Presentation to Committee of the Whole, Transit Budget Hearings: October 29, 2009.
By Tom Cooper
Published October 30, 2009
Members of Council:
On behalf of Chair Mark Chamberlain and the 42 Members of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, I would like to take a few moments to address a critical area of concern for low income Hamiltonians: access to affordable public transit in Hamilton.
As you are aware, The Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction came together with support from the City of Hamilton and the Hamilton Community Foundation and involved a diverse partnership of leaders in business, the non-profit sector, education as well as individuals who were experiencing poverty. Setting an aspiration of 'Making Hamilton the Best Place to Raise a Child", the Roundtable has focused on changes that would have a long term impact in the lives of children, their families and the community.
The Roundtable has identified root causes that must be addressed in order to continue the process of reducing and eliminating poverty in our community. Addressing affordable housing, food security, income security, safe neighbourhoods and accessible transportation are critical if we are to continue our progress.
Affordable, accessible public transit is an integral part of comprehensive poverty reduction strategy; it is also a key link in building a vibrant community.
Over the past 12 months, Hamiltonians have been hit hard by the economic downtown. While our community was realizing some very real progress in our poverty reduction strategy before the recession hit, the past several months have been extremely difficult.
Low income residents are bearing the brunt of this global recession.
Hamilton's jobless rate is the highest it has been in many years at 9.1 percent. Ontario Works caseloads have risen by close to 23 percent in 2009 and Employment Insurance claims are up 150 percent.
In a few weeks you will receive a very sobering and disturbing report on emergency food bank usage in Hamilton and how families are impacted.
To put it plainly, low income families were the first to feel the impact of the global recession, and they will likely be the last to reap the benefits of a recovery. They are also those who would be most impacted by any decision made today to significantly increase the cost of public transportation.
There are opportunities to mitigate the challenges faced by thousands in Hamilton. The Roundtable believes we all have a responsibility to act, emphasize innovation and build for our community's long term prosperity.
Investing in public transit is not a risk; best practices across the continent and elsewhere have demonstrated that there is a clear link between enhancements to public transit and poverty reduction. Enabling low income residents to participate in community life, maintain attachment to the workplace or travel for essential services or appointments not only enhances community well-being, it provides individuals and families with opportunities to escape the cycle of poverty.
I would like to address three issues for your consideration:
One practical example of Hamilton's commitment to reduce poverty has been the creation of the affordable transit pass. At the request of Council in 2008, the Roundtable convened a community advisory panel to monitor the roll-out of the affordable transit pass.
This advisory committee consisting of Councillor McHattie, City Staff from Community Services Department, the Transit Users Group, Environment Hamilton, the Social Planning and Research Council and the Campaign for Adequate Welfare and Disability Benefits would like to encourage the project's continuation while suggesting a review and potential future expansion of the program.
The principal barrier to community inclusion is a lack of affordable transportation. Other municipalities seem to agree and like Hamilton, have implemented low-income transit pass programs .
Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Regina, Brandon, Waterloo Region and Ottawa, for example, all offer discounted transit passes for low-income people, thereby assisting low income people to access education, skills training and employment, buy groceries and other essentials, volunteer, attend medical appointments and places of worship, take their children to recreational activities and enjoy the many opportunities that their municipalities have to offer
We know there are 26,000 individuals in Hamilton who go to work every day or perhaps work several part time jobs and yet still live in poverty; we also know there are hundreds of individuals who are currently in receipt of Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program who are earning some modest employment income.
The fact remains that the majority of those individuals are not making use of this program and we believe we need to better understand why. We have also heard that a pass system may not be the most feasible use of resources, but that other alternatives should be considered. As such we would propose the following recommendations:
Continue the Affordable Transit Pass program through until 2011
Allocate staff resources to support focus group research on opportunities to make the affordable transit program more inclusive and accessible (such as expansion of availability of pass in different locations)
Ask staff to review the feasibility of implementing an "affordable ticket program" versus an "affordable pass program"
The Roundtable is also very concerned about the recommendations around the potential for the third transit fare increase in as many years.
Hamilton's lowest income residents - particularly those who do not work and do not have access to the affordable transit pass do not have the capacity to endure another cost increase. Fewer will ride the bus resulting in fewer trips and move the City away from its strategic goals of increasing transit usage. Some residents will walk to where they need to go, but many others will remain isolated, unable to participate in community life, job searches or trips to medical appointments.
While "bus tickets" are more affordable than cash fares and provide some relief, the Roundtable has heard from many community residents that the availability of those tickets makes them extremely difficult to obtain. Many 'mom-and-pop' corner stores no longer carry tickets.
We have heard tickets are rarely available in many low income neighbourhoods because of the administrative burden to storeowners and the lack of profit in selling the tickets themselves.
The Roundtable is also keenly aware of the current fiscal pressures facing the municipality. The Roundtable has strongly advocated with the provincial government for the adoption of a 'social assistance rates board' which would provide a universal transit benefit to all low income residents in receipt of social assistance, however until that campaign is successful, we strongly urge Council to consider a compromise position on the issue of fare hikes.
Maintain "ticket" prices at the current $1.85 fare
Allocate staff resources to a review of HSR ticket sales locations with the mandate of examining the potential of selling HSR tickets at City facilities - municipal service centres, recreation centres, libraries etc. that can manage cash - thereby making tickets more widely available in low income neighbourhoods
The federal gas tax transfer to the municipality comes with few strings attached - although the intention was for improvements to public transit. Many cities have earmarked that transfer directly into service enhancements for their public transportation systems. The City of Hamilton has chosen to dedicate those funds for other purposes.
The Roundtable has been aware for some time of the grave difficulties many Hamiltonians face in moving around this city; those challenges are compounded ten fold for residents living on low and limited incomes.
Poverty reduction and community prosperity are opposite sides of the same coin; in order to build a prosperous community we must be willing to invest in people and that means providing opportunities to move around the city - particularly to maintain attachment to the workforce.
Currently HSR service levels are inadequate to meet the needs of a growing community. Many busses are overcrowded, in other cases routes do not reflect the movement of people to get to their jobs. Many low income residents in areas outside of the 'central City' often feel isolated because they cannot afford private transportation and do not have access to public transit at the times they need it.
Accessible and affordable public transit remains a priority for low income residents and will be a key link in moving Hamiltonians out of poverty. We must make appropriate investments in the collective interests of our community.
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