Transit Fares: Council voted yesterday to increase transit fares by $0.25 across the board. Adult, senior, youth, and student fares are all going up $0.25, but Council rejected staff’s advice to eliminate the senior’s discount.
Why raise fares? I’m a fan of reality and reality doesn’t care about politics. Costs go up each year, HRM’s budget is always under pressure to improve transit, and the municipality, basically, has just two sources of revenue: user fees (fares) and property taxes. It’s reasonable to expect transit riders to pay for a portion of the system’s cost, which means that, since there is no money tree at City Hall, fares, like taxes, have to periodically increase. The fare increase was part of Council’s budget deliberations just six months ago. During the budget debate, there was a lot of preoccupation with how big the increase to the average homeowner would be. Raising fares helped cover transit costs and, without the $0.25 increase, the tax increase would have been 2.7% instead of 2.4%. During transit’s budget debate, very few of my colleagues spoke against the fare increase and no one made a motion, even though it was clearly identified as an option to consider in Transit’s presentation. You can actually go back and watch the debate here. Politicians that oppose fare increases, while also opposing tax increases really aren’t offering governance, they’re simply in the business of easy answers and telling you what you want to hear.
Next is the question of whether a $0.25 increase is reasonable? I believe it is. HRM’s last fare increase was in 2013, which means the $0.25 is just barely keeping up with inflation (Bank of Canada calculator indicates $2.50 in 2013 is $2.77 in 2019). We have some of the lowest fares in Canada. Our current $2.50 isn’t beat by any other city and, even after the $0.25 increase, $2.75 will still be firmly well-below the $3.41 average. Fares are cheap in HRM and, as a result, it’s not surprising that property taxes cover most of our transit system’s costs. The fare recovery ratio in HRM is about 35%, meaning that the other 65% of transit’s operating costs are paid for by taxes. I have no problem with that since transit is a public good that benefits everyone. The point is that the fare increase is modest, our fares are cheap, and HRM doesn’t unduly expect riders to cover operating costs.
It’s also important to keep in mind that this fare increase is unique compared to all previous increases in HRM. This time, HRM actually has programs in place to mitigate the impact on those who can least afford it. Thanks to the municipality’s partnership with the Province, over 10,000 income assistant recipients and their families currently ride for free on transit. Adding to that, HRM’s low-income pass program allows for another 2,000 to purchase half-price passes. None of those programs existed back in 2013 when the fare increased to $2.50 or during previous increases in 2009, or 2005. There are folks for whom $0.25 more is a burden, but the way to help is through expanding these initiatives, not skipping routine fare increases and starving the transit system of revenue leading, inevitably, to declines in service.
Given all of the above, I was comfortable with the $0.25 across the board increase. Council did, however, get tangled up in a discussion regarding discounted seniors fares. Staff’s original recommendation was for Council to cancel the senior’s $0.75 discount based on the fact that very few Canadian municipalities offers a senior’s rate and that, unlike most of HRM’s other programs, the senior’s discount isn’t targeted towards those with the greatest need (seniors that need the break get it as do those who don’t). When the staff recommendation reached the Transportation Standing Committee though, the Committee rejected the advice and instead recommended that Council continue the current discount and raise all fares (student, youth, adult, and senior) by $0.25. So that’s what Council was considering.
There is a well-know expression: a lie can travel around the world before the truth even gets its boots on. That old saying has never been truer than in the age of social media. I’m amazed at the number of social media comments stemming from a single starting post on Facebook asking why Council raised senior’s fares by $0.25 cents. While not an outright lie, the way the information has been presented creates an inaccurate impression that Council is singling out seniors for a $0.25 increase when that’s most definitely not the case. All fares are going up $0.25. This isn’t a senior’s only increase. During the debate, Councillor Mancini did propose that the $0.25 increase not apply to seniors and after a lot of discussion, his motion was narrowly defeated 8-7, which is what has given the fodder to the facebook post. I didn’t support exempting senior’s from the general fare increase because HRM has programs in place for those who need the most help and because the $0.25 increase was the same for all transit groups. It’s the exact same sort of routine increase that has happened before (2013, 2009, 2005) and will happen again some day. If Council opted to never raise the senior fare, the senior’s discount would get more and more lucrative with each fare increase. I don’t think that makes sense. The senior’s discount is being maintained as it has always been, $0.75 off the regular adult fare.
