Mar 1, 2010

Halton council ponders regional transit system

An amalgamated transit system possibly serving Halton’s four communities of Burlington, Oakville, Milton and Halton Hills will be studied by regional staff.

Halton’s council has directed the works department to consider including an integrated regional transit system into the multi-billion dollar master plan it is developing for transportation projects over the next two decades.

Staff hopes to complete the master plan, dubbed The Road to Change, by the end of the year. Public information centres are scheduled for late March.

Currently, transit service in Halton is handled at the local municipal level, with Burlington, Oakville and Milton all operating separate systems. Halton Hills does not have a conventional transit system, but regional planning documents envision the town could have a small six-bus system by 2031 to service the approximately 25,000 extra people coming to Acton, Georgetown and area hamlets between 2015-31.

In the past decade, both York and Durham regions have created regional transit bodies, taking over the bus services offered by their local municipalities.

“I’ve been an advocate for looking at this (regional transit system) for some period of time,” said John Taylor, vice-chair of council’s planning and public works committee and a Burlington regional councillor, in an interview.

“Milton has a fledgling system, Burlington and Oakville have more sophisticated systems. Can we find a way to find efficiencies?” he asked. “I think we should have the facts in front of us.”

Taylor said a Halton regional transit system would be an intermediate step. The ultimate aim should be a seamless, GTA-wide transit system similar to what is available in Vancouver and its suburbs, he said.

Taylor’s Oakville colleague, Allan Elgar, was more circumspect of a regional transit initiative, in regards to the cost.

“Who’s going to pay?” asked Elgar in a separate interview. “I don’t believe Oakville is interested in subsidizing Halton Hills and Milton in this initiative.”

Elgar was referring to a point raised often by Oakville’s regional council members, that residents and businesses in their town, due to the higher assessment value of their properties, pay approximately 42 per cent of the property taxes that end up at the region though Oakville’s population is only 37 per cent of Halton’s total.

Elgar said Oakville Transit has also moved to a grid-based transit system designed for people to get around the town, while Burlington’s and Milton’s transit agencies still operate radial systems focused on getting commuters to GO stations.

Taylor responded to Elgar’s concerns by suggesting a regional transit system could operate like Halton’s waste collection division, with local municipalities determining the service levels they desire and paying the region accordingly.

While Halton’s transportation master plans have traditionally focused on building more roads — $1.1 billion is projected for such projects over the next 11 years — transit has been at the forefront of other regional plans.

Included in the recently passed amendment to Halton’s Official Plan, ROPA 38, is a target of having 20 per cent of all peak period trips made by transit by 2031, with automobiles used for 70 per cent of such trips and walking, bicycling and other “active transport” modes used 10 per cent of the time.

Reaching that target will require a massive sea change in both the attitudes and behaviour of Halton commuters as well as the level of transit service offered to them. In 2006, only five per cent of peak period trips were made by transit and two per cent by active transport.

The region’s plans depend on the province continuing to invest heavily in inter-regional transit, including the planned electrification of the Lakeshore West GO train line and a bus rapid transit line on dedicated lanes on Dundas Street between Halton and Kipling Station in Etobicoke.

With such investments, the region hopes 42 per cent of peak period trips made outside Halton will be made by transit in 2031. Only 11 per cent of such trips within Halton would be made by transit. Combined, the two add up to the 20 per cent transit target.

That target is not unique to Halton, as York Region, Ottawa, Waterloo Region and Markham are all aiming for the same percentage by 2031.

In the GTA, York has been the forefront of investing in a regional transit system, beginning its York Region Transit (YRT) in 2001. Over the past five years, YRT’s ridership increased 33 per cent, from 13.8 million to 18.3 million, while the region’s population only grew about 13 per cent, according to a Metroland York news report.

York’s privatized rapid transit system, VIVA, expects to be running its buses on dedicated lanes in three years, two years before a TTC subway extension to York in Vaughan is scheduled to be completed. Metrolinx, the province’s transit planning agency, and York are also planning for an extension of the TTC subway to Richmond Hill.

However, that increased level of transit service in York costs money. In 2010, property taxpayers there can expect to cover about 57 per cent of YRT’s $160-million budget this year, according to York’s budget documents. That equates to an approximate $89 per capita investment by York’s one million-plus residents. The region is projecting a YRT ridership at just over 20 million this year.

The investments haven’t had a skyrocketing effect on property taxes in York, however. That region averaged 2.725 per cent annual hikes in property taxes for regional services over the past four budgets. Halton averaged 1.5 per cent over the same period.

In Halton, which has a population just under half that of York, the three local transit systems recorded a combined ridership of 4.4 million, only a quarter of YRT’s ridership. That was split between Milton Transit with 102,000, Burlington Transit with 1.86 million and Oakville Transit with 2.44 million.

Halton residents, however, will pay less per capita for local transit this year, from a low of approximately $14.45 in Milton to a high of $74.50 in Oakville, according to 2010 budget documents listing net expenses divided by the municipalities’ estimated populations.

About one-third or more of the transit budgets in Halton is picked up by ticket fares and other revenues, something that often receives criticism from some residents who complain about seeing empty buses plying local streets.

However, determining what’s a good cost-recovery ratio for a transit system can lead to broader discussions around council tables about other programs offered by municipalities, such as recreation and leisure programs. For example, library boards in Halton receive property taxes almost equivalent to the transit systems, but have minimal cost recovery through user fees, according to budget documents.

The construction and maintenance of non-growth related roads in the region is almost fully subsidized by property taxes. While the subject of toll roads was recently brought up by members of Halton’s planning and public works committee, the discussion didn’t lead to recommendations.

Even with the amount local governments plan to spend on roads, Elgar said money won’t solve traffic jams, especially with population in Halton and around the GTA projected to continue growing in the coming decades.

“The more roads they build, it doesn’t mean the congestion will be less,” Elgar said.

If the region achieves its 20 per cent transit target, automobile trips would increase about 28 per cent by 2031 from 2006, according to statistics from the region’s transportation consultant. By reaching only a 10 per cent peak period transit split, automobile trips would increase 60 per cent over that time span.

Based on existing trends, on top of the $1.1 billion Halton Region has budgeted for transportation projects between now and 2021, it could expect to pay an additional $787 million between 2021-31, the vast majority on roads. An enhanced transit plan, based on the 20 per cent transit target, would cost $812 million over the same time period, with a greater percentage spent on transit though the majority would continue to go to roads.

The public information centres for the region’s transportation master plan, The Road to Change, are scheduled as follows (drop-in starts at 6:30 p.m. followed by presentation at 7 p.m.):

• Burlington - Tuesday, March 23 at Mainway Arena (auditorium), 4015 Mainway

• Halton Hills - Thursday, March 25 at Mold-Masters SportsPlex (Hall), 221 Guelph St.

• Milton - Tuesday, March 30 at the Milton Sports Centre (Banquet Room), 605 Santa Maria Blvd.

• Oakville - Wednesday, March 31 at the Halton Regional Centre (auditorium), 1151 Bronte Rd.

InsideHalton Article: Halton council ponders regional transit system.


RonNasty said...

I agree it would make sense to have one system to coordinate all, but the biggest issue is going to be money.

TomW said...

I can understand Burlington and Oakville not wanting to subsidise Milton or rural Halton Hills, so here's a plan:
1) Merge Burlington and Oakville now.
2) When transit spending per capita in Milton matches that for Burlington/Oakville, add in Milton.