Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday September 17, 2022
Beyond LRT and How to pay for it and Transit
For the first election in years, “LRT is not the central issue,” said Karl Andrus of the Hamilton Transit Riders’ Union. “I’m elated to see conversations about transit moving beyond just ‘yes or no’ to LRT.”
That’s a big change from elections in 2014 and 2018 — both of which featured serious candidates campaigning to kill the 14-kilometre light-rail transit plan for the lower city in favour of building bus rapid transit.
The city’s transit union still wants to make an election issue out of LRT — particularly, over whether the city will operate the train instead of a private consortium like the one running the LRT in Kitchener-Waterloo, said vice-president Rob Doucette. “We want to hear specifically if (candidates) will commit to keep public transit in public hands.”
But unlike in past elections, no major mayoral candidate is openly campaigning against LRT — likely in part due to $3.4-billion in new federal and provincial funding for the project. Major construction is supposed to start by 2024.
That means candidates can “move beyond” the yes or no LRT question to explaining to voters how they would make the entire transit system better for residents, said Andrus.
He said that includes expanding bus service to underserved suburban communities like Binbrook, Waterdown and Stoney Creek — and finally moving ahead on a nearly 15-year-old “BLAST” rapid transit vision for the rest of the city.
The grassroots riders’ union argues all those improvements require an overhaul of Hamilton’s “bizarre” system of taxing different areas of the city more or less for transit. That debate over ending so-called “area rating” of transit could prove just as controversial as past LRT battles, Andrus conceded.
“In the mayor’s race, everyone has kind of run away from that issue,” he suggested.
“Area rating” of taxes sounds like a boring bureaucratic argument — but the question of how and who Hamilton taxes for bus service can really fire up political debate (and taxpayer ire).
A short summary of a two-decade argument: When Hamilton amalgamated suburban communities like Ancaster, Binbrook, Waterdown, Dundas and Stoney Creek in 2001, it created different tax rates for transit based on level of service and old geographical boundaries.
Meant as a temporary measure, the geography-based tax rates never disappeared — leaving Hamilton as the only large Ontario city where urban residents pay different rates for transit depending on where they live.
So in 2019, for example, the average old-city homeowner paid about $389 a year for transit compared to $184 for the urban parts of Ancaster, $201 for Glanbrook and $137 in Stoney Creek. Rural residents pay no taxes for transit.
Forcing all urban residents across Hamilton to pay the same transit tax rate should result in a tax cut for the old city and a hike of between two and four per cent in former amalgamated communities.
But Andrus suggests the city could skip the old-city tax cut, with extra money raised “plowed directly back into improving transit” in poorly served areas.
Otherwise, he argued the current system makes it difficult to expand transit to where it is needed — and unfair to old-city residents who shoulder the brunt of HSR budget increases.
It’s the kind of conundrum that has split council along urban-suburban lines in the past — with retiring Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson, for example, at one point threatening to withdraw his support for LRT if council changed transit taxes in a way that hurt his ward residents.
Where do the Mayoral candidates stand? Keanin Loomis: Proposes phasing out area-rated transit taxes “over time,” in tandem with plans for expanded service; Andrea Horwath: Says transit must expand to all suburban communities but says any changes to area-rated taxes must happen in tandem with improved service. Has not suggested a timeline for changes; Bob Bratina: Calls ending area-rated transit a “tax grab” but wants to experiment with alternative transit like on-demand service in suburbs. (The Hamilton Spectator)