Sunday, September 2, 2007

backgrounder: BUS CHEQUE?

Get serious about climate change - fix public transit in Hamilton

by Don McLean

Better public transit is the best way for Hamilton to fight global climate change AND local air pollution AND the transportation implications of peak oil. But the HSR has been given the short end of the stick by city council for decades. Hamiltonians should demand that change. Consider the following:

  • The HSR budget today is less than in 1994 even without taking inflation into account
  • There were 286 HSR buses in 1988. Today there are only 205.
  • HSR service hours have fallen 15% since 1994 while fares have gone up more than 30%
  • The HSR had over 30 million riders a year in 1985. Last year it barely hit 21 million
  • Annual per capita transit use in Hamilton is only one-third the level of Ottawa.
  • Most of the provincial gas tax monies given to Hamilton and nearly all the federal gas tax monies are not being spent on improving the transit system – the stated purpose of these senior government transfers
  • There are only two bus routes in Ancaster, two in Dundas, and two in Stoney Creek
  • Transit tax rates in old Hamilton are nearly five times higher than in Ancaster and Dundas and three times higher than in Stoney Creek

The news isn’t all bad. People who use the HSR consistently praise it and the great majority think improving it should be a city priority. A survey done earlier this year by Mayor Eisenberger’s office asked that specific question and 81% of those who took a position said yes.

Many of the 34 new buses purchased this year are low emission hybrids, but unfortunately they are all only replacements. The total number of buses on the road has remained the same.

Nearly 44 percent of those surveyed reported using the HSR in the past year, and ridership is continuing to slowly increase even with those service cuts and fare hikes, though not nearly as fast as the Canadian average primarily because a few cities are registering double-digit growth rates because they’ve made substantial new investments in transit.

The message from the plus side is the same as from the minus – public transit can do much better if given half a chance by our city politicians. Here’s a few practical suggestions:

  1. Reverse the budget cuts and rapidly expand the bus fleet. We need more buses, more often. The routes with the most frequent service – like Barton and King where there’s a bus every 7.5 minutes – are the most crowded (and overcrowded).
  2. End the bizarre system of “area rating” transit taxes. A home valued at $200,000 in the former city of Hamilton pays $168 a year for the HSR. One in Ancaster of the same value pays only $34. In Dundas the rate is $41, and in Stoney Creek it’s $52. Hamilton is the only municipality in Ontario to charge some urban homes higher transit taxes than others. If everyone paid the rate currently imposed on old Hamilton, the HSR budget would jump nearly $8 million a year – enough to provide better service to the suburbs and other improvements.
  3. Start increasing transit taxes instead of reducing them every year. The rates cited above are all less than what was charged on a $180,000 home in 2004. In fact, the effective tax rate for the HSR appears to have fallen every year since the mid-1990s.
  4. Dedicate gas tax monies to improving the transit system. Up until now, most of the money has gone to avoid raising taxes to cover the normal inflationary cost increases for fuel and other HSR expenditures.

Call write or email your councillor and the mayor. Tell them what you think should be done about public transit in Hamilton.

Contact City of Hamilton Representatives

“To Mayor Eisenberger and Hamilton City Council”
City Hall-1st floor, 71 Main Street West, Hamilton, Ontario L8P 4Y5

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