In the recent round of budget presentations, to no one’s surprise not a single city department came forward with a recommended budget reduction. They all provided carefully reasoned PowerPoints explaining why they needed more funding—inflation, collective agreements, you name it. Now imagine if city council said to these city departments “find a way of cutting about six percent from your budget, and while you’re at it, increase service levels by 10 percent.” One can only imagine the outcry. Yet that is exactly what council told DARTS—the Disabled Regional Transit Service to do…cut a million dollars from its budget and service an additional 60,000 riders—and guess what—DARTS did it.
Given DARTS’ success in streamlining costs and service why oh, why would council ever consider dumping the service back into the overall city bureaucracy to which budget reduction is an alien concept? It seems insane. DARTS should be getting congratulations for its success. Indeed DARTS should become a case study for other city departments to emulate. Instead DARTS has been hit with an even bigger budget reduction target for 2017, and if that reduction is not met, DARTS will effectively be put out of business—the booking function would revert to the HSR and the bus service would be put out to public tender—no doubt to the benefit of local taxi companies.
As was revealed in HSR’s annual budget presentation to council last month it has enough problems of its own, never mind taking on new ones. What with stagnating ridership, scheduling delays and people left at bus stops as crammed buses go by the HSR has plenty to work on before it taken on new responsibilities.
In recent years, DARTS has experienced steep increases in costs. Its budget has risen from $12 Million in 2011 to $16.5 Million in2015. In the same period the number of rides increased from 431,000 to 579,000. The main culprit is a provincially-downloaded change in the criteria for eligibility for the service, which now includes persons with cognitive challenges. Imagine trying to operate a service where you have no control over the number of people using the service, and even forecasting demand becomes a problem as the population ages. Then imagine, in spite of those challenges, managing to cut costs and to increase service at the same time.
For whatever reason DARTS has been under a council microscope for the best part of the last decade. Many thousands of dollars have been spent on an endless series of performance audits and operational reviews. This scrutiny seems to be promoted by a faction on council that is perhaps influenced by taxi operators, who in the face of threats from UBER and other ride-sharing services are looking for new revenue streams. But the Hamilton taxi industry is already getting an increased share of the disabled transit pie and this trend will likely continue. Until a single city department can demonstrate similar ability to cut costs while simultaneously improving service DARTS should be left alone. It is working.