Transit system first casualty of budget crunch?


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When the budget comes down later this month, one casualty of the “crunch,” as Mayor Cliff Barwick portrayed the city’s financial reality this year, is the transit system, in particular the paratransit component.
A report to council Monday advised St. Thomas Transit is shedding riders, and maintenance costs for the four newest buses in the fleet could escalate at an alarming rate once the warranties expire.
Dealing with the latter issue first, why would the city purchase these vehicles, which Dave White, supervisor of roads and transportation, admits are only used by a few other communities, with little “historical data” on them?
They are prone to major component failures and have spent a disproportionate amount of time out of service.

White conceded the city has had to lease buses, which places further strain on the transit budget.
Of greater concern, however, is the potential paring back of paratransit service.
 “We will be looking at a reduction in services,” said Barwick.
 This is necessitated by a $29,000 shortfall in fare revenue last year, and a projected $70,000 deficit in 2010.
The decline in ridership and burgeoning maintenance costs is “a potential well where we’re pouring down a lot of money,” stressed Barwick on Monday.
“We have to look at routes and hours of operation,” he stressed.
One scenario is to encourage accessibility riders to shift to city transit buses, where possible, which could permit one paratransit vehicle to come out of service.
Which prompted John Dewancker, director of environmental services to caution, “We need to be very prudent on this. An hours of operation reduction could severely impact levels of ridership.”
More worrisome for paratransit users is the possibility of tinkering with eligibility guidelines for this service.
“Eligibility for paratransit is a sensitive issue,” Dewancker advised. “But it should be looked at.”
The city’s accessibility community needs to make themselves heard through staff, our elected officials and the municipal accessibility committee.
This is one bus they can’t afford to miss.
And isn’t it marvelous the two most vocal advocates for paring back the bus service, Barwick and Ald. Tom Johnston, were enthusiastic supporters of shelling out more than $500,000 to upgrade the downtown transit terminal?
GREAT PROJECT, LOUSY TIMING
With stern warnings from Barwick and treasurer Bill Day advising of the city’s need to pare back financially, how realistic is the $500,000 grant request from the North America Railway Hall of Fame for continued restoration of the CASO station?
The organization has an obligation to raise $546,000 to match contributions from upper-tier governments. Standard procedure and something it knew about when the funding was announced ages ago.
Saddling taxpayers with about 90% of that total is a tough sell at the best of times.
The station revitalization is a wonderful undertaking, no doubt about it. This is a fine example of free enterprise in action. However, the realization of their vision should not come at the expense of roads, sidewalks, sewers and paratransit users.
ON BOARD FOR ONLINE
In a refreshingly forward-thinking move, Ald. Lori Baldwin-Sands will introduce a motion Monday requesting the city review and research the possibility of incorporating Internet voting in the October municipal vote.
She suggests the innovation has the potential to engage voters in a more active fashion while at the same time offer cost savings.
Just as important, it is an ideal fashion in which to encourage young, first-time voters to become politically active.
As she notes, the process has met with success in other Ontario municipalities including Markham and Peterborough.
 If you remember the bitterly fought 2006 campaign, the turnout was disappointingly low, with 39.8 per cent of registered voters casting ballots, just 2% higher than the 2003 figure.
 This motion is a step in the right direction to healthier participation at the polls.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“You people in Toronto get together and you have all these fancy ideas. When you pass legislation you do not know what effect it has on the smaller municipalities.”
Mayor Cliff Barwick directs a dose of reality toward the mandarins in Toronto, following release of new provincial regulations for winter road maintenance that could add another $200,000 to this year’s operating budget.
City Scope appears every Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be e-mailed to: mccallum@stthomastimesjournal.com.

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