We cannot unite this city until we end area rating for transit and establish a single, unified funding policy across the urbanized area with service improvement costs and benefits shared equally by everyone.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 13, 2015
A recent editorial in the Flamborough Review channels Abraham Lincoln's famous 1858 House Divided speech, in which Lincoln argued that the United States could not endure as long as some of its citizens were free and others enslaved, to unpack Hamilton's contentious local issue of area rating for transit.
It's audacious enough to frame area rating in the grandiose terms of freedom and slavery, but then the editorial manages to get the analogy exactly backward.
Lincoln was running against incumbent Stephen Douglas to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate, and he wanted to differentiate himself from Douglas, who preferred a mealy-mouthed compromise in which individual territories could decide whether to allow slavery and the country as a whole would remain balkanized.
In Hamilton, the prevailing system of area rating for transit means different parts of the city pay different tax rates toward transit and, in turn, receive service levels commensurate with how much they contribute. (Rural areas of the city outside the urban boundary pay nothing.)
The old city of Hamilton wards 1 through 8 pay 2.3 times as much as urban Glanbrook, 3.4 times as much as urban Stoney Creek, 3.5 times as much as urban Ancaster, 4.2 times as much as urban Dundas and 6.3 times as much as urban Flamborough.
|Area||Transit Rate||% of Full Rate|
|Source: City of Hamilton - Residential General and Area Specific Rates By Community|
|Hamilton - Urban||0.088%||100.00%|
|Ancaster - Urban||0.025%||28.41%|
|Ancaster - Urban with Rural Fire||0.025%||28.41%|
|Dundas - Urban||0.021%||23.86%|
|Flamborough - Urban||0.014%||15.91%|
|Glanbrook - Urban||0.039%||44.32%|
|Glanbrook - Urban with Rural Fire||0.039%||44.32%|
|Stoney Creek - Urban||0.026%||29.55%|
|Stoney Creek - Urban with Rural Fire||0.026%||29.55%|
|Ancaster - Rural||0.000%||0.00%|
|Ancaster - Rural with Urban Fire||0.000%||0.00%|
|Dundas - Rural||0.000%||0.00%|
|Dundas - Rural with Urban Fire||0.000%||0.00%|
|Flamborough - Rural||0.000%||0.00%|
|Glanbrook - Rural||0.000%||0.00%|
|Glanbrook - Rural with Urban Fire||0.000%||0.00%|
|Stoney Creek - Rural||0.000%||0.00%|
The only way to expand service in a rated area is to add the entire cost to the ratepayers in that area, which is unfair and serves as a major disincentive to increase service levels in underserved areas.
Area rating is the very definition of a "house divided" - different sets of rules for different parts of the city, and a framework that makes it impossible to make comprehensive plans as long as the funding and service rates remain balkanized.
But the editorial tries to argue that it is the attempt to end area rating that is dividing our house.
[T]he transit discussion has the potential to blow up the four-year rural-urban council relationship. Notably, it’s not only some urban politicians who are grumbling about what they feel is an unequal partnership, but it’s also a vocal urban minority that dominates social media that seems to be driving a well-intentioned wedge into council’s plans.
This analysis simply does not hold water. The desire to end area rating isn't some divisive downtown plot against the suburbs. It's an attempt to have a single set of rules so that the city can plan transit as an integrated system rather than a fragmentary patchwork.
Hamilton is the only municipality in Ontario with area rating for transit. An attempt was made in 2010 to end area rating when Mayor Fred Eisenberger convinced Council to approve a Citizens Forum composed of a randomly-selected group of residents from every area of the city, representing the city's many demographics.
The Citizens Forum was instructed to set aside narrow, parochial interests, consider the fullness of evidence objectively, and come up with a recommendation that would serve the best interest of the city as a whole. They were not a "vocal urban minority" trying to "drive a wedge".
The Forum returned to Council in early 2011 with a recommendation to end area rating for transit, fire and recreation services and establish a single rate within the urban area, while rural residents would continue to pay nothing. This was a fair consensus position arrived at by a reasonable group of disinterested residents.
The recommendation stated:
The current model does not recognize the urban transit area as one system that serves one economy, populated by certain workers who need reliable transit seven days a week to get to work. Adoption of the recommendation would provide an opportunity to re-think the transit service delivery model.
Council adopted their recommendation for fire and recreation services but deferred a decision on transit. Now it is four years later and area rating continues to produce perverse outcomes that hurt residents all across the city.
In 2014, a group of engaged young residents from Redeemer University organized an inspiring campaign to request modest service improvements on the 44 Rymal route, which serves Redeemer and the Ancaster Business Park.
That modest service improvement was scaled back at the request of Ancaster Councillor Lloyd Ferguson, who pointed out that Ancaster ratepayers would have to cover the levy cost of the service increase. If transit was not area rated, the cost would be distributed equitably across all city ratepayers.
More recently, residents in Binbrook voted to end a TransCab pilot because of area rating. TransCab is a service that extends transit through a partnership with a taxi service for areas that don't yet have enough ridership to warrant a bus.
The Binbrook TransCab extended the 44 Rymal service beyond the Terryberry Road bus stop into Binbrook, and ridership was growing steadily from its launch in September 2013. Of course, as ridership grew, so did the area rated levy that Binbrook residents had to pay - a cost of $10-22 per month.
City staff recommended expanding the program, but Binbrook residents voted overwhelmingly to cancel it. The last day of service is today, Friday, February 13, 2015.
Transit is a classic Public Good: a public service that generates more value than it costs and benefits everyone, not just people who use it.
It improves the city's economic output by matching more workers with more job opportunities, and where service is high, it alleviates traffic congestion on busy streets - like King Street, on which there are as many people riding the bus as there are in automobiles durinng rush hour.
The Flamborough Review editorial closes by noting the severe deficiencies in Hamilton's transit and calling on everyone to "work together to unite" the city.
That cannot happen until we put an end to area rating and establish a single, unified transit funding policy across the urbanized area with service improvement costs and benefits shared equally by everyone.
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