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Yukon NDP backs down from push for free public transit in Whitehorse

A Whitehorse bus stops outside the courthouse downtown. The Yukon NDP is backing down from pushing for the city to implement free transit, a term under a confidence-and-supply agreement between the party and governing Liberals.  (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC - image credit)
A Whitehorse bus stops outside the courthouse downtown. The Yukon NDP is backing down from pushing for the city to implement free transit, a term under a confidence-and-supply agreement between the party and governing Liberals. (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC - image credit)

The Yukon NDP is backing down from its push for free public transit in Whitehorse.

The initiative is a commitment under the latest confidence-and-supply agreement (CASA) signed by the party and governing Yukon Liberals last year. However, NDP MLA Lane Tredger, who has championed free transit as a way to fight climate change and inequality, acknowledged Wednesday that the idea has received a lukewarm reception from both the City of Whitehorse and the Liberals.

"I think we've pushed as hard as we can, to be perfectly honest," Tredger said in an interview.

"I think we've used really every lever we have to move this forward, but without either of the other parties championing it with us, we can't do it alone."

Tredger said the NDP is now focusing its efforts on using the money offered by the Yukon government for the free transit initiative — $1.5 million a year — to purchase bus passes that can then be distributed to residents in need. The idea was previously endorsed by Whitehorse city council after it became apparent that the money being offered by the Yukon government wasn't enough to cover the actual cost of making transit free.

Mayor Laura Cabott, who has repeatedly questioned the logistics and practicality of making transit free, has previously said eliminating bus fares would likely cost closer to $1.7 million a year, a figure that would rise over time.

MLA says compromise needed

Tredger, last fall, unsuccessfully lobbied the Yukon government for more money to cover the difference, suggesting that it could pull cash from a $5 million green infrastructure fund. Community services minister Richard Mostyn, however, said that fund was meant for projects outside of Whitehorse and that using money from it for free transit in the city "would be really robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Tredger, on Wednesday, said they still believed the government could find cash to fund free transit if it really wanted to, pointing once again to a $1 million landlord subsidy and a now-shelved promise to put more than $20 million toward a new ore dock in Skagway, Alaska. However, they also acknowledged that the initiative can't happen "without the partnership of the Liberals and the city."

"Unless one of the other parties comes back to the table and does have some enthusiasm and some desire to push this forward, we're looking at the option of distributing free passes instead," they said.

"And knowing that's not free transit is not the same thing, but I do think it's a compromise for where we are."

Yukon cabinet communications spokesperson Laura Seeley confirmed in an email Wednesday that the government has had conversations with the NDP and "partners" about free transit passes, but wanted to "touch base" with Tredger about their comments to CBC News before providing a further response.

Cabott, in an emailed statement, said the city had previously sent a letter to Tredger and Mostyn to follow up on the plan about transit passes and was awaiting a reply. The statement did not address a question about whether the city was aware of the NDP's intention to stop pursuing free transit altogether.

Bus frequency top of mind

Tredger's comments came on the heels of the city releasing the results of a study on free transit, which included an online survey completed by more than 900 people, an analysis of free transit programs in three other municipalities and interviews with local organizations.

The mayor, in a press conference Tuesday, said the study was undertaken after the city saw an estimated 40 per cent increase in ridership after making transit temporarily free in 2022, when an escapement slide blocked Robert Service Way. The Yukon Liberals and NDP, separately, signed their updated CASA the next year.

Whitehorse mayor Laura Cabott, right, speaks at a press conference on March 12 about the release of the city's study on free transit as transit services manager Jason Bradshaw looks on.
Whitehorse mayor Laura Cabott, right, speaks at a press conference on March 12 about the release of the city's study on free transit as transit services manager Jason Bradshaw looks on.

Whitehorse mayor Laura Cabott, right, speaks at a press conference on March 12 about the release of the city's study on free transit as transit services manager Jason Bradshaw looks on. (Jackie Hong/CBC)

Cabott told reporters the study backed the approach of prioritizing improvements to the transit system.

"The results showed that it's how often the bus comes, the time of day it arrives, and reliability —  those were the top three concerns for transit users," she said. "Cost ranked last."

According to the study, the majority of survey respondents said having buses come twice an hour, as opposed to the current once-an-hour service, was more important than free fares, and that more frequent and reliable service would encourage them to use transit more often.

Organizations including Yukon University, Blood Ties Four Directions and the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce all supported improvements to the transit system. The Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, meanwhile, was in favour of free transit as it would "create more equitable access" and align with a recommendation in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls to provide safe transportation.

The city, the study said, would have to deal with trade-offs for any option it chooses; for example, free transit would result in the greatest increase in ridership — an estimated average of 330,000 new trips annually — but have limited "direct benefit" to riders. Meanwhile, increasing service on four bus routes would result in an estimated average of 270,000 new trips. Although that's not as many as the free transit option and would cost the city money, that would be offset by increased revenue from fares and better service for riders.

Asked Tuesday about the possibility of improving service while also eliminating fares at the same time, Whitehorse transit services manager Jason Bradshaw said that would result in a "double cost" — the city would lose revenue from fares while also spending money on bettering operations.

Distributing bus passes

"Unless you have external funding sources or you increase taxes, you're limited… So if the main economic benefit is to provide extra services, [that] increases people's ability to get to work, helps the economy better, etcetera, you know, focus on that first," he said.

Cabott, meanwhile, said the city intends to "stay the course" and continue with transit investments including purchasing five buses over the next few years and a 35 per cent increase in service frequency beginning this summer.

Cabott also said the city would continue to work with the transit working group, which includes Mostyn and Tredger, to figure out how to use the CASA money for bus passes instead.

She added that it was "concerning" that discussions on how to use the $1.5 million were still ongoing.

"I have to say… we essentially lost a year," Cabott said.

"Those transit passes could have been used [by] people that needed them."