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HSR riders left behind

May 01, 2017

In peak months, up to 50 HSR buses per day pass by stops without picking up waiting passengers because the bus is already full. These “pass-bys” that discourage transit use are most common along the future LRT corridor. And that won’t change soon because city council has ‘postponed’ system improvements.

In accepting the postponement, HSR staff warned that taxes will have to climb 1.15 percent just to meet next year’s transit funding needs. And it could be higher because staff assumed extra revenue from another fare increase this September that council also decided to postpone. The bus drivers’ contract is up for renegotiation next year, adding further financial pressures.

Most threatening to improving HSR ridership is a quarter-century council history of refusing to use new tax dollars to improve transit. That will be even more likely to continue in 2018 because it is a municipal election year when councillors try to keep tax hikes to an absolute minimum.

HSR statistics for the last two years show at least 200 pass-bys every month with peaks climbing over 1000 during the six busiest months. The pass-bys here don’t drop below 800 during either the September-November period or the January-March timeframe when most university students ride the HSR. This is consistent with data showing there are more passengers per bus in Hamilton than anywhere else in the GTA except Toronto.

If these pass-bys occur mainly during weekdays, that works out to at least 10 and up to 50 buses a day that are so overloaded as to be unable to pick up more passengers.  The HSR pass-by report in late January didn’t garner any reaction from city councillors, who instead forced HSR staff to reduce their budget.

HSR graphs show most of the pass-bys are in the Main-King-Queenston corridor where LRT is to be located, exceeding 700 in five of the 24 months reported. But they also surpassed 100 in the majority of months for the mountain to downtown routes, and were even more frequent along other downtown routes.

HSR staff say the situation has improved since 2014 because of implementation of the first two years of the transit strategy, which was supposed to eliminate system deficiencies: “The number of reported pass-bys has decreased and buses are better able to stay on schedule for those routes that received additional service.”

A drop in ridership in both of the last two years – likely the result of steep fare hikes – may also have reduced overloading.  More service improvements were planned for this year, but have been put on hold by council in order to reduce the tax increase in 2017. The ridership drop also forced the HSR to lower their 2017 revenue expectations by $860,000.

Year three of the transit strategy – now put off until 2018 – promised to accommodate new population growth and guarantee the HSR is meeting its own minimum service standards to ensure peak hour service on weekdays for at least 90 percent of residents and workplaces within 400 metres of a bus stop.

Federal help for the HSR has also been delayed despite an announcement last summer of $1.5 billion for Ontario transit systems from Trudeau’s Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF). City staff calculated that would mean $36 million for Hamilton to spend on capital improvements and included the required city matching funds in the 2017 capital budget.

But council balked at the 0.45 percent tax hike and postponed budgeting for this windfall. That then became a key justification for cutting this year’s HSR budget on March 24.

“Given the delay of the PTIF announcement, the 2017 service enhancements will not be operationalized until 2018,” explained the reduced budget report. “Therefore, the operating costs associated with year 3 of the Strategy would be moved to 2018, extending the overall time horizon for completion of the 10 year plan beyond 2024.”

As it turned out, that report was approved by council just seven days before the formal federal announcement of the transit funding details for Hamilton and other Ontario cities. That leaves the city without the required matching funds in this year’s budget. 

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