So fares are going up for everyone, well almost everyone anyway. Council did approve a pilot program to increase the age that kids ride free from from 4 to 12. HRM now joins Toronto, Vancouver, and Kingston in offering free rides to kids. This is a policy that is a long-term investment that gives us the chance to try and foster a culture of transit ridership. It’s pretty hard to convince someone who has never been on a bus that they should start using it in their 20s or 30s! HRM has an eye to expand beyond the pilot to older students by seeking a partnership with the Province. For that to work though, the Province will need to be an active financial partner, as is the case in other places that have provided student passes. By providing free rides up to Junior High, HRM has set the groundwork for those discussions A partnership with the Province, would fill the remaining gap from 12-18 and create an affordable youth transit program right from birth through university. Checkout this video explaining how this works in Kingston
Burnside Expressway Active Transportation: The other significant issue on Council’s plate was whether to fund the construction of a greenway alongside the upcoming Burnside Expressway. As I wrote previously, I’m not a fan of the Burnside Expressway project. It will encourage more people to drive and enable automobile focussed development. It isn’t a good thing for any of our transportation or planning objectives and is a project from another era. The only way for HRM to mitigate the worst impacts of the Burnside Expressway is to also improve transit and active transportation connections.
Although the Province and Federal governments are paying $200 million towards the Highway, not a dime of that total has been allocated towards the proposed active transportation corridor that would allow cyclists and pedestrians to travel alongside the new Highway. If HRM wants an active transportation connection, the municipality has to pedal to the rescue to the tune of $8 million, which is $7 million more than originally estimated back in 2011. That $8 million is only for the highway portion. HRM would also need to invest up to another $6 million to make the route actually effectively by building the active transportation connections into Bedford and Sackville. It’s a significant sum of money and the Province’s timelines mean it’s something HRM would have to opt to do now.
To assess whether building a path alongside the Burnside Expressway makes sense, staff considered the main potential alternative route via Magazine Hill. The conclusion is that both have challenging grades, but Magazine Hill is shorter, more closely connected to population centres in Bedford and Sackville (10 times the nearby population), and less costly to build ($9 – $12 million compared to $11 – $14 million). Given the cost, that it’s not really the preferred route, and the various other pressures for active transportation projects that are likely to be much more effective in terms of getting people to leave the car at home, Council opted not to proceed. Instead, HRM will engage with the Province on securing Magazine Hill and will ask to keep a corridor alongside the Burnside Expressway so that HRM can revisit this in the future if need be.
- Council deferred scheduling a public hearing to consider the Findlay Community Centre as a heritage building pending an additional report on what interior elements might be significant and worthy of registration
- Council adopted a community area rate policy (most remaining area rates are in the former Halifax County) and accepted the business plans for the various existing area rates
- Still with area rates, Council approved the establishment of a Business Improvement District in Porters Lake
- Gave first reading and scheduled public hearings to (1) insert the Green Network’s wildlife corridors maps into the Regional Plan for consideration in applications for open-space design subdivisions, and (2) amend the existing development agreement for Seven Lakes
- Initiated a public process to update HRM’s Municipal Design Standards (the Red Book)
- Declared a list of mostly minor HRM properties surplus to allow the disposal process to begin (the only one in District 5 is a small lot on Cottage Hill off Prince Albert Road)
- Directed staff to look at HRM paying for building a second entrance into Highland Park in Hammonds Plains
- Requested a staff report on considering the University Avenue Fire Station for heritage registration, and on providing continued funding for the Downtown Dartmouth and North End Halifax Street Navigator Programs