December 14, 2018

The universal transit pass (U-Pass) was approved this week in a referendum by students at Conestoga College — but some are not impressed with the proposal to implement the mandatory fee starting in fall 2019.

The U-Pass is a universal pass for 12 months of rides on Grand River Transit and the light rail transit system (LRT). The pass, priced at $137 per semester, would impose that fee on all full-time students who pay student association fees and attend Conestoga’s Doon, Waterloo or Cambridge campuses. There is no option to opt out of the U-Pass program, unlike the student health plan, even though the Ion light rail system, when operational, will get nowhere near Conestoga’s Doon or Cambridge campuses.

The cost of the U-Pass will be much lower than the current cost of public transit. Students currently pay $292 for a Grand River Transit pass for a four-month semester or $584 for an eight-month school year. Drivers who commute in their own vehicles pay $262 for a four-month parking pass or $524 for the school year. That price doesn’t include basic motoring costs, such as car payments and insurance.

Many students have voiced their displeasure about the vote results on social media, saying that the way the vote was advertised was directed more toward students who take transit, rather than those who commute via their own cars. Some students said they were not even aware that the vote was happening.

A screenshot of a tweet regarding the U-pass vote at Conestoga College. (Jessica Towriss/Spoke News)

“This year, I bought my bus pass through CSI and I was given a flyer with my pass with information regarding the U-Pass vote,” said Camilla Prado, a practical nursing student. “I don’t think driving students were given the same flyer when they purchased their parking pass.”

Conestoga Students Inc., the student association, released a statement regarding the U-Pass vote on Oct. 2, the day after voting closed: “We would like to start by thanking each student that took the time to vote in this referendum. We received 3,950 votes in the referendum, approximately 25 per cent of Conestoga’s full-time student population. Of the 3,950 votes, 2,293 were in favour of implementing the U-Pass and 1,656 were not in favour of implementing the U-Pass.”

However, some students were concerned that the vote turnout wasn’t sufficient enough to reflect the will of the majority of students. Given that Conestoga is largely a commuter campus and that the GRT does not extend too far into the surrounding region, students who drive from Guelph, Fergus, Stratford, Listowel and many other places felt that the imposition of a fee for the U-Pass against all students is unfair, as many will not able to utilize the services for which they are being forced to pay.

Aimee Calma, president of Conestoga Students Inc., did not respond to repeated requests from Spoke for an interview on the U-Pass results.

“I live in Guelph, so even if I wanted too, I am unable to use the transit pass,” said Nate Davison, a police foundations student. “I have to use my vehicle to drive to school, which costs more than a typical bus pass. I pay upwards of $340 for a car payment, $191 for insurance, plus gas and basic maintenance every month. Now I’m being forced to pay $137 per semester for a service I am unable to use, based off a vote that most students didn’t realize affected them due to poor advertisement of CSI’s brochures and social media posts.”

“I’m very frustrated with this whole situation,” said Nicole North, a practical nursing student. “I think it is extremely unfair to students who drive to force them to pay for a bus pass they can’t use, just to lower the price for the students who use the bus. Also, $137 may not seem like a lot, but that barely covers the cost of a textbook for many programs and may cover groceries for a single mom or dad. It seems severely one-sided.”

“I take the bus to school and I voted ‘no’ for the U-Pass,” said Kunal Patel, a web design and development student. “Not all students have a good financial situation and why should they have to pay for a service they won’t use.”

Students board a GRT bus on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, at Conestoga’s Doon campus in Kitchener Ont. (Photo by Jessica Towriss/Spoke News)

While this may be a sore spot for some students, for others, it is a boon. Many international students rely on public transportation to get to and from school. Some feel that the option of public transit will reduce the number of parking passes purchased and ease congestion in the parking lots.

“As someone who constantly uses the bus to travel back and forth to Doon, I feel that the fee included in the tuition is beneficial directly and indirectly to the college as a whole,” said Christopher Wong, a bachelor of environmental public health student.

“The U-Pass benefits everyone. Do you drive to school? Then maybe you will enjoy having fewer people to compete for parking spots with,” said Rachel Wever in a Facebook post about the referendum.

Even though the U-Pass has been approved by students, it is not a done deal. Before the U-Pass can be officially instituted, it must be approved by the college’s board of governors. It must also be approved by Waterloo Region’s council.

When Conestoga tried to implement the U-Pass in 2011, it was voted agreed to by students, but was shut down at the regional table due to difficulties with finances.

Benito Zefferino, a software engineering student, felt so passionately that it is unfair to charge students for a service they might not use, he started a petition on Change.org, called Only UPASS Users Should Have To Pay For UPASS.

“A lot of people prepare budgets for their commute to college. As a mature student with a family, I have had to tighten our spending to invest in a better future by returning to school. Now I have to pay for other students’ commute costs on top of my own, after a vote that only 25 per cent of students participated in,” said Zefferino. “I feel the referendum was an inaccurate representation of the student body and that, if something is to be made mandatory for the entire student population, the vote should be unanimous. Otherwise, do not force everyone to pay for a third-party expense. This has nothing to do with my education and I’m stuck paying for it.”

— with files from Darick Charbonneau

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