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Transit: 2 steps forward, 1 back, many to go

burlingtonbusterminalThere was good and bad news in the 2015 budget for transit users.

On the plus side, council approved one more Handivan and two drivers, and also approved extending the hours and routes of the Community Connection bus that serves the Burlington Seniors’ Centre, retirement homes, grocery stores, malls and other locations of interest to seniors. Council will receive information for next year’s budget on my proposal to offers seniors one day free transit per week.

On the down side, cash fares will increase, and service cut in 2013  including school specials will not be reinstated. However, transit has included a review of school specials in their workplan for 2016.

My Take: Overall, it’s clear that transit will need significant investment in future to build a system that works for residents who already use the system, and those who don’t because their car is the quickest, most direct and convenient form of travel. I’ve accepted the BFAST challenge to ride transit this month, detailed below, and will attend the transit users forum March 28 to share my experiences.

The number of Handivan trips requested that had to be declined in 2014 was 675, according to data provided by staff. With the extra van, that number is expected to drop to less than 450 declined rides in 2015.

I moved a motion to reinstate the Taxi Scrip program for 2014, which allows Handivan users to take a cab at a reduced rate when Handivan can’t accommodate their trip. The Taxi Scrip program allowed Handivan users to purchase $80 worth of taxi fares for $50 each month. To put that in perspective, one senior reported that a cab ride for an emergency appointment that Handivan couldn’t accommodate cost $55. The Taxi Scrip program allowed users at most 2-3 trips per month when Handivan couldn’t accommodate.

In addition, advocates for seniors, including members of the Burlington Age-Friendly Seniors Council, said some Handivan riders need a taxi because their bones are too brittle to handle the bumpy van ride, or they are too frail to stand and wait for the van to arrive.

The total cost would have been $35,000 in one-time costs to the city ($80,000 in cost less $45,000 in revenue). It’s a drop in the city’s bucket, but an essential lifeline to those residents who needed it. I suggested the program be just for this year, and evaluated in 2016, and only put in place until we add enough Handivan service to accommodate the growing need. Handivan bookings have more than doubled since 2014.

The motion failed 6-1.

Staff advised that they will send a taxi to pick up a Handivan rider if the van isn’t available, but could not state how many of the 675 declined rides in 2014 got a cab sent instead.

There was also confusing information on the decline rate; staff stated that if someone asked for a 1pm pickup and the van couldn’t make that time but could be there at 1:15, it would be recorded as a decline. Most people, including myself, would not count that as a decline. Given that council is relying on the decline rate to help make budget decisions about adding Handivan drivers and buses, I asked staff to provided a more accurate picture of the number of decline rates, specifically rides that could not be accommodated at all, and how many of those (if any) got a cab ride instead.

Community Connection
The Community Connection bus will now run Monday to Friday, 10am-3pm, with additional routes serving East, West and North sections of the city. I brought a motion to extend the hours to 9 to 4 to better align with programming at the Burlington Seniors’ Centre, however withdrew that motion after staff advised that extending the hours would require three additional buses.

A meeting is scheduled in early March with representatives from the Burlington Seniors Advisory Committee, Burlington Age-Friendly Seniors Council, Burlington Seniors Centre Board, myself and transit staff to discuss the Community Connection routes and hours.

I also brought a motion to direct the Director of Transit to prepare a business case for the 2016 budget for one free day per week for Burlington seniors on transit. Stay tuned for more information on that.

Transit fare increase
Effective April 1, cash fares will increase to $3.50 for all users, including seniors, students, and children. The changes are intended to encourage riders to use a PRESTO card rather than cash.

Monthly passes and bulk tickets are increasing by 2%. The PRESTO card child fare will increase from $1.55 to $1.85 to match the student fare. The student bulk rate to both the Halton District School Board and the Halton Catholic District School Board is increasing from $43 to $48 per student pass.

I did not support the fare increases and brought a motion to freeze fares, which lost 5-2.

Fare increases penalize many people in our community who have no choice but transit and often lead to a decrease in ridership. A high cash fare discourages visitors and tourists from using our transit system. Further, PRESTO can be a challenge to activate and maintain. Everyone in my family has a PRESTO card but we have often had to rely on cash fares as a backup because of the difficulties we have encountered activating, registering and loading the cards. Transit staff acknowledged these challenges, and have received complaints from other users. PRESTO is also aware and working on improvements. But I don’t blame the more than half our riders who don’t have a PRESTO card.

