OC Transpo is in bad shape. How bad? How about worse than anyone could have imagined.
Everyone knew that ridership took a tremen-dous blow during the COVID 19 pandemic, but it was thought that it would rebound once the pandemic was over. But that hasn’t been the case. In fact, far from it.
Ridership is still way down from what had been projected prior to the pandemic.
According to the latest projection, ridership in 2023 should be around 65 million. In 2019, the transit service had projected ridership would be in excess of 110 million by 2023. In 2019, the last full year of service before the pandemic, ridership was at 100 million. By 2021, it had sunk to 30 million.
Ridership rebounded by more than 65 per cent in 2022, going from 30 million to 50 million and is expected to increase by a further 25 per cent, indicating that increasing ridership is actually slowing down as a percentage of one year to the next. This is largely due to the fact that more and more federal government employees are opting to work from home as is their prerogative under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Staff are predicting ridership won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2030. In the meantime, costs will keep going up along with the operating deficit which stands at
$40.8 million for the current fiscal year.
According to transit staff, unless significant steps are taken, the combination of fewer riders and accumulating costs could result in a $6.6 billion shortfall over the next 25 years, including a $3.7 million shortfall in fare revenue.
The city has three options to offset the projected shortfall – cut service, increase fares, or increase the transit surcharge on the property tax bill. Questions are even being raised about possibly delaying construction of Phase 3 of the LRT which would take it out to Kanata and Barrhaven.
When finance staff presented the revised projections to the transit commission on Sept. 18, they suggested a combination of all three.
“Only using one lever will not solve transit’s affordability issues. The solution will require a combination of changes,” said deputy treasurer Isabelle Jasmin.
Despite the dire projections, Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe is taking a glass half full approach to the news and the recent difficulties the LRT has been forced to deal with including the recent shutdown and reduction in service due to ongoing technical issues.
“We are building a public transit system for the next 25 years,” he told council on Sept. 18. “In a few years from now when the city has grown even more… it will be looked back upon as something that had some stumbles but was an important city-building project.”
Transit staff now have several months to come up with a variety of concrete options to address the future of the service and bring them back to council by next June.