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Transit budget differences

Nov 13, 2017

Despite unanimously approving HSR emergency funding to address public outrage over no-show buses, councillors showed less harmony last week about transit’s capital budget. The lukewarm commitment contrasts sharply with new provincial plans that call for much more transit spending.

The HSR capital budget presentation last Friday sparked over two hours of questions and comments from city councillors including a revisit of the bus barn debate, a renewed call for free transit, a push for electric buses, and a clash over what constitutes adequate HSR spending.

Waterdown councillor Judi Partridge questioned the “awful lot of money” spent over the last eight years on buses and other HSR infrastructure that she said hasn’t “got us any further ahead”. City staff responded that the main impact on service comes from operating dollars – a debate coming in January – and that major improvements have taken place since 2009.

“We’ve added tens of thousands of hours of service and grown the level of service tremendously” contended public works manager Dan McKinnon. “So a general statement like that [made by Partridge] is just not true.”

Ward three councillor Matt Green also took issue with Partridge’s observations. He noted the column of “goose eggs” from local taxes in the sources of the spending that Partridge was questioning – a contribution that amounts to just over two percent of the monies. Most of the funding has come from HSR reserves, provincial gas tax grants, and borrowing.

Green got confirmation from McKinnon that annual discretionary spending on roads was about ten times the allocation of tax dollars to the HSR capital budget, including over 90 percent of the federal gas tax allocation to Hamilton. Sam Merulla subsequently used these numbers to argue for free public transit paid for entirely by property taxes.

He pointed to “the fact that we don’t toll our roads” so the city shouldn’t impose fees on transit riders either. He suggested that if free HSR service was provided “in conjunction with the elimination of area rating” of transit taxes, the likely cost would be “about 40 cents per day per household to provide equivalent free transit like we provide free road access”.

“We are so far behind other major cities in terms of transit use”, Merulla argued, and free transit would be a way of changing that, reducing air pollution and making the city more sustainable.

Green also took issue with new spending earmarked for another bus barn and pushed for re-use of the Wentworth Avenue building that used to be the storage and maintenance facility for HSR.

That sparked interventions from other councillors and eventually Mayor Eisenberger who argued that building a new bus barn has already been decided by council because half the cost can be obtained from the Trudeau government – monies that can’t be used to retrofit an old facility.

Not mentioned was the provincial draft plan outlined earlier in the week by Metrolinx that proposes to add over 1500 kilometres to the frequent rapid transit network in the greater Toronto and Hamilton areas by 2041. An extra thousand kilometres of HOV lanes and a similar length of new bike lanes are also proposed to handle a regional population climbing by 110,000 people every year and expected to exceed 10 million by 2041.

The plan promises to “better integrate land use and transportation planning, especially around transit stations” and “encourage the planning of communities and road networks to support transit, cycling and walking.” The objective is to put nearly half of all jobs in the GTAH and more than a third of its residents within walking distance of rapid transit.

It warns that “if transit agencies do not continually improve the effectiveness and quality of the door-to-door  experience, they will fail to attract and retain travellers” and points to the 72 percent increase in ridership in Brampton from 2009 to 2015 using five new express routes and technologies such as “transit signal priority”.  Metrolinx is seeking public input on its plan via an on-line survey

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