Wednesday, October 28, 2009

fare debate

Transit fare headache?

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.

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