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Residents speak out on transit

Feb 27, 2017

Councillors got an earful last week about their hesitation to fund transit when residents made presentations on this year’s city budget. Thirteen of the speakers in the four-hour session pushed council to keep its promise for more funding for the HSR while two others defended the DARTS service from possible management changes.

Some brought detailed evidence on both successes and shortcomings of the HSR including explanations of recent ridership declines while others relayed personal experiences with trying to use the buses and made specific requests for improved service.

An analysis by Sara Mayo of the Social Planning and Research Council revealed that Hamilton buses carry more passengers per vehicle than anywhere in the Greater Toronto Area but cautioned that this may also explain why there are too many overloaded ones that leave willing riders on the curb. She also provided an explanation of both current ridership challenges and a bright future for a good transit system.

National statistics indicate today’s seniors are using transit less than in the past “partially because of where they live [in poorly serviced suburban areas] and partially because they are healthier,” she noted. While that helps explain current ridership challenges, Mayo pointed to “a big increase in the number of transit trips for younger and middle aged people” that indicate we have reached “peak car” and can expect more riders as these group form a larger portion of the population.

That was underlined by two McMaster students who urged councillors to shorten bus travel times to and from the campus. Stephanie Bertolo noted that undergraduate students “contribute approximately $3.5 million a year to the HSR” in the compulsory fee for bus passes, but despite that her “one hour commute is roughly the same amount of time that it would take me to commute to Toronto.”

McMaster student union representative Natacha Ngo also pointed to the student fare contribution to the HSR as she criticized “council’s inability to commit to [their] promise to invest in the transit system” and said that “we still have issues of late buses, overcrowded buses and inadequate bus shelters.” Statistics in the HSR’s budget presentation last month revealed between 800 and 1100 HSR pass-bys per month during the fall term, with most of those in the Main/King/Queenston corridor.

Addressing councillors at the end of the session, Joey Coleman described a long-standing Winnipeg “super express” system that sends buses to that city’s campus just once per hour – but timed to arrive just before classes begin and not leave the university for ten minutes to allow the bus to fill up with departing students. He suggested a similar system could improve HSR efficiencies and might also be used to link Ancaster and downtown to relieve heavy congestion on the 403 during the morning and evening rush hours.

Speaking from her wheelchair despite obviously finding it very stressful, Laurie Soede pleaded with councillors not to change the DARTS service or increase use of private sub-contractors.  Sandra Walker of the city workers union local also challenged council privatization moves for the accessible transit service pointing out that “by 2036 nearly one in four Canadians will be a senior” and DARTS cost-per-ride is $3 lower than the Canadian average.

“The city currently has more control over DARTS that it would by any private for profit contractor”, she argued. “Contracting out will only make the service less accountable and less accessible.”

There were also pushed to provide more than the currently available 350 low-income passes per month, and get rid of the area rating taxation system for transit. The latter means residents of the old city of Hamilton pay three times the transit tax rate of those who live in the urban parts of Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Glanbrook and Stoney Creek.

“I am willing to pay a larger share on my property tax bill in order to properly fund transit,” declared Dundas resident Richard Gelder, “and I will support any suburban politician, my own Councillor included, who has the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing and support an end to area rating.”

Gelder called the variable taxation “not good city building”. He also pushed councillors to spend more than the current seven percent of federal gas tax money on the HSR, and “honour the funding commitments made in the Ten Year strategy to ensure that the capital and operating expenses of public transit are funded adequately, fairly and properly.”

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