City not taking climate action — or itself — seriously

Students, environment, logic left out of 2020 city budget

I thought I was done writing articles in the Manitoban about the U-Pass. And, of course, students probably thought they were done reading about it.

For anyone who needs a refresher, this year is the final one of our U-Pass contract. The public service proposed a fair increase of $24.50 per semester beginning May 2020 to ensure the program maintained its total gross subsidy level while being expanded to include Red River College.

This rate was subsequently endorsed by city council. UMSU then went to referendum in February and a stunning 78 per cent of ballots were cast in favour of retaining the U-Pass.

In fact, more students voted in favour of the U-Pass in 2020 than voted entirely in the 2014 referendum. More UMSU members voted in favour of the U-Pass than voted entirely in any UMSU election on record in its 101-year history.

Suffice to say, it was a truly resounding result. Yet fast forward to March 6 and you’ll see that the U-Pass was proposed to be cut in the  city’s latest budget.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that this rebuke not only goes against the clear will of students — but against the priorities the city’s leaders have continuously espoused. Mayor Brian Bowman, on the day the U-Pass was enacted, stated what he least wanted to see when “the second phase of rapid transit comes in line [… was] Winnipeggers saying there aren’t enough people riding the bus.”

Bowman’s assessment was accurate then and will be born out in the near future. Given the investment in the Southwest Transitway to the tune of $420 million, we should be optimizing that investment by incentivizing increased ridership.

The U-Pass — which has shown an increase in ridership of 25 per cent on routes to and from the U of M since inception — has taken a minimum of 7,000 students out of their cars and onto a bus each day.

As the mayor said, “by encouraging public transit there are many environmental benefits. There are benefits of getting more cars and trucks off the road. And the overall costs of doing so is less wear and tear on our infrastructure.”

So why did he change his mind? The chair of public works, Matt Allard, is thus far the only member of the executive policy committee to address the city’s change of position on the record.

But despite now claiming this budget as an overall positive package for transit, he previously had nothing but positive words for the U-Pass. “I think the U-Pass is a great story,” stated the St. Boniface councillor in 2018. “Not only does it make using the bus affordable for students but I think it also builds a culture that makes using the bus something that you do every day to commute.”

Of the specific U-Pass deal that passed his committee, and council, unanimously, he said “I think this is a win-win the way this is being structured.”

So why the change of heart?

Currently, the budget points to the newly-proposed low-income pass as a replacement.

And while it is an admirable program, it is not a fix. Most students will not qualify for the low-income threshold, causing costs for students to rise massively.

Even more importantly, it is no comparison when it comes to the most important issue we should be framing our policy around: combatting emissions and protecting the environment.

The low-income pass is opt-in only. It is a cheaper bus pass for many Winnipeggers who are in need of the savings and likely bus anyhow. Ever wondered why a coffee shop offering 25 cents off your coffee for bringing a mug is a lot less successful than one that also charges you 25 cents for a cup?

Are 16,000 low-income people (not including students) who are not currently busing really going to abandon their cars because of the chance to get a cheaper bus pass?

This is the assumption made by the city. It is the reason it anticipates the U-Pass — which is only $10 cheaper per month, affects a smaller population that has access to other subsidized passes, and is universally applied regardless of usage — will somehow cost more annually than the low-income pass.

In my view, this is a patently baseless assumption. Nevertheless, for the city to force this as a zero-sum game between the two programs is dubious, given transit ran a surplus of $6.9 million in 2019.

For the U-Pass cancellation to be viable environmentally or economically, ridership must be assumed to remain stable when the U-Pass goes away.

It won’t.

That 25 per cent increase came as a direct result of a universal program that incentivized busing and disincentivized driving.

According to UMSU’s internal survey in December, 19 per cent of students who predominantly bus to university will revert to driving if this cut goes through.

That cuts deeply into the city’s expected revenue, and will heavily pollute the environment.

The mayor and city councillors that tabled this budget have turned their backs on our environment. Students who voted in favour of an increased rate for a program that many affirmative voters could not or did not even use should be righteously distraught. If the city had the calibre of foresight that students do, it would immediately reverse this destructive decision.

I ended my last U-Pass article with a quote from a “once-wise” man that said “most of all, we at war with ourselves.” It seems our once-progressive city councillors have dialled up their hypocrisy to a level nearly equalling that of the afore-quoted Kanye West.

Boasted Allard on the city council floor just three months ago: “I don’t want [my daughter] to say that dad had an opportunity to act, but getting elected was more important. That’s not why I got involved in politics. [Climate change] is the issue of our generation and we need to deal with it.”

We truly are at war with ourselves.

This time, however, I’m not ending the article here.

The good news is that this city’s councillors will be hearing from the students they’ve let down. On March 12, the public works committee is hearing public delegations. On March 19, it’s the executive policy committee.

Links to sign-up are in UMSU’s bio on Instagram, and we will be hosting training sessions and phone banking this week.

So show up.

Call your councillor.

Get Angry. Get Mobilized. Get Ready.

Because this is a major battle in what is truly the fight of our lives. And we need every last solider.