It was a narrow vote, but the mayor’s new citizens panel on rapid transit will take a look at how Hamiltonians pay for HSR on their tax bills too.

Council voted 9-7 — with Mayor Fred Eisenberger as the deciding vote — to make the area rating of transit one of the issues the panel will study. It’s a controversial move, since changing the current formula would mean Hamilton’s suburbs have to pay about $7 million more in taxes for transit.

Councillors still have to approve the panel's terms of reference on March 30. Coun. Sam Merulla pushed to have area rating included in the panel’s work, saying Hamilton's current system of funding transit is inequitable.

“That ended as planned,” he said of the 9-7 vote, which saw lower city and Mountain councillors vote in favour of it and suburban councillors vote against it.

'Whenever this council tries to do something on the fly and it gets too confusing, that’s when we get into trouble.' - Coun. Judi Partridge

Area rating for transit stems from the 2000 amalgamation of Hamilton. Currently, suburban and rural wards pay for transit according to the levels of service they receive. If that system was dismantled, transit would end up on the general levy, and everyone would pay for it equally.

That means areas such as Glanbrook and Flamborough would pay millions more in taxes per year, while the old city wards would pay $7 million less for transit.

Coun. Judi Partridge of Ward 15 in Flamborough tried to discourage Merulla’s motion, saying he should bring it back to a future meeting to make sure the wording was right.

“Whenever this council tries to do something on the fly and it gets too confusing, that’s when we get into trouble,” she said.

Hamilton's great transit debate

But the vote went ahead, with councillors in Wards 1 through 8 voting to have the panel look at area rating, and councillors in Wards 9 through 15 voting against it. Eisenberger, who campaigned on the idea of a panel to look at rapid transit in Hamilton, prevented a tie, which would have meant the vote failed.

'It means so much more than a shiny train.' - Coun. Jason Farr

Transit has been a heated subject in Hamilton in recent years. While council approved the Rapid Ready report in 2013 that recommended eventual light rail transit (LRT) from McMaster University to Eastgate Square, the idea of LRT has been a source of contention ever since.

Most recently, councillors voted after a heated debate to remove a two-kilometre transit lane downtown that was meant to be a precursor to LRT. In response, transit advocates in the community mobilized to form a transit union.

The transit issue saw more debate at the council meeting Wednesday when council voted 12-4 to ask the province for $301,875,000 for transit improvements over the next 10 years. Those opposed to it fear that the ask – which includes $200 million for a maintenance facility for buses – would detract from the $1 billion the city wants to build the LRT line.

If faced with choosing LRT or $301 million in improvements, they say, the province will pick the cheaper of the two.

LRT 'more than a shiny train'

Coun. Jason Farr of Ward 2 pushed for creating 10-year transit plan back in 2013, but never imagined it would include money for “a $200-million bus barn, which (costs) more than an NHL-sized arena in this town,” he said.

LRT, he said, “means so much more than a shiny train,” he said. “It means so much more to us in our ward from an economic development point of view.”

The transit plan approved Wednesday includes HSR fare increases. As of the fall, it will cost 15 cents more to ride the bus, and then 10 cents more for the next two subsequent years.

The city will also spend $200,000 in local tax dollars to implement the plan in 2016, followed by $1.6 million in 2017 and $1.2 million in 2018.

But it will also include substantial improvements to the current system, including adding 50 more staff and 25 more buses. It includes restructuring routes and increased bus frequency on the A, B and T lines.

Council also voted on Wednesday to look into the feasibility of licensing cats.

How they voted

Accept the ten-year plan to improve transit in Hamilton:

  • In favour: everyone

Have the citizens panel look at adding transit to the general tax levy:

  • In favour: Aidan Johnson, Jason Farr, Matthew Green, Sam Merulla, Chad Collins, Tom Jackson, Scott Duvall, Terry Whitehead, Fred Eisenberger
  • Opposed: Doug Conley, Maria Pearson, Brenda Johnson, Robert Pasuta, Arlene VanderBeek, Robert Pasuta, Judi Partridge

Add $301 million to improve HSR's bus system to the current Metrolinx funding request:

  • In favour: Sam Merulla, Chad Collins, Tom Jackson, Scott Duvall, Terry Whitehead, Judi Partridge, Robert Pasuta, Arlene VanderBeek, Lloyd Ferguson, Brenda Johnson, Maria Pearson, Doug Conley
  • Opposed: Aidan Johnson, Jason Farr, Matthew Green, Fred Eisenberger

Look into licensing cats:

  • In favour: Aidan Johnson, Jason Farr, Matthew Green, Sam Merulla, Chad Collins, Tom Jackson, Scott Duvall, Terry Whitehead, Fred Eisenberger, Judi Partridge, Robert Pasuta, Arlene VanderBeek, Brenda Johnson, Maria Pearson, Doug Conley
  • Against: Lloyd Ferguson