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TTC to give kids a free ride 3:33

Sam Merulla will introduce a pair of controversial motions over the next month aimed at overhauling attitudes toward Hamilton's transit system.

The Ward 4 councillor will ask staff to examine having the whole city pay equally for transit, not just the wards that have full bus service. He'll also propose making transit free for HSR riders aged 12 and under, which just happened in Toronto. 

"I can remember being a little boy hiding behind the bus stop to run out and get on the bus so no one saw me," he said of the stigma of transit. "That still exists today because of the lack of branding, and policies such as area rating."

'That tells people that only the poor use public transit, that it's not something universal and doesn't belong in a high-end suburban area.' - Coun. Sam Merulla

They're radical motions for a council that narrowly voted 9-7 to scrap Hamilton's only bus lane last week. It's also a council divided on whether it would accept about $1 billion in capital dollars from the province to build a 13-kilometre light rail transit system in the lower city.

Merulla believes both of his ideas would change attitudes around the council table.

"We have suburban members of council making decisions on public transit and they're not paying for it," he said. "It's somewhat unfair that you have members of council making a decision they have no vested interest in."

Merulla's motion to examine area rating will ask city staff to report back for the 2016 budget on the feasibility of adding transit to the general levy, so everyone pays for it equally. Currently, under an area rating arrangement dating back to the city's 2000 amalgamation, wards pay for the percentage of transit service they receive. All wards pay the same rate for general services, such as roads, police and public health. But for transit, wards pay according to the level of service they receive, which means suburban areas such as Flamborough, Glanbrook and upper Stoney Creek pay less than urban Hamilton.

Merulla said last week's transit lane debate inspired the area-rating motion. Many councillors voted against the lane but spoke in favour of transit, he said. This is a chance to prove it. 

He's drafting his second motion, to offer free transit for aged 12 and under, after seeing Toronto mayor John Tory's recent effort. Children aged 12 and under can ride TTC subways, buses and streetcars free as of March 1, while adult fares will increase 10 cents.

'Why should we pay for transit? We don't have transit. We have to have cars.' - Coun. Robert Pasuta

Merulla sees the motions as tied together, two efforts to improve a transit system that is "radically regressive."

"These area rating formula ties into the branding," he said. "What it basically tells people is if you live in a wealthy suburban area with no public transit…that tells people that only the poor use public transit, that it's not something universal and doesn't belong in a high-end suburban area.

"That message leads to adolescents believing it's second-class transportation, unlike Toronto where it's branded very well and has no socio-economic discriminatory branding."

Coun. Robert Pasuta of Ward 14 will vote against Merulla's motion to have all wards pay for transit through the general levy.

"Why should we pay for transit?" he said. "We don't have transit. We have to have cars."

Many people pay for services they don't use, Merulla said. People who have never played hockey, for example, still pay for arenas.

A month of transit debate

Pasuta counters that these are all individual decisions.

"That's your choice if you don't want to have kids and you pay taxes to the education system," he said. "It's your choice to put kids in hockey. We don't have a choice (to take transit)."

Transit has been a hot-button issue this month. About 60 people gathered to form a new union of transit riders, and filled city council chambers for the debate. The group also launched a petition supported by more than 1,000 people.

On Monday, Mayor Fred Eisenberger met with Premier Kathleen Wynne, who he says pledged full capital funding for LRT. In a public session shortly after, Wynne pledged full funding for "rapid transit" in Hamilton, which had some councillors calling it a mixed message. Eisenberger will soon introduce a motion to start a citizens' panel on LRT, similar to a 2011 panel on area rating.

Then on Wednesday, Environment Hamilton started a fundraiser called Throw Council on the Bus, which has collected about $5,600 in pledges so far to encourage councillors to take transit for five days over the next two months.

Transit plan coming

Some of them, such as Mayor Fred Eisenberger have said they will do it, while others say family and work obligations prevent them from doing it.

"There is significant community interest in improving public transit in Hamilton," said Ned Nolan, Environment Hamilton board member, of the campaign.

"Council seems to love talking about and endlessly studying transit improvements, but it has a proven track record of failing to do anything meaningful toward this end."

On Feb. 6, David Dixon, Hamilton's new head of transit, will present an extensive transit plan for the city.

Pasuta says this issue has drawn angrier emails in his inbox than any other in his eight years as councillor.