Passengers wait to board a bus at Surrey Central Station.

Keep free transit trips for homeless, TransLink urged

Compass cards, fare gates pose social service challenge

TransLink is being urged to ensure homeless people continue to get free use of the transit system for certain trips after the new Compass smart card and fare gates are launched this fall.

Advocacy groups across Metro Vancouver have long distributed single-use transit tickets to ensure homeless clients can get transportation to a shelter when needed, or to key appointments, such as for medical care and job interviews.

Money to buy those FareSaver tickets comes from the provincial government via B.C. Housing.

But Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs wants TransLink to ensure some replacement system is in place once fare gates take effect and old ticket types are phased out.

“It will be a lot harder to get on SkyTrain and the Canada Line with fare gates,” he said. “People are going to need some kind of card to get through the gate.”

Meggs said homeless people may simply be able to board a bus without paying or showing any ticket – as many do already – but he argues they shouldn’t have to endure being treated as fare evaders.

“This is about replacing an existing service,” Meggs stressed. “These are specific trips paid for by the province for reasons determined valid by a service provider.”

Meggs hasn’t proposed giving the homeless free transit passes, although he said he’s willing to separately consider the merits of that as well, noting transit fares are a major obstacle for homeless people trying to look for work.

He said transit is a way to level the playing field across income groups.

But Meggs has heard from plenty of critics angry with any talk of transit subsidies or free rides for some.

“It’s getting tangled up in the fare evasion issue and the discomfort some people feel in providing any assistance to the homeless,” he said.

TransLink spokesperson Jiana Ling said talks are underway with community partners to find a solution that keeps transit accessible to vulnerable people, such as the homeless.

“We’re still in talks about how to approach this,” Ling said, adding TransLink is committed to treating customers “with dignity and respect.”

Under the new system, passengers will tap Compass cards against readers at each end of a transit trip and their account will be debited accordingly.

Ling said passengers who don’t have a regular Compass card will be able to use cash to buy a cardboard version of the card valid for a single day only on buses and at stations.

Also up in the air is a provincially subsidized transit program for 86,000 low-income seniors and people on disability assistance – they can buy an annual transit pass good anywhere in B.C. for $45 a year.

Ling said TransLink hopes to accommodate that program through the Compass card system, but offered no specifics.

Canadian Taxpayers Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman said it’s fair to continue to provide free trips for the homeless to reach shelter, health and job appointments.

“Obviously you want to be sensitive to lower-income people and be as helpful as possible,” he said.

The key issue, Bateman said, is to ensure any new passes for the homeless get used by the intended clients and aren’t resold on the black market, as happened in the past with student U-Passes.

“It surprises me that TransLink wouldn’t have figured these issues out already.”

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