Hamilton City council has given the board of Hamilton’s Disabled and Aged Regional Transportation System (DARTS) an ultimatum—either find $1Million in savings by the end of 2016 or we will take over the system. A staff report says there are too many people riding around in half-empty DARTS buses who could be accommodated in smaller, cheaper vans or a new generation of SUV type vehicles. A typical DARTS bus ride costs about $30 compared to $16 for a van or SVU. According to the staff report almost half of DARTS users are fully ambulatory requiring no wheelchair at all. Another quarter of users can get around with a walker. The staff plan would see many of these users transferred to vans and smaller vehicles which would yield the targeted saving of $1 Million.

The staff report suggests that taking the service in house from DARTS would effectively end the agreement between DARTs and CUPE who now represent DARTS employees. The agreement now in place is between CUPE and DARTS, not the city; and if DARTS were out of business, the contract would be void. This would give the city more flexibility in outsourcing the business to the local taxicab industry where drivers receive a little under $5 per DARTS customer carried. Currently the DARTS agreement with CUPE stipulates that no more than 10 percent of passenger trips can be outsourced. Addressing that issue the staff report says, “Transferring reservations, scheduling and dispatch to the City would ensure efficiencies…as the City would be unencumbered by contractual limitations on trip allocation.”

It’s not likely CUPE, whose agreement with DARTS expires in June would accept such a transfer of work without a struggle, so the staff report suggests that DARTS be given a chance to deal with the situation in its upcoming negotiations with CUPE. Even if the work were not transferred to outside contractors, the shift to smaller vehicles and the removal of some of the DARTS bus fleet would impact Union members. Under the current agreement the drivers of the large DARTS vehicles earn nearly between $4 and $6 per hour more than those who drive the smaller vans. In preparation for the contact talks which will be held with the threat of losing the business altogether CUPE is circulating an on-line questionnaire to its members.

In recent years, DARTS has experienced steep increases in costs. Its budget has risen from $12 Million in 2011 to $16.5 Million last year. 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. Essentially DARTS is in the position of having to provide service with no control over the numbers of passengers it will need to serve. The staff report predicts DARTS will be carrying 800,000 passengers by 2020 and its budget will be in excess of $21 Million. The staff report recommends that the province be asked to pick up some of the costs that have arisen as a result of provincial policy changes.

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