UPDATED: Potential U-Pass referendum

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Bus routes for students back up for debate

U of R students have previously rejected a U-Pass system in 2009. / Alec Salloum

U of R students have previously rejected a U-Pass system in 2009. / Alec Salloum

The U-Pass movement at the University of Regina has reached a milestone, with the first steps being taken for a referendum. The Regina Green Ride Transit Network will be in the Riddell Centre throughout the month to educate people on the U-Pass and to gather support for a potential referendum planned for January 2015.

David Vanderberg, director of the Regina Green Ride Transit Network, has been heavily involved with the push for the U-Pass. A U-Pass, according to Vanderberg, works “just like your current University gym membership: the cost is part of everyone’s tuition, which gets you a super-cheap product in return.  In the case of the U-Pass, you get an unlimited bus pass for approx. $70-90 per semester, and this could get you free access to Park and Rides throughout the City too. ”

According to him, it’s been one of his main projects since he joined the group he now leads. In the early phases of the group founded in February 2013, Vanderberg noted that URSU had a poor track record in promoting non-car alternatives to commuting to the university.

“[The group’s purpose] was to originally research more economic and environmental ways to commute to campus. At that time, URSU had a terrible ride-board on their website; I looked on there and people hadn’t used it for two years.”

From this point, Vanderberg went on to spearhead the push to introduce the U-Pass to the U of R.

One thing to note about the U-Pass campaign is that it isn’t a new thing. In 2009, then URSU President Jessica Sinclair was involved in a campaign to bring the U-Pass to the U of R. However, this campaign ended up in defeat with 1,887 students voting against the measure while 779 students voted for.

In an interview with the CBC, Sinclair claimed that students rejected the U-Pass because she felt that “a lot of people were offended about being taxed for a service they felt the city should have been providing anyway.”

When asked about the previous campaign, Vanderberg claimed that its main flaw was that the URSU executive was too removed from the campaign for it to be successful. This stands in stark contrast to the current executive, with Vanderberg commending URSU President Devon Peters for having “interviewed over 500 students on what they thought were the top three… issues on campus. He found overwhelmingly that the most important issue on campus was parking.”

From this fact, URSU ultimately directed itself towards promoting the U-Pass. On top of this, Vanderberg claims that the U-Pass campaign will allow students who live outside the city, live on campus or take distance classes to opt out.

According to Vanderberg, three things have changed since 2009; less parking, more students and administrative support. The first factor is perhaps the most important, as it helped bring URSU and the administration together on implementing on the U-Pass subject. On March 26, 2013, the URSU board of directors approved a motion to pay $15,000 for a feasibility study for building a parkade on campus. Judging by the notes from the President’s Action Committee a year later, literally March 26, 2014, they did not like results. The section on parking reiterates the Campus Master Plan’s stated goal of “[reducing] surface parking spaces.” Furthermore, the same document includes a detailed presentation for an “Enterprise Carshare Program,” one of whose stated goals is to “[reduce] the need for short-term parking.” Given this, it is not that surprising that Vanderberg can cite increased administration support.

The contrast between Regina and Saskatoon, which already has a U-Pass program, is a major point of contention for transit advocates. Vanderberg says, “U of S has non-existent parking lots. Students were all over the residential areas parking and getting tons of tickets … the U of R, compared to other universities of similar size, has huge lots, a ton of parking and low rates.”

From this situation, pressure quickly developed in Saskatoon for an alternative to car travel. With the pressures of growth happening in Regina, Vanderberg believes something similar will happen here. On top of that, he also believes that the U-Pass movement can improve city transit as a whole. His main hope is that students who do not traditionally use transit can be included in the system by the construction of park-and-rides, complexes where you can freely park your car and catch a nearby bus. He also points out that transit systems in general are the way of the future, saying that “Edmonton… labeled transit as the cornerstone of their growth.”

Should the referendum pass, the next task will be to negotiate with the municipal government. Vanderberg says that the campaign’s main goal is to meet the city’s goal of recovering 45 per cent for every dollar spent.

He notes that there has been opposition from City Hall, saying that when “[Councilor Bob Hawkins] questioned us, he painted this as a city versus student union issue.” However, Vanderberg recognizes that “[City Council] has a right to be skeptical, [the referendum] has happened three times before and failed.”

To strengthen their hand, the campaign is considering a one-year U-Pass trial period. Vanderberg claims that such a period will show the City just how profitable bus routes used by students are. He notes that the City will gain $1.6 million dollars in revenue from students and that “every bus that is one-tenth full loses the city money.”

When asked about the idea of a U-Pass as it stands, most students on campus support it. Accounting major Kiefer Cochrane says that the U-Pass would help the express routes gain more ridership. Some students even said they would ride the bus if the U-Pass existed. On the other hand, some students oppose the U-Pass on the grounds that Regina’s transit system is not good enough. Ultimately, David Vanderberg says that it is up to students to find the answers. As he puts it, “Everyone can Google; everyone can do research.”

Updated (Nov. 11, 2014, 8:36 am): We incorrectly spelled Vanderberg as Vandenberg in a previous edition of this story. The mistakes have been fixed.  

Also, Vanderberg would like to emphasize that in the quote “every bus that is one-tenth full loses the city money,” he was talking about cost-recovery and how having more students on the bus will help the city make money back. In fact, he maintains that it would be equally true to say that an entirely full bus will lose the City money, because every public transit system across North America is subsidized and do not make money.

Correction (Nov. 11, 2014, 8:39 am): Vanderberg would like to make clear that the U-Pass organizers have not committed to pursuing a one-year term definitively. They are still weighing the pros and cons, so it would be inaccurate to say that they are pushing it. Rather, they are considering it. In an earlier version of this story it was incorrectly stated that ” the campaign is pushing for a one-year U-Pass trial period.” The mistake has been fixed.

Updated (Nov. 17, 2014, 4:06): We updated the story with a quote from Vanderberg explaining exactly what a U-Pass is in the second paragraph. 

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