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Cheaper bus fares

Jan 03, 2017

The already meager HSR subsidy for low-income riders will get less generous this year as fares rise again. While Hamilton was an early adopter of income-based fares, it is now falling further and further behind other Ontario municipalities.

Toronto and Ottawa made new commitments last month to help low-income passengers use their transit systems, and both London and Burlington are improving their subsidy programs this year. Others providing more fare support than the HSR include Waterloo, Guelph, Mississauga and Windsor.

To be eligible for Hamilton’s “affordable transit pass program” residents have to be poorer than in other cities and have to pay substantially more for each monthly pass. Far fewer passes are provided here than elsewhere and only one other city requires users to be employed before getting the passes.

Most cities offer reduced fare to anyone who falls below the current “low income cut-off” (LICO) defined by Statistics Canada. But Hamilton requires even lower qualifying incomes by inexplicably using the 2006 LICO calculation that is now ten years out of date.

In London, for example, a single person with after tax income less than $16,723 is eligible. In Hamilton the cutoff is more than $800 higher. That means a single person earning minimum wage makes too much to qualify. The self-employed are not eligible at all, and since the only available pass is for a full month, it is of limited attraction to someone only working part-time.

A review of transit fare support programs across Ontario presented last month by city of London staff found “the purchase price for the monthly pass remains close to $40 in all cases.” They said “municipalities told us that based on their experience, this is a ‘tipping point’ of affordability for those experiencing low-income. That is, if the pass is more than $40.00, people are unable to afford to pay for it.”

The HSR “affordable pass” is currently over $50 and will rise in September when fares jump another 10 cents. That increase will also mean available passes will drop to less than 340 per month because the budget for the program is frozen.

London’s research found far more available passes in other cities – 2300 in Guelph and 1750 in Waterloo. Even Windsor which has less than half the population of Hamilton delivers 465 low-income passes per month.

The city’s 2017 draft operating budget shows no financial improvements in the HSR affordable transit pass system. The annual amount dedicated to low-income passes remains at the $214,000 level set in 2008.

A major improvement in Halton’s affordable transit system last September allows low-income residents of Burlington, Oakville and Milton to purchase strips of 10 to 20 tickets at half price, instead of the discount being limited to full monthly passes. This means part-time workers and other less frequent bus riders can now take advantage of the lower fares.

Toronto staff note that because they often can’t afford a monthly “most of working-age, low-income residents pay per ride and end-up spending more on transit that everyone else”. So that city plans to discount single fares and not just monthly passes. Toronto’s new program starting in 2018 will also include all those who make up to 15 percent more than the current LICO.

London is moving to combine its senior discounts with the low income ones. That will eliminate the 25 percent discount currently provided to their seniors but offer a subsidized pass for all who qualify as low income. In Hamilton, seniors currently pay $26.50 for a monthly HSR pass – almost exactly half what is charged for the low-income pass.

Research indicates that lower transit fares have multiple benefits including “improved access to education, employment, and therefore increasing economic productivity, plus improving healthcare access, and resulting reductions in the costs of providing public services”. 

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