted that the LRT public inquiry pointed to the need to work collaboratively with contractors.
"Using the punishment button doesn't work," she said. "I need to work with them to find solutions."
'It would take a miracle'
But Amilcar will need much more than withheld maintenance payments to cover her deficit. OC Transpo was counting on $39 million from higher levels of governments that helped cover pandemic-related revenue losses in previous years, but hasn't come through so far for 2023.
"We are already in September and we haven't heard from the government, so realistically it would take a miracle for us to receive that cheque," Amilcar said in French. "But we continue, of course, to hope and to do all the lobbying that is necessary."
OC Transpo has other options on the table to fill its funding shortfall, including deferring capital projects. That's already happening. Transit customer systems and planning director Pat Scrimgeour said none have been "crucial or critical," and haven't led to service gaps.
He mentioned that fewer new buses are needed amid lower ridership. But he said OC Transpo can't push back its capital plans forever.
"If any of those solutions are required as we go into next year, it's entirely possible that they'd have a greater connection to service delivery and there might be some gaps," he said.
"We'll be trying to identify the ones that would have the least impact on service reliability."