Why does our strategic plan to double transit ridership by 2025 never, ever translate into policy decisions that move us incrementally toward that goal?
By Ryan McGreal
Published October 27, 2009
Does it really need to be stated again? Hamilton desperately needs more and better transit. Hamilton needs more money for transit. Hamilton needs transit ridership at least double today's rate and preferably higher still. It's in Vision 2020. It's in GRIDS. It's in the Transportation Master Plan. It's in every major strategic document passed by Council in the past several years.
We need more transit, and we need more money for transit. Council agrees. City staff agree. Residents agree. Environmental groups agree. Social justice groups agree. The Chamber of Commerce agrees. I mean, really, there is about as broad a consensus as it's possible to get in politics that transit is good and more of it is better.
We know that transit is a critical investment in urban infrastructure and a key part of what makes cities centres of innovation and generators of wealth. Every great city on earth has high quality, high order transit, which helps bring large numbers of people into close proximity, leverages economies of density and scale, and maximizes the productivity of urban physical infrastructure.
So why is transit in Hamilton starved for funding, year after year after year? Why does our strategic plan to double transit ridership by 2025 never, ever translate into policy decisions that move us incrementally toward that goal?
We have slashed, starved and stagnated transit since the mid 1980s. The statistics are a litany of bloodletting:
Between 2000 and 2007, a period during which the city's roads and traffic budget grew 56.5 percent from $36.8 million to $57.6 million, the HSR budget grew only 29 percent, from $21.6 million to $27.9 million. It was the smallest increase of any major city department.
Meanwhile, the great boom in ridership that cities around the world experienced in the mid- to late 2000s passed Hamilton by. We suffocated it with transit-unfriendly pricing policies.
This was supposed to be a new era for transit investment and urban revitalization. Not in Hamilton.
While other cities pour their federal gas tax money into transit improvements, Hamilton dumps its federal gas tax money into the general budget to hold the line on tax increases.
We actually argued to the federal government that Hamilton had less than 500,000 people so we could behave like a small town and spend our federal money on roads and bridges rather than the transit for which it is intended.
Federal gas tax money comes with few strings attached, but the provincial money has conditions. We're supposed to spend it improving service and increasing ridership, and the level of funding is tied to ridership.
We're costing ourselves provincial gas tax money because each year we choose to forsake ridership gains through fare increases rather than grow ridership through increased funding and better service.
Transit use, like everything else, responds to price signals. Every time a city raises transit fares, ridership drops. Every time a city lowers transit fares, ridership increases. The relationship between fares and ridership is strong, clear and exhaustively established.
Hamilton raised fares in mid-2007 and again in 2008. The city was able to avoid raising fares again in 2009 because the collapsing price of oil lowered the HSR's operating costs.
Now staff recommend increasing fares again in 2010, by 10 or 20 cents a ride and with proportional increases for tickets and monthly passes.
Staff claim that the city's operating costs are going back up as oil prices increase, while ridership is down due to the recession - more unemployed people means fewer rides to work. However, due to the HSR's current farebox system, the city has no precise data on ridership so the claim that ridership down is at best an estimate.
Staff emphatically do not recommend increasing the city's funding of transit to get more money into the system. Nor do they recommend fixing the city's broken area rating system for transit levies. In fact, the plan making its way through the city's finance department would replace area rating with an even worse arrangement.
Area rating is the bizarre system in Hamilton in which residents of different parts of the city pay different rates toward certain municipal services: transit, culture and recreation, and fire protection.
Hamilton is the only municipality in Ontario to do this, and it is a throwback to the forced amalgamation of the city with its suburban neighbours in 1999.
As a result, residents of the old city pay nearly three times as much for transit as residents in Glanbrook, three and a half times as much as residents in Stoney Creek, four times as much as residents in Dundas, and nearly five times as much as residents in Ancaster.
In 2007, Council acknowledged that the city's area rating system for transit levies is broken instructed staff to investigate options to fix it before the 2010 municipal election.
Unfortunately, the file has ended up in the hands of the Finance department, which insists that any change be strictly revenue-neutral.
In other words, transit levies for the suburban wards would go up, while the old city's rate would go down so that they are all equal and the total transit tax revenue doesn't change.
That's a full-on disaster. It means first of all that "fixing" area rating will result in no net increase of transit funds - one of the major failures of the current system.
Worse, since the suburbs currently pay lower rates in exchange for less service, balancing all the areas without increasing the total revenue implies that HSR's existing resources would then have to be redeployed and spread out to roughly the same level across the entire city.
Given that the old city is already significantly under-served for transit, measured poignantly by the number of "pass-bys" as overstuffed buses drive past people waiting at bus stops, this would take a bad situation and make it even worse.
Finally, it takes the current conflict between the old city and the suburbs and turns it on its head instead of resolving it. Imagine the howls of outrage when suburban ratepayers discover that their taxes would go up so the taxes of people living downtown can go down!
Staff will claim that there is no alternative but to raise fares - either that or cut service. That's nonsense.
A real solution to area rating that brings the entire city's contribution up to what the old city pays would add millions of dollars in new revenue.
Committing the federal gas tax monies to transit instead of the general pool would give transit the capital dollars it desperately needs. The HSR currently funds capital purchases out of its operating revenue, the only significant department forced to do this.
Holding the line on fares and committing more money to service would increase ridership and qualify the city for more provincial money.
Embracing the Provincial Places to Grow framework and committing fully to infill development and intensification rather than never-ending sprawl would dramatically increase the productivity of our public infrastructure and allow the city to reduce its roads and traffic budget.
At the same meeting on Thursday at which Councillors will receive the staff transit recommendation, Councillors will also receive the report on an operational review of Hamilton's transit system that was conducted by IBI Consulting.
The public input into that review has been minimal - just two meetings with stakeholders, the first of which ended up canceled because of a scheduling error - but at least IBI Consulting has some expertise in making transit systems work.
Staff and Council are presumably hoping that the operational review will identify areas of waste and mis-allocated resources that the city can redeploy to make the HSR work better without spending any more money. I'll be surprised if any such areas exist, given the long starvation diet the HSR has endured.
One persistent rumour is that the consultant will actually recommend significant increases in public commitment and revenue to put Hamilton on track to achieving its objective of doubling ridership. That would undoubtedly include fare increases, but in the context of a greater commitment to transit across the board rather than instead of that greater commitment.
As it stands, the staff recommendation dumps the burden on riders without touching the other failures in Hamilton's transit plan or doing anything to move toward our strategic goals. The best that our Councillors can do is push the staff report back, reconsider the recommendations in the light of the operational review, and take the time and effort to incorporate real public input into the process.
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