Hamilton city council has voted to extend the city's voluntary pay program for transit riders with disabilities until June 1.

"I think we can be leaders on this particular issue," said Coun. Sam Merulla, who introduced a motion to extend the program at Wednesday night's city council meeting.

"In many ways, we need more time to find a plan B," he said.

Currently, Hamilton Street Railway (HSR) has a voluntary pay program, where blind people as well as those with four-point canes, walkers, scooters and wheelchairs can ride free of charge. Those who choose to pay can do so, but they are not obligated to pay the standard $2.55 fare.

Under the proposed fare parity policy, everyone would pay the standard fare. The city is changing the policy to comply with new provincial legislation.

The new policy was supposed to take effect on Jan. 1. Council pushed that back to April 1 to examine alternatives. Merulla said the city still needs more time.

Testing the means

One of the options the city is examining is some sort of "means testing" that would assess the financial need of would-be participants, Merulla said. There are needs-assessments for other city services, such as recreation programs.

Merulla tried to introduce an amendment to his motion that would include means testing Wednesday night, but the idea didn't fly with some other councillors.

Coun. Brad Clark said he doesn't see how the issue could be resolved before June 1, as means testing is "very complex."

Mayor Bratina agreed. "I don't even know how to begin to approach that," he said.

In the end, the motion passed as it was originally written, simply extending the current system until June 1 to give councillors more time to mull it over — something that clearly frustrated Merulla.

"This is another example of doing the dog and pony show but for no other reason than the dog and pony show," he said.

A faulty interpretation

Council originally voted in favour of eliminating free transit for people with disabilities because it heard from staff that the switch was necessary to comply with new transportation-standards regulations under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

But Sandi Mangat, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, told CBC Hamilton that the city's interpretation of the act is inaccurate.

Section 46 of the act states: "No conventional transportation service provider shall charge a higher fare to a person with a disability than the fare that is charged to a person without a disability where the person with a disability uses conventional transportation services, but a conventional transportation service provider may charge a lesser fare for a person with a disability."

With files from Samantha Craggs