Tonight, Guelph City Council received feedback from the general public regarding the proposed Operation budget for 2016, and of the 37 delegations that spoke, nearly more than a third, had transit on their minds. City staff recommended that one-way fares be raised from $3 to $4, and that service should be rolled back to one hour on Sundays and holidays, and it was the opinion of all 13 that spoke on the matter tonight that such moves were a bad idea.
Sian Matwey, who ran for a seat Ward 2 last year and has been an outspoken advocate for transit, began her presentation with a picture of Syrian refugees saying that these people will soon be a part of our community, and "no one going through barbed wire to escape the cruelty of their country can afford a car."
Matwey pointed out that the limited run of Sunday buses between 9:15 am and 6:45 pm was an impediment to those that have to travel outside of those times, and that the averages of ridership numbers are skewered on Sunday because it's a nine hour day versus a "20 hour day" on Saturday, so essentially more people are travelling on Sunday in less time.
Matwey wrapped by challenging Mayor Cam Guthrie, Ward 4 Councillor Christine Billings, Ward 2 Councillor Andy Van Hellemond, and Ward 1 Councillor, since they "vote as a block" to take her transit challenge this Sunday, and try to go about their day without using their cars. She zeroed in on Guthrie and Gibson in particular noting that they would not be able to make 9 am services at Lakeside Hope House, and would have to undertake a 25 minute walk in addition to taking the bus in order to get there.
Gibson sent this tweet in response to Matwey's challenge after the meeting:
Thanks for tonight @adamadonaldson. As an Fyi I've been taking transit for three weeks since @muralsofhope last transit challenge.— Dan Gibson (@Ward1Guelph) December 1, 2015
Thomas Goettler followed and spoke to the benefits of Guelph Transit for those with a physical disability, making transit an "everyday right." He added that cutting services would have serious effects on "someone who is already struggling to organize that physical level."
"Long time bus rider" Paul Mahony was also concerned about service cuts. The former member of the Transit Advisory Committee said that his wife works on Sunday, and she could be waiting for up to an hour in the cold if she misses the bus, and that cutting transit as world leaders meet in Paris to discuss climate change makes even less sense. "I don't know how you improve transit when the cost is going up, and staff is advising cuts," he said. "It's an essential service that doesn't have a model of profit, or a business model in that sense. We need to protect it and make it the best we can."
Andrew Cleary, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1189, asked council "is transit a priority to you?" He said that although he's seeing old riders return to the system post-lockout, Guelph Transit is still leaving lots of people in the proverbial and literal cold, workers whose shift begins or ends outside typical operating hours on Sunday, or people arriving late on VIA Rail or Greyhound Sunday night.
Cleary then outlined the ways that council could make a "transit that's reliable and safe," by adding three to four hours of service on Sunday, addressing traffic congestion and the interruption caused by trains and Edinburgh and Paisley, and implementing a more radial transit route system. Cleary also called the half-hour system "proof of failure" and that "at its best, it did not work 15 years ago."
Randalin Ellery of the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination spoke to the hike in fares, which will also the Affordable Bus pass for low income residents. As it stands now, she said, "The Affordable Bus program is not affordable for everyone, and not particularly useful to people who are in crisis." Meaning people who aren't sure if they can afford to buy a bus pass for the whole month in advanced.
Ellery said that the increase in the cost of tickets will also have an impact on the budget of local agencies who assist low income people in need with bus tickets. Seven partner agencies, Ellery said, provided $40,690 in tickets to struggling Guelphites last year.
Tina Brophy lives on a fix income, and she told council that she "knows how to build a budget better than you think," and that after rent takes the majority of her monthly income, it doesn't leave much money for transportation. She pointed out that a simple excursion with her daughter to the cat cafe downtown would be a $16 for 8.4 km round trip if the fare increase is approved.
New to Guelph, James Smith said he feels like his arriving in town just in time to see transit cuts was akin to one of those Cyber Monday deals that was there and gone. Formally of Burlington in the GTA, Smith said that in the past, any significant fare increase was followed by a significant decrease in transit ridership, and instead offered a few suggestions to ridership like having a weekly seniors ride for free day, or being allowed to use transfers for return trips.
Judith Carson of the Guelph Wellington Seniors Association added her group's voice to the call to improve service, pointing out that the baby boomers are getting older and will soon be leaving their cars behind. She too called for expanded service, new routes, and affordability.
Meanwhile, Christian Hassan was fighting mad. She said couldn't believe that city council was "attempting to undermine bus service every year," with talk of fare hikes and service cuts. She said that if council goes through with rolling back frequency of service on Sundays and in the summer months, "It's hard to believe that they will remain committed to public transit." Like Matwey, she encouraged councillors to take the bus themselves and come up with their own ideas to improve the system.
Marcia Santen was mad too, and said that council could save money by cancelling leaf collection and sidewalk snow removal by putting the onus back on home and property owners. She also advocated for free trips downtown on the bus, and said that part of the problem is getting cars off the road. "It's your job to look out for the public transportation," she told council.
Transit advocate Steve Petric brought the discussion back to the economic argument, a variety of businesses in town are having trouble staffing on a Sunday with the limited hours of service, and that by charging $4 per transit ticket while cutting service, Guelph will become a "laughing stock." Petric also said that while adjustments in service could be possible, Guelph just doesn't presently have the data about ridership to make such "cookie cutter" moves permissible. "How can any of you defend cutting service without any up-to-date information?" he asked. Laura Murr talked mostly about the changed to Niska Road, but also noted that the city's been "spending our money with piecemeal focus on transportation as Guelph's developed." Juanita Burnett, speaking on behalf of the Central Student Association at the University of Guelph, wrapped up the transit specific delegates and said that cutting Sunday service would have a negative impact students. What's necessary, she added, is an increase in service as more students are studying through the summer, studying at odd hours on Sunday, and the crowded buses along the Gordon St. corridor are needing relief.
With the plurality of opinion being against service cuts and fare increases, the ball is now in council's court. The 2016 budget will be debated and voted upon on December 9.