A look at three recent major environmental issues dealt with by council sheds some light on whether user pay is a principle or just a convenient debating tool.
By Don McLean
Published March 24, 2008
The theory that users should pay for services is a favourite argument of some city councillors. A look at three recent major environmental issues dealt with by council sheds some light on whether user pay is a principle or just a convenient debating tool.
Back in November, there was a big debate at council about raising bus fares. They had already been increased substantially in June, and a second hike was being proposed. Together the two increases added 22 percent to the price of an adult HSR pass, and 26 percent to the passes used by elementary and secondary school students. For a family of four that added $648 to the annual cost of riding the bus.
Faced with rising costs of operating the transit system, the councillors identified two choices – raise fares or raise taxes. The latter increase was less than $20 per home. Should just the users of the HSR pay, or should the burden be spread out over everyone? The user pay argument won the day. The fares went up.
Then in January, several citizens made presentations to council suggesting that this user pay principle should be applied to the Red Hill Valley Parkway.
In presentations to city council, they pointed to the extra $2.6 million a year it is costing the city to operate the new road, and to several more million required to cover the debt for the parkway.
They called for a 10 cent per kilometre toll on the expressway – something that a 2004 consultant study calculated would generate a net revenue of about $14 million a year. That would mean drivers of the eight kilometre parkway would pay 80 cents for the privilege – exactly a third what HSR users are now paying in cash fares for each ride they take.
The idea was not taken up by council.
At the end of last month, the user pay philosophy got a third test drive at city council, this time in relation to the $3 million purchase of some lands at the airport.
Airports collect a passenger tax for airport improvements so it was suggested that the private operators of Hamilton's airport should do the same.
There was a fierce debate and that user pay suggestion went down to defeat, in an 8-8 tie vote (tie votes lose). The taxpayers will be footing the $3 million bill.
The toll issue didn't come to a vote since it had only been recommended by citizens, so we don't know exactly how the council would have divided, but we do know that councillors Tom Jackson and Sam Merulla were outraged by the idea that expressway users should have to pay for the privilege of driving on it.
Jackson also voted for the fare hikes, while Merulla voted against them. The two of them divided the opposite way on the airport passenger fee – Merulla in favour of a user fee and Jackson opposed.
Like Jackson, Lloyd Ferguson, Maria Pearson, Fred Eisenberger, Dave Mitchell, Margaret McCarthy, Terry Whitehead and Rob Pasuta all voted for increased user fees for HSR riders, and against increasing them for airport users.
Bob Bratina, Brad Clark, Chad Collins, Scott Duvall and Brian McHattie took the opposite position – voting against more user fees on the buses, but for them on airplanes.
Bernie Morelli was absent for the transit vote, but supported user fees for airline passengers. Russ Powers voted for a fare hike, but also argued for user fees at the airport.
But there is an underlying consistency here.
Each of these examples, of course, has an environmental twist to it. Raising HSR fares obviously hurts the environment by encouraging more people to drive cars. Adding tolls to an expressway has the opposite effect, hopefully encouraging some of the drivers to use greener alternatives.
Note that the environment was the loser on both these issues. Then when it came to raising the cost of flying, one of the most environmentally damaging activities an individual can do, the environment again played second fiddle.
So on these three issues, despite being all over the map on the alleged "principle" of user pay, the councillors were remarkably consistent with respect to the environment.
Eisenberger, Ferguson, Jackson, McCarthy, Mitchell, Pasuta, Pearson and Whitehead consistently took the anti-environmental position.
Bratina, Clark, Collins, Duvall, McHattie, Merulla and (apparently) Morelli consistently voted green.
Russ Powers took a consistent position in favour of user fees, irrespective of the environmental consequences.
Of course, that's just three examples.
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