Hamilton councillors are debating whether the city is receiving full value for the millions of dollars of investment into transit the city has made over the last seven years. – By Kevin Werner, HCN/file photo
With the recent problems with Hamilton’s transit, there have been critics who say the city hasn’t properly invested the needed funding to improve the service as ridership drops.
Transit Director Debbie Dalle Vedove told politicians Nov. 10 during their budget committee meeting the city has invested over the last seven years about $219 million. It prompted Flamborough Coun. Judi Partridge to ask: “Why are we no further ahead? That is the elephant in the room. There are a lot of issues going on.”
Over the last seven months city officials have been dealing with a high absenteeism rate among bus drivers, forcing some to work over 300 hours of overtime, including 68 hours per week. But even that hasn’t been enough as officials have been forced to cancel buses leaving people stranded at stops. In October alone transit officials cancelled 589 buses on 28 routes.
In addition, Hamilton’s ridership has dropped by about 400,000 people, and city officials are projecting a loss in revenue this year.
The complaints escalated to the point where politicians at their Nov. 8 council meeting approved spending $4 million to hire 58 more drivers. The total compliment of drivers is now 542 from 484.
But General Manager of Public Works Dan McKinnon took issue with those types of comments. He said the city over the years has added 119 drivers, while increasing the number of hours of service by 188,000.
“Given the service hours that general statement like that is not true,” he said.
Still, Ward 1 Coun. Aidan Johnson said the city should start reviewing “how we can make are investments smarter? What are we getting for our money? What additional investments are necessary?”
Under the city’s 10-year transit capital program about $72 million from the federal government’s public transit infrastructure fund, is being allocated for a number of projects including replacing buses, storage facility, customer service software, bus hoist replacements, new garage doors and updated radio equipment. The largest investment is about$200 million for a so-called new “bus barn.” But last year due to budget concerns, councillors decided not to fund the transit strategy plan.
Meanwhile, Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla said he wants cost estimates from staff on the impacts of eliminating area rating for transit. In 2015 Merulla had proposed introducing a motion to end area rating for transit. He has argued only half of Hamiltonians pay for transit, but all residents receive some benefit from the service.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger said at the time eventually councillors will have to confront the issue.
“I’ve agreed with all those that have said not this term. Push it off to another day and we will deal with it on another day,” said Eisenberger.
Since amalgamation suburban and rural areas have different levels of paying for transit based upon what service they receive. Most of the cost of the service has been paid by residents in wards one through eight who receive the bulk of the service. The tax levy for transit operations for this year is about $45 million.
Merulla also re-introduced another idea that had been defeated a decade ago: free transit. In 2007 he introduced a motion to eliminate fares, but suburban councillors rejected the idea. The average tax increase for a homeowner would have been $150.