Thursday, October 29, 2009
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
The Hamilton Spectator
(Oct 28, 2009)
Pass the Tylenol Extra Strength -- an HSR fare increase is back on the table.
Pretty much every year we go through this painful dance in which HSR staff recommends to city council that a fare increase is necessary to offset the rising cost of operations and to improve and expand service. If there's no increase, the system won't grow, will exhaust reserves, defer capital spending and possibly reduce service, the argument goes. And HSR fares are 10 to 15 per cent lower than other big city fares across Canada, so we're underpaying for the service.
And every year, transit, environmental and social justice advocates yell loud and long against fare increases. Fare hikes are guaranteed to reduce ridership, so higher fares are offset by fewer riders, and there's no real gain, they argue. Shrinking ridership also contradicts the city's sustainability master plan, Vision 2020. Because HSR ridership is largely students and people on limited or low income, fare hikes penalize the most vulnerable, and may be a disincentive for people to work rather than rely on social assistance, poverty activists add.
The thing is, all of this is true. There is convincing evidence on both sides. Little wonder the matter ended with a tie council vote last year, which resulted in a proposal for a 10 cent fare increase dying on the table.
Some other salient points:
This time around, the debate is likely to be even more contentious than last year. The city was staring at the prospect of a $15-million deficit, brought about in large part by the recession. Given the bleak state of provincial finances, there's a worry the province may not deliver entirely on its uploading commitment of about $15 million, which could make the shortfall as much as $31.5m. This may not be the year to put extra burden on the overall tax base by deferring any fare increase for a second consecutive year.
The recession has also made poverty an even bigger problem in the city, with many more families unemployed, using food banks, applying for social assistance, and, yes, using public transit because it's what they can afford. The price of a monthly pass has already increased 22 per cent since 2007. This may not be the year to put extra burden on the people living in poverty, including the working poor.
In the wake of last year's split decision on a fare increase, a disappointed Mayor Fred Eisenberger said: "These are tough times. It's a question of balance." That's as true this year as it was then.
Council needs to strike a balanced approach to the pressures on the overall city budget and all taxpayers and the pressures on the HSR and passengers. There needs to be more collaboration and communication with transit users than there has been to date. The results of an operational review of HSR need to be released and understood before a decision is taken on a fare increase. Council needs to hear from and listen to social justice and taxpayer advocates. That process begins at a Committee of the Whole meeting tomorrow. A transit fare increase may ultimately be necessary, but not before a great deal of sincere collaboration and creative thinking rule out other alternatives.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
City staff are calling for a 20 cent fare hike for the HSR and DARTS, and switching bus purchases to 40-foot diesel vehicles instead of a mix of 40 and 60 foot articulated hybrids. The proposals were released on Friday and go before councillors as part of the ‘transit day’ budget deliberations on October 29.
The 9:30 am meeting at the Sheraton Hotel was also expected to consider changes to HSR routes proposed by consultants. A presentation on those changes (not yet made public) is on the agenda, but transit staff want no action taken by councillors until staff have an opportunity to respond.
The fare hikes, on the other hand, are recommended for finalization by November 30 so they can be imposed at the start of next year.
“Foregone revenue from a delay in a fare increase beyond January 1, 2010 would be in the order of $100,000 per month,” warns the report.
Staff say their proposals respond to a council directive that limits spending increases to 2 percent for 2010 – equal to a little over $850,000 for transit. Staff say the division is facing $2.1 million in additional costs next year plus a $1.3 million drop in revenue because of fewer riders, and that the combined effect would be amount to an 8 percent hike in spending.
The report doesn’t specify the precise effect on ticket or pass prices, instead only referring to “a fare increase of an average of 20 cents per trip”. Applied across the board, the hike would translate into approximately $10 extra per month on the adult and student passes that currently sell for $79 and $63 respectively.
As recently as June 2007, these passes were $65 for adults and $50 for students. Cash fares are currently $2.40 with adult tickets costing $1.85. The seniors pass is now $205 a year. Any fare hikes approved will also apply to DARTS tickets.
The report says fare hikes “ideally” should be for the purpose of improving transit services, and not to keep down taxes.
“Less desirably, in a challenged fiscal environment, fare increases are applied to meet fiscal goals for program budgets versus strategic goals,” explains the report. “Fare increases where the new revenue is used to offset increases to the general tax levy are detrimental to the sustainability of transit programs.”
Transit taxes are area-rated and only apply to portions of the city that receive HSR service with the vast majority collected from residents of the former city of Hamilton. A $300,000 home there pays $266 a year on their tax bill, while similar valued homes in Ancaster pay $58, in Waterdown $60, Dundas $63 and Stoney Creek $85.
Other recommended measures include purchasing only low-floor ramp vehicles for DARTS rather than the lift-equipped high floor design. Staff are also calling for a delay to increases in the Taxi Scrip program that have been recommended by council’s Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities.
Dropping the policy of buying hybrid buses, including some large articulated vehicles, will save $200,000 explains the report, while abandoning the purchase of lift-equipped DARTS buses will conserve an additional $100,000. There is no discussion in the report on the implications of these moves for either air quality or transit services.
Changes to DARTS to meet new provincial human rights rules are to be discussed in a separate report that staff promises for “the near future” but say won’t affect next year’s transit budget.
“However, there will be substantive financial impacts on future budget years beyond 2010 to achieve compliance with the pending AODA legislation as it is currently contemplated,” the report warns.
At this point, no formal opportunities are being provided to allow transit users to comment on the proposed changes, although council committees usually accept individual requests to speak if made by noon on the day prior to the scheduled meeting.
CATCH (Citizens at City Hall) updates use transcripts and/or public documents to highlight information about Hamilton civic affairs that is not generally available in the mass media. Detailed reports of City Hall meetings can be reviewed at www.hamiltoncatch.org. You can receive all CATCH free updates by sending an email to info@HamiltonCATCH.org.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Some new bike lanes painted on Sanders Blvd in west Hamilton. With oversized lanes and low traffic volumes, a fairly uncontroversial installation. Compare this to the situation on Dundurn South, where some shop owners have opposed new bike lanes, and the city has delayed (but not cancelled) painting lanes during road resurfacing there until the spring. Thankfully the councillor has held the line on the benefit of new cycling infrastructure; hopefully other projects in other city wards will have the support of the councillor, and not bend to the first angry opponent of cycling.
Monday, October 19, 2009
The Hamilton Spectator, (Oct 19, 2009)
Construction is set to begin bright and early this morning on Hamilton's new downtown transit terminal .
The work will close MacNab Street between King and Main for 10 months.
It includes the construction of a new terminal building, bus shelters, platforms and the reconstruction of MacNab Street between King and Main streets.
Although MacNab will be closed, local access will be available for the CIBC building and the Hamilton Convention Centre.
The new terminal is part of the city's plans to move the buses out of Gore Park and revitalize the area bounded by James and Catharine Streets, the north edge of Gore Park and the southern sidewalk along the south leg of King Street East.
HSR buses will be relocated from the south side of King Street East to the new terminal.
By removing buses from the south leg of King Street East, it's hoped to provide an opportunity to improve the pedestrian environment in that area through the Gore master plan project.
That project involves extensive public consultation and will be completed to co-ordinate with the timing of the new transit terminal.
The design of the new transit terminal features several "green" and innovative elements -- such as a "green" roof and heated platform, as well as new shelters, public washrooms and enhanced accessibility for wheelchairs and bicycles.