Transit is the latest department to present its 2019 budget request to Hamilton City Council.
The request is for a 14 per cent funding increase, over $9.2 million, in large part to finance a series of service improvements within year four of a 10-year strategy to grow ridership on the Hamilton Street Railway (HSR), the city’s bus system.
Those $1.8 million in enhancements include increased frequency of service along the King, Main, Queenston Road corridor, as well as Rymal Road and three routes that travel between the mountain and Hamilton’s lower city.
A spike in demand for DARTS, the city’s paratransit service, is another cost pressure of $4.2 million.
Transit director Debbie Dalle-Vedove says the good news from 2018 is that HSR ridership edged higher for the first time in five years, passenger counters have been installed to assist operational decisions and new drivers have helped address a recent crisis involving ‘no-show’ buses.
That crisis peaked in the fall of 2017 when a driver absenteeism rate of almost 20 per cent resulted in more than 1,000 missed hours of monthly service.
Council responded by hiring 58 drivers and Dalle Vedove says service has not been cancelled on any route since May 2018 as a result of not having any operators available to provide it.
On the downside, ridership is still about two-million rides or 10 per cent below the city’s projections of where it was supposed to be at this point in the 10-year plan.
Ancaster Councillor Lloyd Ferguson says a one per cent ridership increase last year, following investments in dozens of new buses and drivers, shows the strategy is a “miserable failure.”
He’s suggesting that city council slam the brakes on the plan, stressing that his constituents would rather see their tax dollars used to prioritize “the snowplow by 7 a.m. to get their two cars out.”
Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins stops short of echoing that request but agrees that “we’re just not seeing the results” to justify the current investment.
Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla stresses that reaching ridership targets, and convincing people to leave their cars at home, is about providing a high enough service level to make the HSR a “viable option” .
Mayor Fred Eisenberger says it takes time to change behaviour and urges councillors to see the plan through, insisting that you can’t measure its success on a year-to-year basis.
The question of whether Hamilton’s transit budget will be approved will be made as part of the city’s overall 2019 operating budget. Those discussions will continue for several more weeks.