The Hamilton Spectator
(Jul 7, 2008)
A new city staff report says a free transit system would cost taxpayers more than $30 million a year.
The shortfall would translate into about $161 more in taxes for a home assessed at $250,000.
The report, which outlines several options for fare cutting on the Hamilton Street Railway and the Accessible Transportation Services, will be presented to a city committee tomorrow.
Staff have asked councillors to direct them on which free transit items should be included in next year's plans.
The report says an additional $30.9 million would be needed to run a free HSR if ridership jumped 20 per cent.
The additional cash would include $5 million to $10 million to implement more service.
Ridership on a free system could increase as much as 50 per cent, the report says, although the initial jump would likely be from existing riders using the system more.
For ATS, a minimum of $900,000 would be lost in annual fares.
In 2007, 21.1-million trips were taken on the HSR. The system generated $28.9 million in revenue.
Councillor Sam Merulla, who initially raised the issue of free transit last year, is convinced it's the way to go.
"I think it's an idea or a concept that inevitably will happen," he said.
"It's a question of when."
Merulla said system upgrades would be part of the plan, making it more convenient for people to travel around the city.
With rising oil and gas prices, the cost to taxpayers would be worth the trade off for convenient travel, he adds, in addition to the environmental and social benefits of the plan.
Last year, council approved raising transit fares twice, bringing the cost of a cash fare to $2.40 as of Jan. 1. A ticket increased to $1.85 and monthly passes increased $8 to $79.
Councillor Tom Jackson explained that he doesn't support free transit, although he's open to having the issue deferred to the 2009 budget.
Jackson said the move should be looked at in the context of rapid transit development, in addition to having widespread public consultation.
He also raised the idea of seeking outside funding for such an initiative.
"I'm just saying we need to look at it in the whole global context," Jackson said.
Hamilton has one free fare program, the waterfront shuttle, which runs from June 24 to Sept. 3 at no charge.
In addition to outlining free transit initiatives, staff are also recommending expanding the city's Employer Commuter Pass program.
Currently municipal employees can have a portion their transit pass paid for by the city.
Staff would like to see that subsidy increased, as well as developing a pass for other employers. Hamilton Health Sciences is now piloting the project with some of its workers.
Options city staff have outlined to provide some form of free transit:
* Free rides from Canada Day to Labour Day. Cost: $5 million-plus.
* No fares on smog and heat alert days, in addition to increased parking rates at municipal lots. Cost: $50,000 in lost revenue per weekday.
* Free transit during council-endorsed special events like Commuter Challenge Week. Cost: $350,000 in lost revenue per week.
* Free weekday service, by day of the week.
* No fares on weekends, such as free Sundays to encourage shoppers to use transit.
* Free travel for seniors during off-peak periods.