We are now entering the 10th year since the Government of Ontario announced the Move Ontario transit plan that sparked Hamilton’s foray into consideration of LRT. In 2008 Hamilton had just developed its own Transit Master Plan that called for the establishment of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT); as well as introducing what is now known as the city-wide BLAST system. The plan only allowed for the possibility of Light Rail Transit (LRT) at some future date when there was sufficient demand. It was a balanced plan that attempted to address transit needs across the entire city including suburbs.
Somewhere around 2008, the dynamic suddenly changed from an open-ended discussion to an aggressive promotion of LRT over all other modes. Consultants were engaged to drive a public consultation process and a major advertising campaign was launched. From the beginning this process was dominated by lower city interests and persons or groups predisposed towards LRT. Actual attendance at public workshops totalled less than 300 persons. Some 1900 people answered a survey that overwhelmingly supported LRT but only 425 of them identified themselves as regular transit users. 65% of them had not used transit within the last three months. On the strength of what was, arguably superficial public consultation, the two major pieces of today’s transit narrative were set in stone—LRT over BRT and King Street over Main or some other route. It is also interesting and somewhat puzzling to note that the HSR, Hamilton’s transit experts, were largely excluded from this process—a situation that persists right up to the present. A separate office was established to drive the LRT mission in both of the current mayor’s terms in office.
We are being told that we are months away from prequalification of Contractors and the letting of contracts yet the unanswered questions that remain are numerous including:
- We still don’t know whether the LRT will operate as a separate entity from the HSR, and therefore we have no way of assessing the financial impact on the HSR when several of its highest revenue – producing routes are eliminated or downgraded.
- Aside from the impact on the HSR and the taxpayer, we do not know what will be the operating cost of the LRT and whether Hamilton will be expected to pay all or some of those costs.
- It is acknowledged that Hamilton does not have a congestion problem, and that LRT’s primary benefit to Hamilton will be economic uplift. Yet Metrolinx’s King Main Benefits Case’s most optimistic estimate of economic uplift is only about 15% of the Billion dollars annual growth Hamilton has already been recently experiencing.
- Hamilton’s transit ridership is declining. The passenger volumes along the B Line corridor are only about a quarter of what most transit experts say is needed to make LRT viable. We have 1100 per hour…the experts say you need 4,000. We need to create a transit culture across the city. That can’t be done by putting all our investment in a single route serving 4 of our 15 wards.
Some LRT supporters are going around saying to councillors, “Will you be the one who said no to the biggest infrastructure investment in the city’s history?”
One could as easily say, “who in their right mind would endorse an expenditure of a billion dollars with so many fundamental unanswered questions, some of them shockingly unanswered at this late date?”
We need better transit in Hamilton and we need and, more importantly, are entitled to provincial investment. Both the Premier and the Transportation Minister have said on the record, “It’s not LRT or nothing”…It’s time to explore that option.
For about half the cost of LRT Hamilton could implement both the “A” and “B” Lines with bus rapid transit and at the same time be able to immediately implement the BLAST network which provides enhanced service where it is most needed – in the fast-growing south mountain and suburbs. The remaining moneys saved could be plowed back into enhanced GO service which many Hamiltonians rely on and many more would use if we had more frequency and service right into Hamilton. All of this could be in place long before LRT would be operating. The argument that the so-called “briefcase crowd” will somehow ride an LRT train when they won’t ride a bus has always been unconvincing to us.
The LRT debate in Hamilton has been driven by a persistent group of people, who however well-meaning at the outset, have allowed a tone of condescension and sometimes outright nastiness to colour the conversation. Too often those opposing LRT have been mocked and even shouted down, as we saw in meetings at Hamilton City Hall over the past year.
Transit’s first function should be to move people around and to help the environment by giving people the option of getting out of their cars. When it has to be justified on grounds like “economic uplift” and more recently sewer and water main renewal we are probably on the wrong track. It’s time to take incremental sensible steps with enhanced bus and BRT service which, in the fullness of time, may actually build the necessary conditions for successful LRT.