Amid all the excitement, or controversy (depending on one’s point of view) surrounding the LRT project comes a snapshot of Hamilton’s existing transit system that points to future challenges. Transit staff unveiled their 2017 budget for HSR along with a ten-year strategic plan to council last month. Councillors were told that transit ridership in Hamilton appears to be stuck at just below 2 Million rides a year. This mirrors a provincial trend of ridership declines in municipal transit systems. One of the difficulties transit operators face in trying to improve ridership is figuring out where to invest in service improvements, which are essential to lure more riders onto the transit system. Frequency of service and reliability are the two key factors . Fares are another contentious issue. It is a balancing act trying to increase fares without discouraging ridership,; although the staff report suggested that Hamilton’s fare structure is one of the lowest in the province. Hamilton’s senior bus pass is easily the best bargain in the province at $26.50 per month—other cities in Ontario charged on an average double the Hamilton rate. The average cost of transit per capita in Hamilton id about $77.
Hamilton used to recover approximately 50 percent of its costs from the fare box, but that percentage is decreasing and will continue to decrease in the coming years. By 2024 the staff report says, Hamilton will only recover 41 percent of its costs from the fare box compared the 47 percent currently. A striking feature of the staff forecast is the relative lack of information about the financial impact LRT will have on the system—for instance the possible impact of LRT displacing the relatively lucrative King, Delaware and B-Line bus routes. These are issues that have yet to be determined, but until recently HSR has been largely excluded from the LRT planning.
HSR also faces about $250 Million in proposed capital enhancements that are so far unfunded, The issue of pass-by’s– occasions where the buses are too full to take on additional passengers continues to be a service issue as are buses running ahead or behind schedule. The ten year plan calls for additional buses and greater frequency to address the service deficiencies.
In the midst of the number of challenges the HSR faces, somewhat surprisingly, the issue of what to do with Disabled and Aged Regional Transportation System (DARTS) once again arose. DARTS has been under an almost perpetual round of studies over the past decade. Last year DARTS was tasked with finding $1 million in savings while increasing service by 60,000 trips –a challenge it met successfully. The alternative was that the scheduling function for DARTS would be taken over by the HSR and the actual bus service would be put out to tender—effectively putting DARTS out of business. At the staff presentation Councillor Tom Jackson praised DARTS for meeting a target that many thought would be impossible. He moved to squelch any further attempts to disband DARTS—revealing a split on council between a group that wants to see a greater role for the taxi industry in disabled transit and those who prefer the status quo. That issue will be thrashed out in the coming year.