Just 151 responses killed Bus Rapid Transit as a transit option
If a detailed history of the LRT saga is ever written, no doubt the months of April and May of 2008 will emerge as pivotal in what became the long march to LRT. For it was in these two months in the Spring of 2008, on the strength of only 151 responses filed at two Rapid Transit open houses in Hamilton; that city staff recommended no further study be done on Bus Rapid Transit ; and instead all future efforts should focus on LRT.
The move to reject Bus Transit was a complete about-face for staff who, only a year earlier had compiled a detailed study of Hamilton’s transit future and had concluded as the report read that: “The long-term goal for Hamilton is to develop full bus rapid transit … in conjunction with high capacity, modern buses, advanced information systems and fare collection and enhanced transit stops…”
What changed the picture so abruptly was the 2007 release by the Ontario government of their MoveOntario 2020 plan– was a multi-year rapid transit action plan for the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA). At the same time the government set up a new transit agency, Metrolinx to develop and implement a Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) covering all of the GTAH. For Hamilton that plan identified two potential corridors that might qualify for advanced transit: the B-Line (Eastgate to McMaster University) and the A-Line (Downtown to the Airport). These two routes had been identified in Hamilton’s master transit plan.The provincial plan did not specify a preference for either Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or LRT. But the suggestion that there might be some significant provincial transit funding available resulted in staff in November 2007 undertaking a new study of Hamilton’s transit future, just months after release of their previous detailed transit report.
Released in April 2008 the new study for the first suggested LRT might be an option over BRT. The report said in part: “At the time that the Hamilton Transit Master Plan was completed (2007), it was envisioned that Bus rapid Transit (BRT) lines would be used in Hamilton, with the potential to move to Light Rail Transit (LRT) .in the long term. The June 2007 MoveOntario 2020 announcement…(may) make LRT in the short term more feasible than it appeared in February 2007.” In other words, no technical reason is offered to abandon BRT which itself was seen as a future goal to be worked towards as transit ridership increased—rather, they apparently made the leap to LRT simply because funding might now be available. While this was the first indication to most members of council that LRT might be an immediate goal; the report also noted that staff had already been holding regular meetings with Mayor Eisenberger and his staff as well as former Ward I Councillor Brian McHattie.
Two public information workshops were scheduled for May of 2018. By this time LRT advocates were also beginning to engage in a well-coordinated pro-LRT media campaign supported by the Hamilton Spectator who had started promoting LRT editorially in 2007. In the days leading up to the workshops pro-LRT guest editorials appeared written by LRT advocates Ryan McGreal and Nicholas Kevlahan and another between the two workshops by current Hamilton Community Foundation CEO Terry Cooke, then a regular guest columnist for the Spectator. In the two May 2008 public workshops a total of 151 comments were received showing overwhelming support for LRT; not surprising perhaps, given that preliminary outreach on the project had been skewed towards individuals and groups that were either on the proposed LRT routes or stood in some other way to benefit from the project. On the strength of that feedback a June 2008 staff report calling the 150 responses as “overwhelming support” recommended that future studies focus solely on LRT. Thus, it was at this point, June 16, 2008, that Bus Rapid Transit BRT was effectively off the table in terms of consideration by the city of Hamilton. No technical analysis whatsoever supported the staff recommendation. It was only after staff had eliminated BRT from the discussion that they then embarked on a more elaborate public consultation process; but now the focus shifted unapologetically to what amounted to LRT cheerleading. Subsequent staff reports talked about the “excitement” and “momentum” their public relations blitz was garnering. Thousands of dollars were spent on radio and newspaper ads, urging residents to participate in an on-line survey that ultimately garnered 1600 responses, mostly pro-LRT.
By now a special LRT project office had been established with the apparent main task of generating support for LRT. Despite the full-blown campaign underway in Hamilton, Metrolinx had still not jumped on the LRT bandwagon. The agency decided to do its own research into the Hamilton transit scene. Metrolinx organized a public meeting in Hamilton in the fall of 2008. LRT supporters saw the meeting as a critical opportunity to demonstrate to Metrolinx how much Hamilton wanted LRT. An October 30th 2008, excerpt from the Hamilton Spectator, (which by this time had given over its op-ed pages to several LRT supporters in the days leading to the meeting) filed a story with the headline “All aboard; Metrolinx in Hamilton this evening to hear input on transit proposals,” and the sub headline, “ Can’t win if you don’t show up.” The story reported “Ryan McGreal of the group Hamilton Light Rail e-mailed several hundred people about tonight; signs went up at Gore Park, the GO station and McMaster University. He wants to hear how Metrolinx will decide whether Hamilton gets rail or bus rapid transit, and how the city fits as a priority with Toronto in the mix.” The city staffer heading the special LRT office made it clear the meeting was about convincing Metrolinx that Hamiltonians wanted LRT “We have continually told Metrolinx that we have a lot of public support and a lot of interest,” she said. “A good-sized crowd will demonstrate that. “In the end 100 people showed up at the meeting.
In an apparent effort to persuade Metrolinx that Hamilton’s public consultation process was robust a consultant was hired to conduct a peer review of the communication effort. In analyzing the 1600 responses in the city’s on-line survey, the consultant noted that despite the overwhelming support for LRT, only 25 percent of the respondents were regular transit users. That fact was omitted in a subsequent staff report to council.
2008 had begun with Hamilton working with a transit master plan that called for a gradual buildup of transit usage by improved express routes, leading to the eventual adoption of bus rapid transit. It ended with the city solely focused on Light Rail Transit—a scheme that was not supported by transit metrics, and which claimed economic uplift benefits that at that point were strictly anecdotal. It was only after LRT was declared the favored option that attempts were made to support the economic uplift claims with research.