BY SARAH VEENSTRA
Dear Grand River Transit, Conestoga College has students too.
After an article published in the Waterloo Region Record in May shed light on the price gap between what local university students pay for transit in comparison to college students, the student body of Conestoga College saw red.
The four-month Universal Pass, or the UPass, is offered to Wilfrid Laurier University and University of Waterloo students for $90, a fee which is tacked onto their tuition. Conestoga students are offered a pass for the same four-month term for $227.
Ken Ram, a first-year public relations student at the college, was comfortable with the Conestoga pass price but became outraged when he learned of the difference, which was not the only thing he was concerned with.
“I live in the Hespeler area and busing is terrible,” Ram said. “I bus an hour to and from school. That’s an hour each way, not in total. If I were to drive here, it would take 20 minutes maximum. If I have an 8 a.m. class and I miss one step, it’ll take even longer and I’ll be late. It’s ridiculous.”
Earlier this year, the Region of Waterloo announced they were working on developing plans to increase bus routes around Conestoga College, as well as offering the UPass to college students at the same rate as university students.
According to Waterloo Region Coun. Sean Strickland, in order to make this plan a reality, GRT would require 12 additional staff members, 14 new buses and 14,000 new service hours, racking up an annual bill of $6.5 million.
“If we would have approved this line item in 2014, it would have been implemented this fall,” he said. “We deferred it to the new GRT business plan that is currently underway.”
The business plan is an ongoing annual evaluation to modify or expand current routes or add additional ones throughout the entire region based on ridership observations and the yearly budget.
“There are challenges with respect to Conestoga compared to the universities, and the first is the geography and the lack of existing bus routes in that area.”
Isolation isn’t the only issue to be discussed at a meeting taking place later this month between Waterloo Region councillors, GRT management and Conestoga Students Inc. president Jeff Scherer.
“What happens when it becomes more affordable is ridership and purchases increase, significantly increase,” said John Cicuttin, manager of transit development for Waterloo Region’s GRT. “That’s something we learned when we offered the UPass to the university students.”
In the fall of 2014, Wilfrid Laurier University had 14,182 students with UPasses, and Waterloo had 27,099. Conestoga had 2,525 students purchase passes, a number Cicuttin expects will increase.
“We have to make sure we can accommodate the students we sell to, which means adding more lines or increasing staff and we have to make sure it will be worth it for the students, while still making it affordable for them and for the city,” said Cicuttin.
Scherer said, “Part of the process of having this program successful at Conestoga will be holding a referendum where students will be able to vote on whether they would like the program to be available or not, and if they approve the addition of the fee onto their tuition.”
In the meantime, GRT has reduced its Conestoga pass from $267 to $227 to try and increase ridership.
For now, any public and alternative transportation changes are on hold until at least 2016, while decisions, solutions and budget approvals remain up in the air.
“We are taking the challenge in providing regular and increased bus service to Conestoga College quite seriously,” Strickland said.