A fair criticism of Hamilton Council is that it tends to avoid taking action on tough, divisive issues until the very last minute. The stadium location is a prime example. Now in 2016 it appears council is prepared to tackle the issue of transit in Hamilton. Arguably council has already taken the first step with its approval of the Rapid Ready scheme that would first increase transit usage overall by a major investment in buses, leading eventually to the development of advanced transit in Hamilton. Funding for the project has been one of the reasons there has been little serious discussion by council on the topic. The province has repeatedly said it will fund 100 per cent of capital costs, but beyond that broad pledge there has been little specificity on the timing of the funding, and more importantly the amount.
It now appears there will be some sort of investment and that we will see the money in the next 3 to 4 years. This provides an opportunity for council to take a detailed, systematic look at Hamilton’s Transit options like never before. As Council contemplates Hamilton’s future transit picture there are a number of topics that need serious consideration. We list some of them here.
A number of previous assumptions need to be discarded—most importantly that Hamilton council ever unanimously endorsed LRT as was often stated in the past. Hamilton’s attitude from 2007 to now has been that the province should pay 100% of the cost of LRT. That statement as to funding has been repeatedly misrepresented as support for LRT itself. Not true.
The 100% funding idea also has to be discarded. The province will pay for the surface capital costs—trains, tracks and stations. They will not pay for any relocation or restoration of underground utilities, the cost of which are unknown but could be significant once the streets are opened up. The city will also have to absorb $12.5 Million annually in increased operating costs for a system that includes LRT.
It is not rapid. The estimated operating speed for the LRT system is 25 kph/hr or 15 miles per hour. It would be no faster than a BRT system with traffic signal control. It will still take roughly 30 minutes to get from Eastgate Square to McMaster. The current B line system with no traffic signal control makes the run in about 34 minutes.
LRT vs BRT
BRT was rejected early in the public consultation process of 2007-2010 in meetings which were largely attended by people who had already demonstrated a preference for LRT. The entire, costly public consultation process of that time frame was a “push” process aimed at garnering momentum for LRT rather than any attempt to critically analyze options. Throughout the process the city was repeatedly portrayed as being in some sort of “race” with unnamed other communities. From the outset Toronto and Mississauga were already acknowledged as being ahead of Hamilton in the transit funding queue; as was Kitchener who had taken a 3-level approach to funding; so it is unclear what communities Hamilton was racing with. BRT needs to be given a thorough examination. Several respected urban transit experts have recently been on the record as saying the supposed advantage of LRT over BRT is exaggerated.
In the haste to get LRT approval, the B-Line became something of a placeholder for route discussions. All of the reports promoting LRT based their traffic assumptions on current use of the King and B line routes. There had been little or no discussion of routes that are more concentrated in the downtown core; for example, a shorter B line, coupled with an A line that could connect the two downtown GO stations; although there does appear to be some interest in a different configuration now.
As the lawyers say in their legal jargon., the assumption of a massive economic uplift as a result of LRT needs “to be put to the strict proof thereof”. Up until now we have only had vague references to the economic benefits that accrued to Portland and other early adopters of LRT. In the case of Hamilton, even Metrolinx puts their most optimistic projection of economic uplift at about $144 Million a year –which would yield about $5 Million annually in new tax revenue. The projected $144 Million is compared to the current growth in Hamilton assessment which is averaging $1 Billion a year without any transit improvements. That growth is likely to increase as news stories in the past few days point to houses in Hamilton’s normally depressed centre and east precincts being sold for tens of thousands of dollars over asking price.
The proposed citizens committee will not render good decisions unless they are allowed to engage the best advice available. This means hearing from a wide range of experts, at least some of whom are not ideologically invested in LRT. They need also to listen to our Director of Transit David Dixon who outlined a clear path towards enhanced transit in Hamilton, one that sensibly builds demand before making the leap into a billion dollar expenditure. We must avoid at all costs any repetition of the 2007-10 process which was completely hijacked by LRT zealots. It will be up to council to keep a sharp eye on this process, perhaps through the formation of a special transportation subcommittee that could deal not only with the transit issue, but also the road transportation issues that are of increasing concern.