Wednesday, August 18, 2010

slowing transit

Fixing HSR problems on hold until next year
A proposal to fix problems with HSR service is on hold until next year. Transit director Don Hull hopes to start using federal gas tax funds to end overcrowding that is frequently leaving people behind at bus stops.
Hamilton is only one of two large cities which do not use federal gas tax monies for transit. Hull is calling for a shift of $3 million of these funds – out of the city’s $32 million annual allocation – to increase service on some HSR routes and take an initial step towards meeting the approved objectives of the city’s master transportation plan – but a council decision last week means no changes are likely before late 2011.
Hull notes new spending on the HSR over the last decade has been “marginal” and what has taken place has come entirely from senior levels of government. He told councillors last week that Hamilton really needs to add $80 million a year to the HSR budget to achieve the ridership levels of cities like Ottawa and meet the goals of council’s approved ridership goals.
“$30 million is just what it would take over the next five years to keep moving towards the Transportation Master Plan,” he explained. “The $3 million that we’re asking for in alternative to the $30 million is simply what we feel we need in the very short term to prevent the public satisfaction with this program from deteriorating.”
Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson suggested the $3 million was Hull’s “real pie in the sky wish list”, but the transit director strongly defended the financial need to bolster existing HSR routes and get back to earlier service levels that have gone downhill in the face of growing pressures.
“We carry hundreds of thousands of frail, elderly and disabled on the conventional transit system every year. Those people take a lot more time to board and alight safely,” Hull responded. “I stand firmly behind that we need this $3 million just to sustain our permanent position in the community with respect to the current satisfaction level of the transit program.”
Ferguson noted the proposed priority service changes were all in the former city of Hamilton, but the federal gas taxes are currently being used for projects across the entire city.
“I didn’t see anything in the route enhancements in the suburban municipalities,” he noted. “It’s kind of a neat way to move $3 million from capital in the air, and then replenish the capital by going out to all municipalities, and yet the suburban municipalities aren’t benefitting at all.”
Waterdown councillor Margaret McCarthy suggested more transit is needed in her ward, and Dave Mitchell pointed to rising demands in Binbrook. Hull replied that those requests are among “three or four hundred items on the list” that HSR would like to address if it had more funds.
“We simply cut the list off at $3 million. There’s $30 million worth of requested enhancements behind the scenes here.”
West end councillor Brian McHattie who first proposed the funding shift last November was frustrated by the staff recommendation to put off a decision until next year’s budget, which he characterized as “the finance department holding sway” over transit. But he couldn’t find a seconder for a motion to shift the $3 million immediately.
“All the information’s here in this report that we have to invest in new service for transit, but I just don’t see any commitment for doing that. There’s no reason why we can’t make that decision today,” he declared bitterly. “At some point we have to stop approving these master plans, with clear recommendations in them, if we don’t really believe in them.”
Finance chief Rob Rossini noted the shift would mean other capital project commitments would be displaced and argued the change needed to be considered in conjunction with the city’s full financial picture as part of the 2011 budget deliberations. That could mean no decision until March or April, and some months after that for changes to be implemented.
This year’s budget allocates a third of Hamilton’s $32 million federal gas tax share to city hall renovations, and most of the rest to roads. Because the city’s population now exceeds 500,000 it will be limited in future to choosing just two categories, and an earlier council decision has identified those will be roads and transit.
A staff survey of other cities over 500,000 found only one besides Hamilton that currently doesn’t use any federal gas tax monies for transit.
“We canvassed every municipality, and only Durham and Hamilton aren’t using federal gas tax to supplement their transit program,” Hull explained to councillors. “Durham had one project in particular that they committed all of their federal gas tax to. Some municipalities in the GTA committed 100 percent of their federal gas tax to their transit programs.”
The provincial government also distributes gas tax monies to municipalities. Hamilton will get just shy of $11 million next year, a drop of $800,000 since the program began in 2004 because the city is falling behind other Ontario localities in both population and transit ridership. The formula used by the province to divvy up the funds is weighted 70 percent to ridership and 30 percent to population.
Just under $4 million of the provincial monies are being spent on already implemented HSR service improvements while $1.75 million is being used by DARTS. Council allocated an additional $2.6 million “in lieu of a fare increase” proposed in 2005.
The remaining $3 million is currently spent on bus purchases. If Hull’s proposal is eventually accepted, that would be replaced by the federal gas tax monies – which can only be used for capital projects, not operating expenses.

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