City File: Out of Service

The HSR has been starved for decades and it shows.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted February 01, 2018 in Essays (Last Updated 00, 0000)

The Hamilton Street Railway has changed a lot since it began in 1874 with trams pulled by horses. These days, we seem to be stuck with the manure. The story of HSR over the past thirty years is a calamity of neglect, disrespect and disinvestment. The formula for transit is fairly straightforward: ridership is basically a linear function of service level. Increase service and you get more riders. Reduce service and you get fewer riders. This formula has played out in grim fashion in Hamilton.

Over the 1980s, annual ridership dropped from a high of almost 30 million to just 24 million in 1991. Further cuts squeezed total ridership to just over 20 million in 1995. The new Progressive Conservative government under Premier Mike Harris ruthlessly eliminated provincial funding for transit, cutting $1.5 million from Hamilton in 1996 and millions more in 1997 in a radical municipal cost shift that also downloaded housing, libraries and emergency services. By 1997, riders were covering half the cost of a system that had shrunk by $6 million in funding. The HSR carried 19.7 million trips that year.

There was an opportunity under amalgamation to harmonize transit funding and service across the new city, but aggressive pushback from the former suburbs preserved a compromise under which different parts of the city pay different tax rates and receive different service levels. Since 100% of any service increase in an area-rated part of the city must be absorbed by local ratepayers, it is politically difficult to add suburban transit service. As a result, the entire system is balkanized. Hamilton is the only city in Ontario to area-rate the cost of transit, but successive councils since 2001 have kicked this can down the road - including the current Council, which made a backroom agreement not to touch it before 2019.

HSR service and ridership stabilized this century but has remained stuck around 21 million annual trips while the city's population has steadily grown. Unlike in previous decades, this stagnation comes down to lack of political will. Since 2005, the Federal Government has provided a Gax Tax fund to Canadian cities for sustainable infrastructure, with around $32 million coming to Hamilton each year. Nationally, around 40% goes toward transit. In Hamilton we spend nearly all of it on roads.

Likewise, since 2004 the Ontario Government has also provided a Gas Tax fund, restoring provincial transit funding. Unlike its Federal counterpart, the Ontario transfer is geared to performance. This is a problem, because while Hamilton's ridership has stagnated, other cities have been growing their systems aggressively. As a result, our share of the Provincial Gas Tax fund is actually shrinking.

The problem is not that the service itself is inefficient. A 2017 report by the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton found that HSR has very high ridership per vehicle. The problem is fundamentally a lack of funding. The average local transit operating commitment across GTHA municipalities is around $100 per capita, while Hamilton is stuck below $80. On the capital funding size, the average for GTHA municipalities is $100 per capita compared to zero in Hamilton.

Using data from the Canadian Urban Transit Association by population, we can normalize ridership by population and compare Hamilton with its peers. As of 2016, HSR carried around 40 trips per capita per year, similar to Kingston, St. Catharines, Brampton and Waterloo Region but lower than Guelph, Mississauga and London. (I'm not even comparing us to Ottawa and Toronto, which carry 100 and 200 annual trips per capita respectively.)

But whereas we have been stagnant since the 1990s, our comparators have been growing rapidly. According to the Ontario Government's Municipal Performance Measurement Program, overall ridership in Hamilton grew a measly 3% between 2006 and 2013, compared to 11% in St. Catharines, 23% in Mississauga, 33% in York Region, 60% in Waterloo and 91% in Brampton. Ridership soared in Waterloo Region after 2000, doubling by 2011 and catching up to Hamilton's total ridership by 2013.

Our ridership woes are not for lack of demand. In 2017, up to 50 over-stuffed buses a day left would-be passengers cooling their heels - over a thousand a month for half the year. Meanwhile, by December the slow-motion crisis of deferred hiring and over-stressed workers produced a staggering 18% absenteeism rate, with literally several hundred trips a day not going out.

In 2015, Council adopted a Ten Year Transit Strategy that acknowledged the cumulative funding deficit sketched a plan to put more money into buying buses and getting them on the road. The first two years of the Strategy fell squarely on the shoulders of riders, who bore steep fare increases with no corresponding increase in public funding. Ironically but not surprisingly, ridership actually fell modestly in those years due to the price increase, forcing Council to retroactively backstop HSR budget to cover lost fare revenue.

Year three was supposed to include new public funding to expand service. Instead, Council voted to "defer" that spending and to cut the preliminary budget by $2 million. They also turned down $36 million in federal funding for capital improvements, which would have meant a 0.45 percent local tax hike for matching funds. Naturally, their decision not to buy the buses became their excuse not to staff them.

One highlight of the recent light rail transit (LRT) debate is that Councillors across the political spectrum have sung the praises of local transit, extolling its benefits and insisting on the need for more funding. Now they need to back up their big words with real dollars.

First published in Hamilton Magazine, Winter 2018 issue.