Increasing fares for children and students is particularly difficult to accept given the elimination of school specials that occurred in 2013. These specials were timed to go directly to schools at bell opening and closing times. My daughters used to be about a 20 minute direct bus ride to school on one of these specials. Now the ride is double that, with a transfer and a long walk to the main road from the school. In cancelling the specials, staff expected students would simply switch to other routes. In truth, many now get a car ride to school. It’s a step backward for service to students who are our future transit riders.

I brought a motion to direct the Director of Transit to bring a business case to the 2016 budget to reinstate school specials cancelled in 2013. However, that was withdrawn after after staff advised that consideration of reinstating school specials is already in the workplan for 2016. That’s good news, and I look forward to seeing the details in next year’s budget.

Burlington For Accessible Sustainable TransitTaking the BFAST challenge
A local citizen’s group, Burlington For Accessible Sustainable Transit, has challenged all members of council to ride the bus five times in the next month, and record their observations. I’ve accepted the challenge, and will share my experience on and future issues of the newsletter.

Though I live close enough to walk to City Hall, one of my trips will be to Halton Region Headquarters in Oakville. (All members of Burlington city council also serve on Halton regional council).

I have looked into taking transit to the Region in the past and could not make the schedule work because of back-to-back meetings.

It requires two transfers, two buses, one GO train and almost an hour, versus about a 15-minute drive. If I have a meeting after council and need to get back to the city, transit won’t get me here in time.

The ‘time penalty’ and inconvenience of transit is the experience of many of our riders who have no choice but transit, and the reason many of our potential transit riders drive instead. It’s also the reason we need to think about better interconnectedness between municipalities, and potentially a regional system. I raised this issue at the strategic planning sessions at the region in February, and will continue to advocate for better inter-city transit.

Transit users forum March 28
The outcome of BFAST’s transit challenge, including responses from councillors, will be discussed at a transit users forum Sat. March 28, 10-12 at Central Library. This free event, sponsored by BFAST and seven other organizations, invites users to share their experiences riding transit, and discuss ways to improve the system. Details are here: BFAST workshop March 28

Written by Marianne Meed Ward

A Better Burlington began in 2006 after my neighbours said they felt left out of city decisions, learning about them only after they’d been made.

As journalist for 22 years, I thought “I can do something about that” and a website and newsletter were born. They’ve taken various forms and names over the years, but the intent remains: To let you know what’s happening at City Hall before decisions are made, so you can influence outcomes for A Better Burlington.

The best decisions are made when elected representatives tap the wisdom of our community members, and welcome many different perspectives.This site allows residents to comment and debate with each other; our Commenting Guidelines established in 2016 aim to keep debate respectful.

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  1. Well Ms. Ward, hopefully you can convince a few others on council to care about transit. Since Burlington Transit is charging the same as Oakville Transit, maybe BT should just merge with OT, and hand the reins over to the people in charge of Oakville Transit, who seem to have at least half a clue how to run a decent and reliable transit system.

  2. When trying to find a route for a guest I phoned and emailed Burlington Transit and both responses were that they did not know what time the buses ran at Lakeside Plaza? Also I personally would frequent more restaurants, bars and functions in the downtown core if the transit system was more user friendly. It is a shame that anywhere I try to get to I have to go via the GO station and/or by way of iffy connections. If the system was easier to use more people would use it and it follows there would be more money in the coffers, lessening the need for substantial subsidies. The word subsidy is misused in this instance as it is a government service, we already pay taxes to run these services and it is up to the government to run them as efficiently as possible. Marianne, I originally planned to give these comments to the Mayor until I read your newsletter but will also send the Mayor my comments.

  3. City council has made buses in Burlington a non-event – where my daughter used to take school special – I now drive her – the next generation driving with no concept of the bus – having come from a city where transit was relevant and moving to Burlington 17 years ago – could not figure why no one rode the buses – after 17 years – the conclusion is that despite the efforts of Burlington Transit and BFAST – I have no hope that transit will be either relevant or necessary

What's your take?

Budget invests in infrastructure/transit; Increase approved for 3.64%, 2.06% overall

News Briefs: March 2015