Free transit for disabled riders could cost millions

It's possible for the city of Hamilton to have a means test for transit riders with disabilities, but it will have to be willing to pay for it.

Hamilton councillors grappling with several options to meet new legislation

City councillors face a number of alternatives to replace it voluntary pay program riders with disabilities, but many cost millions. (Adam Carter/CBC)

It's possible for the city of Hamilton to have a means test for transit riders with disabilities, but it will have to be willing to pay for it.

That was the message from Don Hull, director of transit, in a presentation to the general issues committee Wednesday.

The city can establish a method of assessment to determine which riders with disabilities need free transit, as favoured by Coun. Sam Merulla.

The city's options

1. Everyone pays the full price

  • Cost: about $450,000
  • Impact: everyone

2. All people with disabilities ride for free

  • Cost: about $7.9 million
  • Impact: 138,245 Hamiltonians, or about 20 per cent of the population

3. All people below the low-income level

  • Cost: about $7.2 million
  • Impact: 18 per cent of the population

4. All people with disabilities who have low incomes ride for free

  • Cost: about $2.2 million
  • Impact: unknown


Offering free transit for all residents with disabilities who live on low incomes could cost the city about $2.2 million per year, Hull said.

That's not including the staff necessary to carry out the means testing, he said. His best guess is it could take three to five more staff depending on how the city defines what a disability is.

"We'd really have to define the criteria for the assessment before we could determine the complexity of the assessment," Hull said.

But "everything is possible with time and money."

Could be fined daily

Currently, the city offers a voluntary pay program. That means individuals with disabilities could pay the full adult rate of $2.55 to ride Hamilton Street Railway (HSR), but they are not obligated to do so.

The program applies to blind people, as well as those with four-point canes, walkers, scooters and wheelchairs. Staff is recommending that all riders regardless of disability pay the full fare.

The province has passed new Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) legislation, and as of Jan. 1, Hamilton's program hasn't complied with it, Hull said. Council has put off changing the program until at least June 1 as it ponders alternatives, such as a means test.

The city could face fines of up to $100,000 per day for not complying with the legislation. But Hull said council is taking time to make an informed decision.

"My advice has been that we're best to take our time and perhaps absorb some risk rather than move quickly and make a mistake, and I think that's what council is trying to do," he said.

One in five Hamiltonians have a disability

As many as one in five Hamiltonians, or 20 per cent of the population, could be defined as having a disability, Hull said. Extending free transit to all persons with disabilities would cost the city $7.9 million.

Extending free transit to all Hamiltonians considered to be low income would cost about $7.2 million. That would be 18 per cent of the population.

The estimate of $2.2 million covers all people with both disabilities and low incomes, Hull said. That would result in a revenue loss of $2 million for the city.

Whatever plan is applied to conventional transit, it has to apply to paratransit as well, said Jeff Poirier, a senior policy analyst with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

"Whatever the fare structure is, it must be the same across the two systems," he told councillors Wednesday.

The definition of "disability" will be key to the fairness of whatever solution council chooses, said activist Dave Cherkewski from Hamilton Organizing Poverty Elimination.

Defining a disability

The current program only includes people with personal mobility devices, he said.

But he cited the example of a transit rider with fibromyalgia. She has mobility issues and is on the Ontario Disability Support Program, but must pay the full fare, he said.

"This is where that definition of disability is broader."

Any solution, he said, "should be fair to all low-income Hamiltonians.

"This is what Hamilton should be known for. We're a pioneer in social policy."