$50,000 to figure out if we can afford free transit for everyone every day

By Pepper Parr

July 15th, 2023



Councillor Paul Sharman: His Staff Direction stunned many.

During discussion of the free transit program that was before Counci,l Councillor Sharman stunned his colleagues when he put forward the following Staff Direction

Direct the Director of Transit to report back to the Sept. 12 CPRM meeting with information/data on ridership, as a result of:

• free transit for seniors;
• free transit for youth;
• SPLIT Pass ridership (all age groups); and
Provide cost estimates and implementation recommendations for free transit for youth — all day, every day; and
Direct the Director of Transit to investigate offering free transit for all. This would include a detailed analysis of:
• Budget impacts and 10-year forecast for both Operating Budget and Capital Budget;
• Impacts to transit service and service requirements for a successful rollout. To include resourcing, assets (conventional and specialized);
• PRESTO contract and fare integration impacts;
• Gas tax impacts;
• Regional Transit Operationalization impacts;
• Benefits for free transit including environmental, economic;
• Risks of free transit to City’s financial sustainability and service impacts and expansion;
• Impacts to specialized transit;
• Potential funding sources; and

Report back to Committee by Q4 2024; and

Authorize the Chief Financial Officer to transfer $50,000 from the Provincial Gas Tax Reserve Fund to retain a consultant to undertake this review.

Councillor Sharman: Up to a bit of mischief?

Councillor Sharman has always looked for data – the more the better. When he was putting forward his Staff Directions he gave no philosophical argument or a detailed rationale for his decision, which he has been want to do in the past.

Was it the realization that Climate Warming was a threat that has to be faced? Sharman was never a transit advocate – all he could see was big empty buses going by his house – and making too much noise to boot.

He will eventually have the data he needs – and the decision, for Sharman at least, will be revealed in that data.

What Sharman is really up against however is a population that just does not want to give up their cars and the freedom to go where they want when they want. Electrical vehicles is something those people might consider – but giving up their cars – that mind change hasn’t even begun in Burlington.

When the numbers are in – the city may find that it is something they just can’t afford.

There was once a meeting related to changing transit routes – mention was made of a change in the route in and around the Tansley Woods Community. There were several delegations from that community that tried to convince Council a  change wasn’t needed – most of the people in the community had cars, many with two vehicles and they didn’t want the noise or the fumes that came with diesel buses.

If the City is going to go free transit – will it be in a position to afford an all electric fleet ?

Sharman should, and probably does know that data is a part of the solution – changing minds is a totally different matter.

The skills to pull something like that are not what we have seen from Sharman in the past.

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8 comments to $50,000 to figure out if we can afford free transit for everyone every day

  • Tom Muir

    To be fair with the idea of staff doing this, I’m under the impression that they have jobs and work at something every day. They will do some support things providing needed information in any case, but doing this whole project in a timely manner, and their jobs too, is not reasonable.

    As someone familiar with hiring contractors and consultants, this statement of work is a lot of details, including assessment of many changes up and down over 10 years for some things several times, including costs, several ridership cohorts and overall revenue, which presently only pays about 25% of the costs. This is very difficult scenario development and is based a lot on a lot assumptions, and these go awry very quickly.

    This project ask is far from simple and If these deliverables are to be credible and pass the critical eye of Sharman and many others, I am sceptical that 50K is enough. From the reaction to Councilor Sharmans directive reported in the Gazette there are perhaps others sharing this mood.

    There are existing data for City but the policy drivers are largely Regional. The critical deliverables will have to be created de noveau.

    EVs require a whole new support infrastructure capital works, none of which we have I think. If all transit riders do not have to pay at the fare box succeeds in boosting ridership substantially, watch the cost factor to multiply as the need for more buses, drivers, and support infrastructure comes into play to meet the service demand. None of these new costs for more transit services and buses is supported by DCs from new growth.

    I think that we could get into a “be careful what you wish for” scenario.

    It is foolish to think there is such a thing as “free”. How many have to say “I told you so?

  • Joe Gaetan

    On the cost of an all Electric fleet of buses, “The vehicles are priced at almost double what their diesel counterparts cost — money Metrolinx hopes to save through lower fuel and repair costs. Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster said a traditional bus costs in the $700,000 range, while the electric version come at about $1.5 million.

  • Marnie Hamilton

    Just a comment to the $50K cost for the data..how is it that we don’t know how much this will cost the city/taxpayers..we do have a financial officer on staff I would think..just ask them to look up the cost of transit last year..what do you need a study fo when we should already have this information AND THE STAFF TO PROVIDE IT…

    • Caren Burcher

      I totally agree with you. I was going to post a similar comment.
      Why does our City Council always turn to hiring outside Consultants when there are paid staff at the City of Burlington who can do the same work!! Isn’t this what they are paid to do? $50 000.00 is not chump change when it could very easily be done in house, and honestly should have been reviewed previously before even coming up with this ridiculous idea!! (Free transit for everyone).
      I commented on the previous story this week re “City wants Free Transit For Everyone”. To which I am totally opposed, other than free transit for Seniors. Burlington Transit has been loosing money for years on a User Pay system. And the loses are paid for by Burlington Taxpayers on our Property Tax Bill, which went up substanially this year for 2023. If transit users do not pay, our Property Tax will go up higher next year to pay for it! City Council needs to stop spending money they don’t have and show restraint, deal with necessities only and not frivilous, nice to have spending, just like Burlington Taxpayers are doing in their lives. Now is not the time to spend on wants or nice haves! i.e with inflation, grocery prices, mortgage rates, gas prices etc. etc.
      Also, we need some serious taxpayer engagement to start happening with City Council in Burlington, which does not happen now.

    • Lynn Crosby

      Great question Marnie. Why do we pay consultants for everything? We have staff!

    • Joe Gaetan

      Anyone with access to the raw ridership data and who knows how to us XL, could do this.

  • Thomas C. Riddell

    I’m a split pass user I’ve been on a Disability Pension for a few years
    And it’s a godsend to have the free Transit.
    Do I feel free Transit will get more people out of their cars not like one
    People like the convenience to go where they want and not have to wait
    To be honest Burlington Transit is lacking the buses don’t go late enough
    Especially on weekends in the summer when people are heading out of town Toronto On The GO train
    I come back at 12:00 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning and Burlington Transit is a long stop running
    Meaning I’m catching a cab or Uber when you’re on a fixed income it’s just not something you want to do

  • Jim Barnett

    It is time to stop the nonsense. There is no such thing as free transit. You might make it free for some people, such as those that do not pay any taxes but the cost of providing the service is spread out to the people who do pay taxes. The city keeps increasing the number of people who can ride for no cost to them to pump up their ridership numbers to make it appear that transit is gaining in popularity when in fact they are only responding to a bribe.