A decision has been put off again on the first city–funded improvements in residential HSR service in over 20 years. The main obstacles are election–year penny pinching and a pre–amalgamation tax system that gives preferential treatment to Ancaster. At issue are proposals that will provide evening and weekend service along the two major east–west bus routes in the rapidly developing south mountain area and add less than 0.1 per cent to the 2014 budget.
The Rymal 44 runs from Eastgate Square through upper Stoney Creek to the Ancaster business park, making it the HSR’s longest route, but outside of rush hour it offers only hourly service and doesn’t run at all on weekends. The Stone Church 43 is the main route in upper Stoney Creek and extends across the mountain to the Meadowlands shopping area, but has very infrequent evening and weekend service and none at all on Sunday evening.
The two proposed upgrades, plus a minimal cost extension of the A–Line from downtown to the harbourfront, will cost $2.6 million, not counting what will eventually be recouped from fares. The impact on this year’s budget is only $1.1 million because the changes won’t start before August, and that will be cut by a further half million using unexpected HSR revenue from last year, bringing the maximum net 2014 cost down to $600,000.
Calculated across the city, this would add less than $2 to the average household tax bill, but because transit is area–rated, Ancaster and Stoney Creek residents would carry the lion’s share of the cost. In a situation unique in Ontario, HSR taxes vary dramatically between the six municipalities that formed the new city fourteen years ago. Rural Flamborough pays nothing to support the HSR, while the tax hit on average value homes in other areas ranges from around $70 in Ancaster and Dundas to four times that amount in the old city of Hamilton.
Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson says the current system “works well because the people in my community are not into busing” and he pointedly asked HSR director Don Hull “how do you feel about that as an Ancaster resident.” He also argued charging his residents for a bus to the Ancaster business park is unfair because most employees there don’t live in Ancaster.
“That’s not a flaw in the transportation planning process,” responded Hull. “But as a single city now, the area rating program in my view has outlived its usefulness and as a taxpayer and as your advisor on transit, I support what’s being proposed here.”
East mountain councillor Tom Jackson pressed Hull to cut some of the proposed improvements and asked for a new review of lower city routes that Jackson felt might be reduced to save money. He indicated he will be seeking a “phase–in” of whatever compromise proposal emerges.
In the 1990s the HSR budget was slashed and ridership dropped by a third. The 2005 budget was nearly 25 per cent lower than a decade earlier, but at that point the provincial government began providing gas tax monies for transit use only. Hamilton’s share of those funds have dropped from $12 million down to $10.7 million because they are partly based on ridership and Hamilton’s growth has been far lower than other Ontario municipal transit systems.
The provincial monies and a little less than 10 per cent of what the city gets in federal gas taxes have been pretty much the only investments in improving the HSR. The transit improvement plans were presented to council at the end of January, then re–discussed last week with decisions postponed again to allow mountain councillors to craft a compromise proposal that will not be discussed until after the March break. V