A 3D LRT rendering.

City of Hamilton photo
Metrolinx wants to integrate fares across its regional holdings. That could mean local bus riders having to shell out extra to step onto the LRT.

Efforts to “integrate” transit fare payment across the region are raising fears city bus riders will be forced to pay more to use Hamilton’s planned LRT — or maybe just more for public transit, period.

Provincial transit agency Metrolinx — which will own and operate the city’s planned $1-billion light rail transit line — is looking to streamline how riders pay to travel across 10 increasingly interconnected transit systems from Oshawa through Toronto to Hamilton.

Hamilton and most GTA riders can already use “Presto” tap-and-go cards to pay for both local bus travel and GO train service between municipalities. Cities have been warned the cost of participating in the Presto partnership will rise.

But an ongoing fare integration study — meant to simplify and modernize inter-regional travel payment — is also looking at the potential for more fares paid by distance or zone, as well as paying extra for “rapid transit” trips on LRT compared to slower local buses.

Hamilton — which has some of the lowest bus fares in the GTA and beyond — risks “coming out on the losing end” of such integration, said Coun. Chad Collins. “If what we’re talking about is fare harmonization, there will be cost implications to our budget or to riders, or both,” said Collins, who along with Coun. Terry Whitehead recently requested a report on the issue from HSR officials.

He’ll likely have to wait until June, when Metrolinx publicizes more detailed recommendations. An agency spokesperson said it was too early to answer Spectator’s questions about affordability and the implications for local bus fares.

One of the models under study suggests riders across the GTA should pay more for trips longer than seven kilometres on faster public transit such as the subway or LRT. “The idea is you put a value on the time you save taking a higher order of transit,” said HSR director Dave Dixon.

In theory, that could mean a Stoney Creek resident taking the B-line to McMaster University — a trip of about 14 kilometres, bus and LRT combined — would need to pay more to use the city’s eventual light rail transit line.

Dixon cautioned the study is still very “high level,” adding he doubted B-line bus riders would be asked to pay a premium to switch to LRT mid-trip, for example. “My preference, certainly, would be a free transfer at the terminal at either end of the (LRT) line.”

Mayor Fred Eisenberger agrees. “I think there is broad recognition of the need for a seamless transition,” he said.

There’s also recognition integration won’t be easy, regardless. Metrolinx runs distance-based fare GO trains from Oshawa through Toronto to Hamilton and is building LRT lines with yet-to-be-announced fare structures in several cities along the route. Many of those cities, meanwhile, have unique local fares for buses, BRT and subways.

“Public expectations are high for more service with low or unchanged fares,” acknowledges a Metrolinx presentation to area mayors from March, which also notes fare policies are often used to address “social equity issues.”

Hamilton, for example, makes special fare accommodations for seniors, youth and low-income residents.

“It’s complex, obviously,” said Eisenberger. “Yes, I’d say we have some concerns (on fare integration), but I’m confident we’ll work through them.”

Regardless, the privilege of participating in inter-regional transit is about to get pricier.

That’s because Metrolinx has declined to extend the city’s contract for the use of Presto cards, which calls for the city to pay a two per cent commission on each fare “tap” until the end of 2016. The agency wants “greater cost sharing” from its partner cities, according to a memo to councillors from city manager Chris Murray, who will report back on prospective negotiations later this year.

It’s unclear how much more Metrolinx expects partner cities to pay, but it’s unlikely Hamilton can just opt out. Using Presto is a requirement for most large cities near Toronto to qualify for annual gas tax funding. That’s close to $10.7 million in Hamilton.

Source: The Hamilton Spectator