Memorial Students Rejected a Bad Proposal, Not a U-Pass Program

If you’re disappointed with the results of the recent U-Pass student vote at Memorial, don’t be disappointed with the students.

It’s good news that 51% of eligible voters participated, and it means that 71% of those students voting “No” is a clear rejection of the proposal by the student body. However, this vote can only tell us how students felt about this proposal. It does not tell us how students feel about a U-Pass in general. Students did not support the specific U-Pass program proposed by Memorial University, Metrobus, and the City of St. John’s because of ineffective communication, inappropriate pricing, and inadequate scope to address the core transit issue: that all true growth opportunities for Metrobus ridership lie outside the current service area.

Metrobus and the City have been thinking about U-Pass programs as a means of improving public transit since at least 2011.  One of the recommendations in Metrobus’ 2011 Market Assessment and Strategic Directions Study was to initiate discussion with student unions about a U-Pass program. Five years later, the City of St. John’s interviewed MUN Students’ Union representatives as part of a MUN Area Traffic Study, and were told that “approximately 50% of students attending Memorial presently live in areas not serviced by transit and as a result they would not support any suggestion of a universal transit pass.”

But by the time the 2018-2019 academic year began, the powers that be felt confident enough in their U-Pass proposal to ask full-time MUN students to vote “Yes” or “No” on it during the winter semester. The actual vote date was not announced until January, well after fall 2018 consultation sessions but before full details of the proposed program were available. There was a single information session scheduled for the last day of January, while voting took place between the 24th and 26th of February. Even with a substantial potential fee being proposed, the university chose to provide only one information session over the course of nearly two months.

Nursing student Kira Kaur felt students in her program “didn’t get much information about the U-Pass. We had a lot of reminders regarding the voting, but not regarding how exactly [the proposal] would work.” Samantha Hoddinott, fourth-year English student, could not attend any in-person sessions but sent her concerns to the U-Pass email address instead.

“I found them very off-putting and dismissive of my concerns with the proposal,” Hoddinott told The Indy. “Student input was not valued to the degree the creators of the pass are stating.”

Given the current level of service, many students felt the cost of the U-Pass was unjustifiably high for a mandatory fee. Even if the U-Pass would have saved them money personally, some students had too many misgivings about the proposal to vote for it.

Third-year science student Terri Brennan buys monthly transit passes to get to campus. Although the current student semester pass would be a better deal than four $78 monthly passes, the $275 upfront cost of the semester pass is not feasible. But Brennan voted “No” to the U-Pass.

“As much as it would benefit me to pay significantly less for a bus pass that I do use, the program overall was too unfair for me to feel like any other vote was acceptable,” Brennan apprised The Indy. “It needed more options, more planning, more involvement with the students, more promotion, just so much more.”

The fees MUN proposed are not the highest in the country, but there are plenty of U-Pass programs in Canada with lower fees. Students in Halifax, NS paid under $88 per semester for their 2018-2019 U-Passes. Nearer St. John’s in size, Kamloops, BC has a population of roughly 90,000 and a transit system with 15 regular routes. At Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, students paid less than $55 per semester this year for their U-Pass.

Meanwhile, Memorial’s proposed $139-per-semester fee would have saved $136 for students who already buy a semester pass. But other students would have to pay $3 more than that to subsidize a program they had no intent—or ability—to use. For some students, the math just didn’t add up.

“It’s too much money. If it was $50 a semester, I would’ve been totally down for it,” third-year Communications major Jim Jubabir told The Indy. “Even though I will probably never again use the bus, I would’ve been OK with the money because I know how it feels to wait for the bus for hours in the cold. But what they proposed was absolutely outrageous!”

Students do not make up 50% of Metrobus’ service area population. But in a major onboard passenger survey conducted for Metrobus in 2010, 50% of the respondents were post-secondary students. In a City of St. John’s Transportation Study from 1998, Metrobus noted that “the majority of adult travellers are post-secondary students.”

Some questioned why students, likely already one of Metrobus’ largest sources of revenue, should shoulder more responsibility for our public transit system. Hoddinott found it “extremely hard” to understand “why students should be the ones to pay for a revival of Metrobus.”

“They should fix the bus system to actually work for the city rather than forcing students to pay for fixes that realistically may never be made.”

The proposed service improvements rejected by students are similar in nature to the major service changes Metrobus made in 2007, which not did result in increased ridership. In fact, for more than two decades, studies commissioned by the city have suggested that Metrobus’ growth will continue to be limited until a regional transit system is created. Surveyed passengers expressed little dissatisfaction with the 2007 improvements, rating them as positive or neutral. Yet ridership has hovered around 3 million annually since 1996, with current levels just under the 3 million mark. Over the last 23 years, there has been zero growth in ridership within the current service area.

What has seen growth are the population levels just outside Metrobus’ service area. Population growth statistics in the 2011 Metrobus study report a 95% increase since 1981 in municipalities along the TransCanada Highway Suburban Corridor such as Paradise and Conception Bay South. Meanwhile there has been a 73% increase in the Suburban Perimeter, including Portugal Cove-St. Philips, Torbay & Logy Bay, Middle Cove, and Outer Cove. During about the same time period, the population of St. John’s and Mount Pearl increased by only 4 percent. If Metrobus wants to grow its ridership, its service area has to grow. That will take involvement at the provincial level, but it’s a crucial step that needs to come before implementing the type of U-Pass that was proposed.

Kids growing up in places like CBS have to make their post-secondary plans without any means of public transit that gets them from their home community to any of the campuses in St. John’s. In order to access post-secondary education, new university students who live a 20-minute drive from MUN have to choose between paying rent to live closer to campus, buying a means of personal transportation, or relying on other people.

MUN alumna Courtnee Baker graduated from a CBS high school and when it came to university, transportation “was always the first worry, even above paying for it.” Her parents’ work schedules didn’t align with her classes, and she couldn’t afford to buy a car while also paying for her studies. Baker recalls, “the only option I could see was to carpool, but then that was a new worry: what would happen if suddenly my ride decided to drop out, or move into town?”

Park-and-ride programs are a way for the City to work within their service area to provide some transit option(s) to those outside the service area. The City’s 1998 Transportation Study references “an unsuccessful attempt by the Transportation Commission to institute a park-and-ride program several years ago.” While there is potential for park-and-ride lots at the periphery of St. John’s to have some success, they don’t solve any problems for the people who live outside the service area but have no means of getting to the park-and-ride lot.

Under the proposed U-Pass program, students who live outside the service area would not be able to get fully from their home community to campus using transit, nor would they be able to use transit within their home community. Meanwhile, in Halifax, the students from the communities surrounding Halifax’s core are some of the most vocal supporters of the U-Pass program precisely because it allows them to get from their hometown to their classes fully on the transit system.

Population growth has been concentrated outside of Metrobus’ current service area for decades: a regional transit system is an inevitable necessity. But without any sign that the province is making plans to create this regional structure, it is surprising Metrobus, the City, and the administration expected students to approve higher fees than Halifax students pay to access transit that services the entire Halifax Regional Municipality.

Students, for the most part, genuinely like the concept of a U-Pass. This seems to be true despite the poor job that was done to educate them on U-Pass programs generally and on the specific proposal on which they were asked to vote. Students are not children; they can recognize good policy. That’s why they overwhelmingly voted “No” to this proposal. Students, more than Metrobus and the City, know that it is a waste of time to propose a U-Pass to a regional population without first having a regional system.

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