Hamilton suburban politicians will soon be facing a critical decision whether they actually want to become part of the new City of Hamilton or not.
Two years ago councillors agreed unanimously to implement a $302-million 10-year transit strategy that has now become the blueprint to improving needed bus service throughout Hamilton, especially in the suburbs.
The city has already spent about $6 million in 2015 and 2016 to start driving the plan, but had no impact on the taxes in either year.
The transit strategy includes spending $15.6 million to hire 50 new full-time employees and adding 25 buses, while also adding $51 million to the operational budget. Part of the strategy included raising Hamilton’s low cash fares from $2.75 in 2015, to $3 in 2016.
Implementing the first two years of the plan was the easy part since it cost taxpayers nothing. Hamilton has now met the projected service demands, providing improve transit service from the downtown to the Mountain, across the Mountain, and in Waterdown. There are downsides, though. Ridership has declined by 400,000 trips and the system still has a deficit.
But now the rubber will be meeting the road in 2017 when the plan demands major financial investments to make it viable.
When the city’s new transit director, Debbie Vedove proposed a tax increase of 4.1 per cent or nearly $2.5 million in additional operating costs, a few suburban councillors started to get cold feet about the entire project, saying it was moving too fast.
The idea this year is to add five additional buses and 26 full-time employees. And a 10 cent cash fare increase will take place in September.
The corollary to the transit issue is the goal by urban councillors to eliminate area rating for transit in the next council term. The belief is that suburban areas which are benefiting from this improved transit service should help pay for it.
The argument is not unreasonable. As the suburban areas experience exponential residential growth, especially in Waterdown, the Mountain, upper Stoney Creek and Winona, transit is necessary to transport workers and the public to city locations at a lower cost.
For suburban councillors to lament the lack of transit service in their areas, then turn around and act surprised when a better system is offered at a high cost, strikes some as disingenuous.
Transit has become a critical component of a fully functioning 21st century community, especially in the face of climate change and the promotion of economic development.
To abandon the transit strategy not even at its midpoint would stifle Hamilton’s growth and create chaos on its roads.