The U-Pass at the U of M has a rocky road ahead of it, with either an increased cost or loss of the service on the horizon.
At a city hall standing policy committee on infrastructure renewal and public works meeting Monday, members voted to accept a Winnipeg Transit report recommending a price increase to the U-Pass. The report argues the increase is needed to alleviate budgetary constraints and fund an expansion of the shared student service to Red River College Students’ Association (RRCSA) members.
The U-Pass costs students $136.25 per term until the inaugural contract expires in May 2020. Transit recommended an increase of $24.50 per term and to index further increases to inflation, bringing the annual cost to $312.50 for the 2020-2021 academic year.
According to a 2018 amendment to the UMSU Act — provincial legislation that serves as the student union’s highest governing document — any increase to student fees must be put to a referendum. The changes were supported by the council of the day and passed through the legislature in the spring of 2018.
UMSU president Jakob Sanderson called the process a “necessary nuisance.”
“This isn’t our choice,” he said, “this is provincial law that’s dictating this.”
“So if the price increases with or without a summer U-Pass — $160, $150, $170 — we have to go back to referendum.”
Sanderson raised concerns that bringing the U-Pass increase to a referendum would result in losing the service entirely. A referendum to introduce the pass was only marginally successful in 2014, passing with 53 per cent approval of the 4,548 votes cast.
“We definitely want the U-Pass program to continue, but I have very, I think legitimate, fears that going back and asking students to pay $50 more for the exact same service that they’ve been using for the past four years is going to result in a failed referendum and the end of the program at the University of Manitoba,” he said.
When pressed if he believed a U-Pass could be successfully passed through a second referendum, Sanderson said he is “not here to play pundit.”
“In terms of projecting the success of the referendum,” he said, “I think that there’s a direct correlation in terms of how much of a benefit we’re giving to students.”
A point of contention between UMSU and the city has been the pass’s coverage period.
UMSU had been pushing for a summer-term U-Pass as recently as this spring, when the union executive chose to negotiate directly with city councillors after what it called pushback from Winnipeg Transit.
The city currently has no plans to initiate a summer U-Pass.
Sanderson called for the increase in fees to accompany an expansion of the winter term pass into the summer, a proposal included in the committee’s report to council.
“What we’re asking is simply that we’re able to give our students an option of ‘OK you know, you still want a U-Pass, you’re going to have to pay more but you’ll also get added benefits,’” Sanderson said.
UMSU’s alternate plan estimates an additional $1.4 million in revenue, which Sanderson said is more than twice of what Winnipeg Transit estimates the summer U-Pass would cost and enough to cover the cost of expanding the service to RRCSA students.
Sanderson pointed to a reported 25 per cent increase in ridership on routes to the U of M and an internal survey conducted by UMSU that showed a majority of students would support an increase in fees if it expanded service into the summer in support of UMSU’s proposal.
Sanderson — who campaigned for his second term as president on a promise to improve environmental sustainability on campus, calling it his “biggest passion” — said the city stands to benefit most from the U-Pass, saying UMSU was paying into “the program to promote the interests of the city.”
“The U-Pass isn’t really a subsidy — the U-Pass is a tax,” he said.
“And it comes with a carrot in the form of any student who’s already been busing or chooses to bus now gets cheaper access to transit than they ever would have gotten. But it also comes with the stick, where if you choose to drive, if you choose to not make a positive impact on emission reduction in the city, we will tax you at a rate of $134 per term.”
Student unions react
The University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) is currently the only other Winnipeg student association taking part in the U-Pass program.
It was noted in committee Monday that should UMSU and the UWSA back out of the program, the U-Pass will still be offered to RRSCA members.
Sanderson said the “extent of which Winnipeg Transit would be saddened at this loss” was “unclear” to him, and said he believed Winnipeg Transit was looking at riders like subsidies.
“Even if the program were to still remain adopted at [the] University of Winnipeg, which I think is also a large assumption, and is added at Red River College, that’s over half of this program’s users being taken off the roles,” he said at the committee meeting.
In an email, UWSA president Meagan Malcolm said she agreed with UMSU’s opposition to the fee increase, saying the recommended hike is higher than expected.
“University students can’t afford it and it will create further financial barriers to post-secondary education,” wrote Malcom.
“UWSA is very concerned about the proposed fee increase and will be advocating on behalf of students.”
Malcom did not say whether the UWSA would also hold a referendum if fees increase, but noted the decision to continue to take part in the program would be “made democratically and with students’ feedback.”
“The U-Pass program is mutually beneficial to students and the city and we hope that we can find an agreement for it to continue,” she wrote. “What we can say for now is that the $24 increase they’ve proposed is unaffordable for students, increases the barriers to university education and we can’t accept it.”
RRCSA president Joshua Roopchand stated in an email that while the organization is in favour of the recommendation to add Red River College to the U-Pass program, they acknowledge that the price increase is a worry.
“Whether this proposal is amended or accepted is to be seen but this is a concern that we know will be raised and addressed, hopefully in a manner that benefits the students involved,” he wrote.
Sanderson said that at the end of negotiations, his sole responsibility is to the well-being of UMSU members.
“Frankly, Transit has always preferred that it negotiates one contract for three schools with three different needs. That’s not necessarily our preference,” he said.
“My concern is what works best for the University of Manitoba student body.”