Since Guelph Politico first published an article on the sudden cancellation of the Free Ride Friday program there’s been a lot of confusion about who’s responsible and why. So as Storm fans are left by the side of the road without their usual ride downtown, the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Public Services at the City of Guelph admits that it was the City’s decision.
In the Politico article from September 28, Transit manager Phil Meagher said that it was a loss of revenue and ridership from the cut service in the summer that led to the City’s decision to not renew the contract. On the flipside though, in an article in the Guelph Tribune, DCAO Colleen Clack said that the reason actually had more to do with the declining use of the program. When reached for clarification by Politico, Clack said that in a way they were both right.
“It’s not that there was an intentional disconnect,” Clack said. “‘A’ didn’t automatically lead to ‘B’ […] It wasn’t that linear a progression.”
“Where Phil is correct is that we’re always very conscious of revenue targets in any of our business units, Transit being no exception, and yes we did see pressures over the summer as a result of the service cuts, although that was budgeted for,” she explained.
Basically the City, while looking for efficiencies and cost savings, had to consider whether they wanted to continue various Transit programs. Combined with the the new contract reached between the City and the Guelph Storm, Free Ride Fridays became financially unviable. “In fairness it wasn’t something that was benefiting Guelph Transit as an organization, we were simple deferring revenue and from an openness and transparency point of view we were giving [the Storm] a perk, for lack of a better word,” Clack said. “There wasn’t a return.”
That comment was interesting because Free Ride Fridays have been a “perk” for Storm fans since 2008. The deal was basically an exchange of in-kind services; Guelph Transit provided free rides for Storm ticket-holders Fridays and gave the team free advertising in 20 buses, while the Storm promoted Transit at the game, in its programs and in radio ads. A report to council in July 2013 outlined the financial implications to the City by saying, “Based on the activities undertaken and services provided and received by each party, Guelph Transit and the Guelph Storm receive approximately the same financial value from this agreement.” That means the exchange of services basically cost the same, so what happened?
“I would argue that somebody could give us $500,000 worth of advertising in exchange for $500,000 worth of services, but if that advertising isn’t actually beneficial then the investment isn’t there,” Clack said. “When we brought that report forward in 2013, it was our hope that the benefits we were getting from the advertising were offsetting the lost revenue, but in the final reporting back to council we couldn’t feel that we could justify that we were getting that value in that promotion. It wasn’t increasing our ridership on Guelph Transit.”
That’s another interesting comment given that the Free Ride Fridays was once so successful that the City duplicated it for when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats played at the University of Guelph Alumni Stadium in 2013. Using the City’s own numbers, about 3,100 people were using Free Ride Fridays in 2012/13 while 4,300 people were using it in 2015/16. So how could a program have more riders today than three years ago and now be seen as a failure when it was once a success?
“We went back and looked at the full history in terms of peaks and values, and we’ve seen a gradual decline,” Clack said. “In a broad way, I would say that times being what they are we’re looking across the board, we’re trying to be much more focused when we’re analyzing the programs that we offer. Yes, we felt it was successful in 2012/2013 with offsetting marketing benefits, but we’re not seeing that there now with our analysis this year.”
The bottom line is that it was the City’s decision to cancel the program, said Clack, not the Guelph Storm’s. There was some reporting that the Storm wanted to end it, but Clack was emphatic that this came from the City of Guelph. “It was our analysis of the program in terms of what we were getting, and in terms of benefit from the Guelph Storm,” Clack explained. “I’m being very careful because I don’t want to disclose any negotiation conversations of the overall agreements, because that’s something I can’t disclose, but in terms of the City evaluating what we were getting as benefit as opposed to an offset for what it was costing us, we made the determination that it was no longer financially viable, and we were offering a perk to the Guelph Storm that we were not offering to others.”
Fairness is one thing, but I asked Clack about whether it was fair to compare a Guelph Storm game, which attracts thousands of people on any given night, could be compared to a concert or event at the River Run Centre which may only attract a couple of hundred. “There is an order of magnitude there for sure,” Clack said pointing out that other events at the Sleeman Centre like a February 2013 show by the Tragically Hip, or the Opening Ceremonies for the Special Olympics this past spring, might make a better comparison.
“Events like that are probably good comparitors, and I would want to look at it more broadly and say ‘What is the tipping point? Is it X number of thousands in the core before we offer free transit?'” Clack said. “Another example, although it’s not directly comparable, is New Year’s Eve where we seek sponsorship to offset the cost of providing Guelph Transit for free.”
As to the logistical question of why the citizens weren’t told that their Storm tickets were no longer currency on Transit Friday nights, Clack, like Meagher, admitted that the City fell down on the job there. “I will say that as the DCAO, this is an example of how if we looked back then there is some learning here in terms of how Guelph Transit communicated this out, so I will freely say that,” she admitted. “I will say there was no intention to mislead, but in hindsight we’re learning how we could have communicated it better.”
On a matter separate from the financial, there are other considerations when it comes to the Free Ride Friday program. Using the City’s own numbers, even if those 400 people per game were all travelling together in groups of four by car, it still means an extra 100 cars congesting the core before and after a game, each needing their own parking space in an area of town people already have traffic concerns. Isn’t there value beyond the budgetary?
“I would say yes, but that would have to be a much more holistic program that wasn’t just focused on the Guelph Storm,” said Clack. “I can understand philosophically the thought process behind, and I’m not necessarily saying that I disagree, it’s just that we would need to look at that much more broadly.”