Why 1 Hamilton city councillor says HSR should be free to ride

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‘We are a major city but we keep acting like we’re not, especially as it pertains to public transit’

City council voted this week to hire 58 more HSR drivers, increasing the number of drivers on the road by 12 per cent.

At least one Hamilton city councillor wants to look at a system where transit gets as much attention as roads, and everyone will ride the bus for free.

Sam Merulla, Ward 4 councillor, says he’ll bring a motion forward to look at scrapping HSR fares altogether. He also wants to scrap area rating, which would distribute the cost of transit equally across the city.

Right now, people pay for roads through their property taxes, Merulla said, but not fares out of pocket like transit users do. He wants transit to be funded in the same way.

“We are a major city but we keep acting like we’re not,” he said, “especially as it pertains to public transit.”

Such a move, he said, would transform the transit system. He tried to push the concept in 2007, he said, but that was “a different time.”

The move comes in a week where public transit is under a microscope.

Sam Merulla

Coun. Sam Merulla says he’ll bring a motion forward to look at scrapping HSR fares altogether. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

In October, HSR cancelled 589 buses on 28 routes because of driver absences. During part of October, 19 per cent of HSR drivers were absent, mostly because of short and long-term disability. Some drivers worked as much as 68 hours a week to make up the difference.

To compensate, city council voted this week to hire 58 more HSR drivers, increasing the number of drivers on the road by 12 per cent. That will increase the complement to as much as 542.3 drivers, up from the current 484.3.

The city has made $218,921,000 in capital investments in transit since 2010. But at a Friday budget meeting, councillors wondered why they weren’t seeing better results.

“Why are we no farther ahead?” asked Judi Partridge, Ward 15 councillor. “That seems to be the elephant in the room. That’s an awful lot of money.”

To say transit hasn’t improved ‘is just not true’

Dan McKinnon, general manager of public works, said the city has added the full-time equivalent of 119 new drivers and 188,000 hours of service since 2007. So to suggest transit isn’t better “is just not true.”

Transit head Debbie Dalle Vedove outlined proposed transit capital investments over the next four years, including setting aside money for a new $200 million bus maintenance facility. Matthew Green, Ward 3 councillor, wondered if that’s necessary.

The city already has a transit maintenance facility at 330 Wentworth St. N., but other public works departments use the space too. Move those departments, Green said, and it eliminates the need for a $200 million “bus barn.”

“I don’t think space is an issue,” he said. “I think it’s about how we allocate the space.”

Green wants a report back on how much money those departments have paid HSR to use the space. He suspects HSR “got mugged.”

Are bus seats the problem?

Green also wants to look at whether the city’s Nova-made buses — with their seats and blind spots — contribute to drivers being off on disability.

Environmental activist Don McLean said much of the transit shortfall would be fixed if the city allocated all of its gas tax revenue to transit.

In 2015, for example, the city got $10.7 million from the provincial gas tax. Of that, $10,440,516 went to conventional transit, including $9,227,102 toward operating it and $1,213,414 for capital.

But the city’s federal gas tax revenue goes mostly toward road repairs. Hamilton received about $33 million in federal gas tax revenue in 2015. Of that, about $30 million went to road repairs, and the rest went to transit.

Meanwhile, Environment Hamilton has an “emergency meeting” for transit users planned for Tuesday.

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