News - Willa Thayer says she’ll have more freedom to get around the city now that public transportation is free.
Eligible Ontario Works recipients will get unlimited monthly passes to ride Kingston Transit as part of a one-year pilot project starting next year. Kingston is believed to be the first municipality in Ontario to offer this service.
“Winter is very hard for those on welfare,” said Thayer, who relies on Ontario Works (OW) benefits.
She says it often comes down to a choice between spending her limited income on groceries or transportation. “When you have such a low income it’s comforting to know you won’t have any of it set aside for transportation.”
Thayer says she is used to cycling or walking to get to destinations, but there are times of the year – the frigid weather of winter or the scorching heat of summer – where getting around poses too much of a hardship.
Starting January 1, 2017, Thayer and others on welfare won’t have to worry as much about the outdoor elements with free, unlimited bus passes.
“The inability to access necessary transportation can have a significant impact on the ability for someone to obtain and maintain employment,” said a staff report.
It’s expected that up to 3,000 clients a month will benefit from the pilot program.
Councillors voted unanimously in favour of the pilot project at their Nov. 15 meeting.
“It’s incredibly innovative,” said Coun. Mary Rita Holland, who championed the initiative.
“Staff are unaware of any other municipality in Ontario that has taken a universal transit program approach for OW clients,” according to the report.
The costs will be covered from a discretionary employment fund that’s provided by the Ministry of Community and Social Services. The fund already gives OW recipients money to cover their travel-related costs.
About $200,000 of those discretionary benefits will be shifted to Kingston Transit to help cover lost revenues from the free transit program. In fact, city officials estimate a net increase in revenue of $119,000 even after free bus rides are offered to eligible OW clients.
The city decided to offer free transit for one year only because the province has indicated that it may be altering OW program funding and employment expectations in 2017 or 2018. Staff will report back to council by next September with recommendations regarding the future of the program.
Kingston already offers free transit to all high school students in Grades 9 to 12.
Thayer says she plans to take advantage of the bus pass, calling it an equity issue that will benefit those who are trying to find employment.