After a journey of more than eight years from the time the notion of LRT for Hamilton was first floated Hamilton City Councillors took their first stab at a comprehensive public examination of the issue, but even then a number of councillors did not tip their hand on the contentious issue. The issue got a thorough airing at an 11 hour special General Issues Committee meeting last month. The first half of the meeting featured an hour-long exchange of questions and answers between Ward 8 councillor Terry Whitehead and LRT head Paul Johnson, other city staff and transportation consultants who have been advising on the project.
Whitehead, who in the past has been criticized for badgering staff, gleaned a number of nuggets of information in a line of questioning that on this occasion was persistent but polite. As has been the case in past meetings of the LRT subcommittee it became clear that there are significant pieces of the LRT puzzle as yet unknown or subject to future negotiation. Highlights included:
- The entire project from design to construction and 30 years of operation will all be let to a single third-party operator. In answer to a question from mountain councillor Tom Jackson, staff indicated it was highly unlikely the operation of the line would be entrusted to the HSR, meaning Hamilton might effectively have two transit operators.
- The new system will displace the current B line buses, but will also result in significant downsizing of the King and Delaware bus routes. The King route is currently the most lucrative of Hamilton’s bus routes covering almost all of its costs from the fare box. The B Line and Delaware are also in the top 10 in terms of financial performance.
- Notwithstanding a possible financial hit to the HSR related to the loss of some of its higher volume routes; it is not clear who will get the fare box revenue; although the design-build-operate model seems to point to the new 3rd party operator.
- There has been a flattening of overall transit use across North America in recent years and this trend is not addressed in the current LRT ridership projections.
- Removing the connection of LRT to Eastgate Square means there will be fewer eastbound users of the LRT than westbound, but the effect of that imbalance on the system is not known.
- LRT will get people out of cars, but because of population increases the number of cars on the road may not decrease.
- The contract to build the LRT trains may not go to Bombardier who have been plagued with delivery problems in their contracts with the Toronto Transit Commission.
Anti LRT members of council or those classifying themselves as LRT skeptics have received setbacks in recent weeks with legal opinions that all but rule out the possibility of a referendum on the issue in the 2018 municipal election. Some of these who talked to the Bay Observer suggest there may be a shift in focus to trying to come up with a transit plan that might involve a blend of a reduced LRT presence coupled with enhanced investment in bus transit for the remainder of the city—the so-called BLAST system. Most of these however are opposed to asking the federal government to use any of its proposed infrastructure money for transit; insisting the federal dollars are urgently needed for bread and butter infrastructure deficits, arguing that for $1Billion Hamilton should be able to get a first class transit system. Councillor Whitehead has written to Transport Minister Del Duca to explore how much alteration to the current plan can be made without moving Hamilton back to square one. In the past both Del Duca and the premier have said the option is not “LRT or nothing.” It appears that councillors outside the four lower wards where LRT will operate have reluctantly begun to come to grips with the project; but with that engagement will come a more hands –on approach to every aspect of the project going forward.
Written by: John Best