Hamilton’s transit landscape shifted yet again on Friday, as councillors passed a new 10-year transit strategy that asks the province to pump about $301 million into expanding HSR bus service.
While a majority of councillors voted in favour of the new plan, Mayor Fred Eisenberger and other LRT advocates cautioned that this further muddies the waters of Hamilton’s sometimes jumbled transit expectations.
“I think we’re making a fundamental mistake,” Eisenberger said at the meeting, adding that the province will relish the opportunity to go for a cheaper bus request over the city’s $811 million LRT request.
'I don’t know why we’d jump to the Cadillac version of transit in our city knowing that the traditional system needs improvements.' - Coun. Chad Collins
“I do not support giving the province of Ontario an opportunity to give us less than what we deserve,” he said. “It’s not the best possible option for our city.”
In the new plan, David Dixon, Hamilton's new head of transit, recommends installing an unspecified number of new transit lanes, with signal priority for buses, over the next 10 years.
The strategy also originally recommended a 25-cent fare increase starting next fall, followed by 10-cent increases for the next three years after. Councillors amended those numbers Friday, and so fares will rise 15-cents in the fall and in 2016, and then by 10 cents for the next two subsequent years.
$200M for new storage facility
That increase would largely pay for $6 million in improvements to the system over the next two years. In 2015, the city needs the full time equivalent of 50 new employees and 25 new buses to deal with overcrowding, Dixon says.
Councillors also lowered the plan’s original fare hike for seniors from $5 on a monthly pass to $3 Friday.
Of the additional $301 million the city will ask of the province as part of this new plan, about $200 million of that would be for a new maintenance storage facility. If the city gets 25 new buses in the coming years, Dixon said, it will already have to park them outside.
There is an immediate need for transit upgrades, he said. Currently, riders wait for buses that come late because the run times are unrealistic. When a bus does come, sometimes it’s full and passes people by.
“Every customer should be able to board a bus when it arrives, and that bus should arrive on time,” Dixon said.
Coun. Chad Collins touted the new plan as a sound way to bolster Hamilton’s existing transit system, as we aren’t “technically ready” to implement LRT just yet, he says.
“I don’t know why we’d jump to the Cadillac version of transit in our city knowing that the traditional system needs improvements,” he said.
“I’m not willing to go chips all in on LRT while possibly forgoing $300 million in provincial dollars.”
Citizen's panel to be implemented
Councillors also passed a motion from Mayor Eisenberger to implement a citizen’s panel to study and report on transit options – something the mayor campaigned on during last year’s election.
“This is clearly something I ran on for mayor and has been discussed long, often and hard,” he said. “It was an effort on my part to be open to other options and to engage our citizens.”
The citizen’s panel would include one person from each city ward. Once selected, the list will be presented to council no later than May 6.
Some councillors viewed this request for LRT and now a new plan as simply too much stress on the province’s pocketbook. Some also pointed to the economic uplift being recorded in Kitchener-Waterloo with their city-funded LRT plan as a boon Hamilton could be missing out on.
Other municipalities that are pushing for Metrolinx funding will look at council’s decision on Friday as essentially lowering ourselves on the funding ladder, Coun. Jason Farr said.
“They’re going to be clinking champagne glasses tonight while we’re drinking six packs here in Hamilton.”