On Wednesday, members of the London Transit Commission will consider a staff report which provides options for meeting Council’s request to all boards and commissions to reduce their budgets so that a zero tax increase can be realized.
The LTC will be a little short-handed at this meeting. As a result of the careless tweeting of a newly-appointed commissioner who subsequently resigned, there will be only four commissioners remaining, Frank Berry (chair), Councillor Harold Usher (vice-chair), Councillor Sandy White, and Eric Southern, to consider what to recommend to Council. Two from Council, two from the public. Two with experience, two who are new to their positions. And a strong potential for tied votes. All of which will make this meeting a very interesting one.
The staff report itself highlights the dilemmas that will confront the commissioners and ultimately councillors.
During the election campaign, a number of contenders were convinced that a zero tax increase could be achieved without cutting services, that there was a lot of waste and fat in the system that could be cut and no one would notice the difference.
That’s a tough argument to make when it comes to our public transit service.
London has pretty much the most efficient, cost effective and advanced bus service of any city of its size (100,000 and up) in Ontario, excluding the two capital cities, Toronto and Ottawa.
Of the 16 municipalities, London, while ranking 7th in population at just over 350,000 in 2009, had the second highest ridership, nearly double the average. Our direct operating costs at $2.23 per rider were the lowest of the 16 and significantly below the average of $4.02. Even our specialized transit trips cost only half of the average of other communities.
Given this track record, one would expect a high level of investment in transit by our municipality. After all, more ridership saves us traffic congestion, wear and tear on the streets, and lowered costs in terms of street maintenance and road widening and all of the expenses and inconvenience they entail.
But no. London picks up less than 40 per cent of the operating costs, less than any of the other municipalities. The remainder is covered by fare revenues and provincial grants through the dedicated gas tax.
We have a mean, lean transit machine.
So what to do?
Should we increase fares?
Staff says no.
People ride the bus for a number of reasons: economic, environmental, convenience. But transit riders are not necessarily a captive market as we learned during the last transit strike. If transit becomes too difficult or too expensive, people find other ways of getting around or stay put. If past experience is anything to go by, a 10 per cent increase in fares would result in a 3 per cent reduction in ridership which in turn would reduce the efficiency of the service and the gas tax money from the province which is based on ridership.
What about cutting back staff or just not replacing them as they leave? Or reducing wages?
Staff has proposed a permanent reduction in wages for management, the second such in the past three years. That, together with some administrative material cuts could save $38,500 which means that the requested increase could be cut from 8.1 per cent to 7.9 per cent. It’s hard to cut the number of bus drivers without cutting service or increasing overtime costs. And London bus drivers, who just signed a three year contract last year, are in fact paid less than other those in neighbouring communities.
Here are the options that staff put on the table. None are without significant implications for our transit service.
1. Drop the planned service along to the West Beaverbrook community, an area of significant growth bounded by Wonderland on the east, Hyde Park on the west, Oxford Street on the south and Sarnia Road on the north. Not going ahead with this will reduce some costs but also the anticipated increased ridership, fare revenues and gas tax money. Not to mention some pretty annoyed residents of Ward 8 who paid their development charges and continue to pay their taxes.
2. Drop the recently introduced service to Lambeth and along Fanshawe West on the basis of last in-first out. I spent a lot of time in Lambeth during the campaign trying to assure the residents that London does care about Lambeth. This will not help. The Fanshawe West route is used by many young people to get to their jobs at the Power Centre from adjacent subdivisions and, of course, shoppers as well. It would also withdraw recent service improvements in the Byron area and much needed improvements to specialized transit services for persons with disabilities.
3. Delay opening the new satellite facility. This is possible only if we do 1 and 2 above first so that we can reduce the number of buses we require. There would still be some costs for maintaining the new facility. We would not be able to continue to take advantage of the provincial government funded bike racks installation program as that would put us significantly over capacity at the current location on Highbury.
4. Draw some one time money from the reserves which we have to deal with emergencies such as sharp increases in fuel prices. We may have enough of this cushion to do it once. It won’t work for subsequent years, however.
So these are the options facing the commissioners and councillors. Will they take them or will they recognize the value that residents and businesses of London get for their investment in transit?
In 2010 the main discussion about transit was how to make it more accessible to a larger number of residents. Most councillors recognized that a healthy transit system is integral to a vibrant, growing city that people want to live in and that business wants to locate in.
Our current system isn’t perfect but it’s better than most. We get good value for our money whether we ride the buses or whether we benefit from the reduced traffic congestion.
That’s why the previous council supported an 8.1 increase in funding. That’s why the current council should endorse it.