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And the bus wheels go round

Jan 29, 2018

Shortly after last week’s transit budget presentation, the city took the unusual step of sending out a media release highlighting HSR accomplishments and the funding provided by council decisions. It echoed the main message that councillors presented during the budget meeting and like their comments appeared intended at countering the negative publicity of the last few months over cancelled buses.

“Over the past eight years, Hamilton city council has supported more than $219 million in capital and operating investments in transit,” the media release declared “This has translated into almost 150,000 additional service hours, 110 more staff, and 46 additional buses. In addition, these ongoing investments will translate into other future notable improvements for customers.”

The release made brief mention of another bus fare hike coming this year but didn’t refer to the fall in HSR ridership last year by 87,000 rides – the sixth year in the last decade that it has declined. It also made no mention of over 600 bus cancellations in the first part of January or of the lack of progress of the HSR in reducing the number of times riders are left at the curb by already full buses.

That latter problem has persisted for years with little change and is still averaging over 400 times a month on the busy King/Main/Queenston corridor according to the staff presentation, and about 100 times a month for buses between downtown and the mountain. As councillor Matt Green noted, the presented numbers don’t appear to account for the thousands of times in the past few months when the buses didn’t show up at all.

That crisis peaked last fall with over 1775 cancelled buses in each of October and December. November was slightly lower at 1400. The transit director assured councillors that progress is being made, but her presentation included partial numbers for January of 646 cancellations.

The stagnation in bus usage has pushed down the key rides-per-capita measure to 44 a year and has come in spite of city population growth. That’s down from 48 in 2006 and still a very long way from the goal of 100 set in the mid-1990s. In contrast, in the last decade Mississauga’s number has climbed from 41 to 51, and Brampton’s has shot up from 24 to 39 rides per capita.

Councillors repeatedly argued that HSR’s failure to attract more riders is because of the “flat-lining” of transit use across the continent, but the results in these other cities suggest that isn’t happening everywhere. Councillors also challenged unnamed transit critics for misleading the public.

“We have consistently made investments in transit and I think 2005 was the last year transit’s budget was actually decreased”, stated Chad Collins. “Since 2005, in almost every year the transit budget was increased, sometimes by twice the rate of inflation.”

Terry Whitehead echoed Collins’ argument. “There are activists out there that like to paint a different picture, and I’m tired of reading that this council does not make investments in transit,” he declared.

The budget presentation confirmed that last year’s postponement of funding for the ten-year transit strategy will not be made up and instead the strategy will take eleven years and not be completed until after the LRT is expected to open. That didn’t elicit any concern from councillors, but several were anxious about the steep increase in demand for accessible transportation provided by DARTS.

Last year DARTS ridership climbed over carried over 700,000 for the first time. And staff project that will be close to 850,000 by 2020 and will add $6 million to the city’s annual budget.

Some councillors suggested that some of those riders are capable of using regular buses but prefer the convenience of door-to-door service provided by DARTS. Councillor Jackson expected that the golden age pass he spearheaded that gives free transit to those over 80 year of age would convince more seniors to ride the HSR.

He was surprised to learn that the free rides also apply to those over eighty who use DARTS. Provincial law forbids higher fares for disabled passengers than for regular transit users. 

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