The City of Ottawa has announced that OC Transpo, Carleton University and the University of Ottawa have signed a binding letter of intent to develop a multi-year agreement for the U-Pass, a discount transit plan for post-secondary students that has had a bumpy ride in recent years.
The specifics of the three-year deal have not yet been worked out, but there are a number of proposed conditions already in place.
However, no agreement can be reached until the students have had their say. After the agreement has been fully drawn up, students at the two universities will be asked to vote on the proposed changes in a referendum question.
“Everything depends on the referendum question,” says Chantle Beeso, vice-president of student issues of the Carleton University Student Association. “If more students voted no, theoretically the U-Pass would die.”
At the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, a pilot project was put in place that has now been extended to the end of this school year. However, an extension like that won’t be an option after this year, which is why a new multi-year agreement is in the works.
For many students, the U-Pass has been a considerable help because of the cost savings.
“I like living closer to the downtown core but that wouldn’t really be an option without the bus,” says Connor Davies, a third-year student at Carleton. “I’m going to take the bus either way, so an agreement means more money in my pocket.”
But not all students from Carleton and Ottawa U use the bus, which is why the referendum is so important.
The past two years of the pilot have seen support from the students at both universities, but an agreement to satisfy all students has proven to be just out of reach.
The City of Ottawa would not offer any extensive comment because negotiations are ongoing, but for the past two years the cost of the U-Pass has been embedded in each student’s fees. Controversially, there hasn’t been any option to opt-out of the program for students who don’t use the transit system.
Beeso says the students’ associations from both universities have been working to address these concerns.
“It’s our responsibility to respond to what the students want. We can’t just make these changes and then force them on the student body,” says Beeso.
If there is a significant interest from the student bodies at both universities and the majority of students agree with the eventual conditions, the program will go ahead.
The base price of the U-Pass is still being negotiated. The city has proposed a base price of $180 per semester, but the students’ associations at Carleton and Ottawa U are fighting to lower the price.
“We feel that you could have a U-Pass at less than $145 per semester that would eventually be a revenue generating program,” Beeso says. The students’ associations have put together a fact sheet in an attempt to inform students.
“We want to make sure that students are getting a price that’s worth the service they are getting,” she added. During the pilot, the base price of the U-Pass was set at $145 but one City of Ottawa update has expressed some concern that this price may have been too low.
The city would ultimately be responsible for setting the base price for the U-Pass based on its research as well as input from the student associations. The city would also be responsible for determining any yearly increases in the price of the U-Pass.
According to a City of Ottawa update on the planned U-Pass arrangement, these yearly price increases will be directly based on annual overall transportation cost increases. Any price increase on the U-Pass, however, would be set at a maximum of 2.5 per cent, so that even if overall fares increase by more than that, the price of the U-Pass won’t.
The planned agreement is aimed to achieve “revenue-neutrality,” meaning the program would lead to neither an increase nor decrease in the city’s revenue over the three-year period. Students will vote on the referendum question next February.