Revised - Free transit could be coming to Whitehorse sometime next year. Just not for everyone.
While council members eventually came to a consensus on the issue Monday, the wheels on the bus appeared ready to come off, as it required nearly an hour of discussion, debate and head-scratching for the debate to come to a conclusion.
Most of that involved descending into a procedural labyrinth as to how to make it happen, even though it was obvious early on that most of the council members were – to continue the metaphor – on the bus.
The intellectual entanglements began with a motion from Coun. Mellisa Murray. By the time it ended, the notion of free transit had been narrowed down to focus on Indigenous groups, and in particular, LGBTQ2S+ people.
Murray’s motion morphed a bit through the debate. Eventually, it was decided that the city would ask the Yukon government to proceed with the $1.5 million it had set aside to pay for free transit in the city under last January’s Confidence and Supply Agreement with the NDP.
Under the city’s tentative plan, the government would also be asked to handle the distribution of the free transit passes to approved riders. That was a suggestion made by Coun. Jocelyn Curteanu during the discussion.
“I think what we’re trying to include here were the ones who are in need. This just keeps it open.”
Coun. Ted Laking voted against the motion.
Needless to say, there’s still of work to be done and procedures to be established. The government will have to sign on to the concept, as will the NDP.
The idea of free public transit in the city was first proposed by the NDP, and written into the second CASA. There was no mention at that time as to what form the free transit plan would take.
The idea has bogged down for the last 10 months since that time. Whitehorse officials said they weren’t consulted before the idea was written into the CASA struck earlier this year, and appeared to be lukewarm on the idea.
One of the first things the city mentioned was that the $1.5 million would not cover the entire cost of providing free transit per year, nor did it know how it was to be managed.
City officials have said the cost of a true free transit system would in the area of $5 million.
On Tuesday afternoon, NDP MLA Lane Tredger was not happy with the news of what the city is proposing.
“We’re deeply disappointed with the Yukon government that it had to come to this,” Tredger told the Star.
The party’s idea was that anyone should be able to step on a bus and ride for free, Tredger explained.
“This is better than nothing. But we wanted barrier-free transit for all.”
The Liberals have staunchly refused to cough up more money for the project, Tredger said, and appear to have no interest in altering that stance.
The $1.5-million figure was written into the CASA, Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn has said repeatedly, and the government will not be offering more.
In a letter to the editor published by the Star recently, Mostyn wrote, “As agreed upon and subsequently directed by our caucuses, the Government of Yukon has earmarked $1.5 million annually over three years to the Confidence and Supply Agreement item 3a, replacing fare-generated revenue to make public transit free in Whitehorse.
“You (the city) propose reprofiling $5 million from green infrastructure funding towards this request.
“As you are aware, this $5-million funding for green infrastructure projects has been allocated towards projects benefiting communities beyond Whitehorse,” the minister wrote.
“As a government, we are working very hard on many fronts to ensure that we are supporting Yukoners and making life more affordable.
“That includes making responsible financial decisions. Unfortunately, this means that our government is not in a position to provide municipalities with unlimited funds.
“We support the City of Whitehorse’s request to have the Government of Yukon purchase transit passes from the city up to the agreed-upon amount of $1.5 million each year for three years, and distribute those passes to citizens.”
Technically, that could cause the NDP to revoke the CASA, but Tredger said that wouldn’t happen.
“We’re still committed to this idea,” the MLA told the Star.
Later Tuesday afternoon, Tredger released a statement saying “handing out bus tickets won’t make transit free.
“Council is trying to salvage what they can after the Liberals refused to fully fund their commitment,” the MLA said.
“The Liberals killed free transit in October, and as usual, they’ll leave it for cash-strapped non-profits to do the heavy lifting.
“They found $20 million this year to pay for an ore dock in Alaska, and they gave $1 million to landlords, so it’s really disappointing to see them walk away from a perfectly good opportunity to lead on free transit,” Tredger added.
The government, on the other hand, sounds pleased with the development.
This morning, in an emailed statement from cabinet communications, the government wrote, “We were pleased to hear the debate that took place Monday night with regards to providing bus passes to vulnerable individuals.
“We have previously stated publicly that we are supportive of the Government of Yukon purchasing up to $1.5 million in transit passes, and this position has not changed.
“We look forward to receiving a formalized letter from Mayor Cabott with more details and to scheduling the next Transit Working Group meeting soon for a positive conversation on this development,” the statement added.
“The ultimate decision on achieving the commitment laid out in the Confidence and Supply Agreement lies with the Transit Working Group.”