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London Transit absent from meeting about pilot project to offer free bus passes to high schoolers

A London Transit bus stop is seen in front of city hall in London, Ont. on April 16, 2024. (Daryl Newcombe/CTV News London) A London Transit bus stop is seen in front of city hall in London, Ont. on April 16, 2024. (Daryl Newcombe/CTV News London)
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A proposed partnership to evaluate the impact of providing high school students free bus passes got off to a rocky start when one of the agencies didn’t attend a meeting at city hall.

On Tuesday, council’s Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee (SPPC) spent two hours discussing a motion directing city staff to develop a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and London Transit Commission (LTC) for a two-year pilot project investigating the impact of providing free bus passes to high school students in London.

The motion by Deputy Mayor Shawn Lewis and Coun. Peter Cuddy would begin with grade nine students at Clarke Road Secondary School this September and expand to grades nine and 10 in September 2025.

“What we do have right now is a gap,” explained Lewis. “Kids under 12 ride free, [there’s] a deeply subsidized pass for post-secondary students, and we leave the high school students in the lurch.”

The motion suggests free bus passes could improve student achievement, lower absence rates, and improve opportunities to participate in after-school clubs, sports and part-time jobs.

It could also boost future bus ridership and result in greater funding from senior levels of government.

Representatives from TVDSB answered several questions about the results of a feasibility study and why the east end high school was chosen for the pilot project.

“I’d like to see some more discussion about other possible routes, other possible schools,” said Coun. Sam Trosow.

However, Acting City Manager Kelly Scherr warned that discussions to broaden the pilot project would jeopardize the ability of city staff to negotiate a draft MOU in time for the new school year this September.

Noticeably absent from the SPPC meeting were representatives from London Transit’s administration.

“Without LTC here, we are not able to fully understand whether this is even feasible,” Coun. Corrine Rahman told colleagues after raising questions about cost and whether the routes students would take to school are already at capacity.

“[Council should] get the input of London Transit,” Coun. Susan Stevenson suggested. “Does this meet their goals? How does this fit into their Strategic Plan, their objectives, and their costs?”

Councillors Jerry Pribil and David Ferreira sit as members of the London Transit Commission.

Pribil said the TVDSB feasibility study had not appeared on any LTC meeting agendas since he joined the commission in late 2022.

“I do believe this is very much two parties who are very much involved, and the third one is being directed,” he added.

Stevenson urged colleagues to refer the matter to the next SPPC meeting on May 17 so that London Transit could be invited to respond to councillors’ questions.

But the deputy mayor warned, “Referring this is going to put us in a position where we will have no movement forward for the school year in 2024.”

The referral was defeated 4-11.

“I think this is starting the discussion,” said Coun. Skylar Franke. “I think all of those details that people need and all these questions can be nailed down in discussions with LTC and the school board.”

The committee recommended directing staff to develop a draft MOU with the TVDSB and LTC, and bring it back for a decision by council this summer.

The draft MOU will refine the cost estimates and evaluation tools used to measure the pilot program’s impact on students as well as transit ridership.

After the meeting, Lewis was asked by CTV News London why representatives of London Transit were not at the meeting.

“I shared the language of the motion that was coming here [with] the general manager of London Transit on Friday, so they are aware it was coming,” he said.

CTV News London contacted the general manager of London Transit and the chair of the London Transit Commission but has yet to receive a response.

Two weeks ago council supported a motion by Lewis and Budget Chair Elizabeth Peloza for an external performance audit of London Transit

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