Mayor says he won't push suburbs to pay more for transit

Fred Eisenberger struck a citizens' jury, which recommended looking at the area rating of transit. But the mayor and others say the city is too busy dealing with LRT to look at the issue.

Fred Eisenberger struck a citizens' jury, which recommended looking at area rating

Right now, transit in Hamilton is area rated, which means suburban areas with little to no transit service don't pay for it. A citizens' jury recommends looking at that, but the mayor says there's no political will to do it this term. (Adam Carter/CBC)

A citizens' jury on transit recommends the city look at scrapping suburban area rating for transit in Hamilton. But some local politicians say they're not prepared to do anything about it right now.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger struck a citizen's panel last year comprised of 19 impartial residents from Hamilton's various wards. That panel was tasked with looking at light-rail transit (LRT), and also how tax dollars are used to pay for transit. Rural Hamilton property taxes don't go toward transit because of a taxation method called area rating.

I know that we have to deal with it at some point, but I also know it's going to be disruptive at this point.- Mayor Fred Eisenberger

After four months of work, the panel has issued 14 recommendations. One of them — #12 — says that ending area rating transit in the suburban areas "warrants consideration." It instead recommended a modified urban-rural model.

But Eisenberger said he's not prepared to open the contentious issue right now. He suspects other councillors aren't either.

"I know that we have to deal with it at some point, but I also know it's going to be disruptive at this point," said Eisenberger, who promised during his election campaign to strike a jury to discuss LRT.

Eisenberger also said with council split down urban and suburban lines, not enough councillors would vote to look at it anyway.

"The majority are not wanting to do anything about it this term."

City has delayed it for years

That frustrates Ryan McGreal, a local transit advocate who wants area rating eliminated. City council has put off dealing with it multiple times since 2001, he said.

It's an insult to the people who put all that time and all that work into it to say, 'We're not going to do anything about it right now.'- Ryan McGreal, transit advocate

"It's already been pushed off for two whole terms of council," he said. "It's outrageous."

Further, he said, it's unfair to the jury. "It's an insult to the people who put all that time and all that work into it to say, 'We're not going to do anything about it right now.'"

"This is the time to put this issue to bed."

Sam Merulla, a Ward 4 councillor, pushed for a study of area rating last year. But he said Tuesday that he wants to defer it to next term too.

Everything changed when LRT was approved.- Coun. Sam Merulla

Since the issue was debated last year, the province announced $1 billion for LRT, he said. And urban and suburban councillors support it.

'We're very engulfed in LRT'

"Everything changed when LRT was approved," he said.

Now, "in exchange for that unanimous support, we were able to punt the area rating issue to the next term, knowing we're very engulfed in LRT."

Merulla still wants to deal with area rating. "The time will come early in the next term," he said.

"If you live in a scenario where you have a buffet-style of governance, it's not universal. It's not progressive. In fact, it's regressive."

The citizen's jury met from October 2015 to January 2016. Its members took bus trips to Kitchener-Waterloo and had public meetings.

On gondolas, LRT and housing for everyone

Here are some of its other findings:

  • Look into a gondola or incline railway for the Mountain.
  • Communication is key leading up to and during LRT construction. Start preparing people now for future changes.
  • LRT will build Hamilton as a city, but it needs to be well planned.
  • Make sure HSR doesn't lose revenue from the B line, which subsidizes the rest of the transit system.
  • Gentrification along the route will drive up the cost of housing, the panel says. The city should plan to make sure people of all incomes have housing along the line.

Councillors will discuss the report at a city hall general issues committee meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

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