Citizens at City Hall (CATCH) are sounding the alarm about another potential HSR fare increase to be included in the 2009 municipal budget.
Council recently approved a schedule for budget decisionmaking, which will include a "fare increase report" from public works staff. Council will undertake "deliberations and final approval" on November 14.
It sounds like staff plan to recommend a fare hike that would take effect on January 1, 2009, defending it on the basis of "significant pressures" on this year's transit budget as a result of high fuel prices and rising pension costs.
Hamilton already increased fares in mid-2007 and again on January 1, 2008.
The report a year ago that recommended the 2008 fare increase did not include an estimate on how the increase would affect ridership, though public works staff suggested that lost ridership would be offset by new services.
There is a strong, well-established inverse correlation between fare prices and ridership. Fare increases correspond with drops in ridership, and fare cuts correspond with increases in ridership.
As it turns out, ridership grew only marginally during a year when other cities saw significant increases and overall transit ridership grew by five percent.
The city launched a pilot project this year to subsidize transit passes for low income riders who qualify. One of the agenda items for the 2009 budget is to assess this project and decide whether to continue and/or expand it.
As helpful as this may be for low income transit users, it is unlikely to help shore up lost ridership, since the people who stop using public transit as fares go up are generally those people who have other options.
A big part of the problem is that council generally regards transit levies as a "budgetary pressure", not as an investment. It is politically more expedient to dump increased transit expenditures on HSR riders than to increase transit taxes.
Complicating matters further in Hamilton is the grandfathered system of "area rating", under which different areas of the city pay different rates toward transit, an arrangement that goes back to the forced amalgamation of the city with its surrounding towns.
For example, taxpayers in the old city of Hamilton pay nearly five times as much toward transit as residents in Ancaster.
Council has so far refused to address area rating, though they did agree earlier this year that they need to do something about it before the end of their term in 2010.
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