Depending on whose figures are accepted, the cost of a 14-kilometer LRT system for Hamilton is somewhere between $4.5 Billion and $5.5 Billion. The province of Ontario has stated as recently as last week that its contribution will not exceed $1 Billion dollars, leaving a significant gap in funding. The federal formula that provided financial support to LRT systems in Ottawa and Kitchener-Waterloo involved the municipality contributing approximately 27 percent of the cost. If that formula were applied to Hamilton, and the province stood firm on its $1 Billion cap the result would be about $3 Billion in available funding but it would require Hamilton to contribute somewhere in the area of $800 Million—something council has repeatedly said it would not do. Throw COVID into the mix and the prospects of that kind of contribution become more problematic. In addition $3 Billion is not enough to complete the full 14 Kilometer route that was originally planned, so the city might end up with an LRT system that starts at McMaster, but terminates at Ottawa Street, or Kenilworth or possibly the Queenston Traffic Circle.
Another approach is to look at the kind of transit system that could be purchased for the $1 Billion without the city contributing any new dollars. The Valeri Task force suggested as one of three alternatives, building 20 KM of Bus rapid transit—14 kilometers along the proposed LRT route, plus the A line running from the Harbour to Ryckman’s Corners. How much would that cost? It depends on the type of BRT system. Brampton has a very basic system—BRT light where the buses run in mixed traffic but have traffic signal control. This is not an optimum model but it can be expanded. York region’s VIVA, when fully developed will have a 43-km network of dedicated bus lanes connecting its far-flung municipalities. Many BRT systems use a mixture of dedicated right of way in downtown cores and other congested areas and run in mixed traffic where there is less congestion. The Bay Observer looked at several academic papers on BRT transitway costs and found they vary from $2 Million per km at the low end to $15 Million per km at the high end. If we used the high end number in Hamilton’s case. it would bring the cost to roughly $200 Million. This includes the BRT stations which typically provide more comfort and convenience than a standard bus stop. They are bigger, are heated, have more seating, allow advance ticket purchase so buses can be quickly boarded at all doors and at floor level, and have electronic scheduling information.
In 2014 city staff produced cost estimates for the BLAST system—a network of express buses providing service to the underserved suburban communities and providing direct routes between major activity nodes on Hamilton Mountain without having to pass through downtown. The cost of that system was estimated at $300 Million and that included a new $200 Million bus maintenance and storage facility. The plan as presented contemplated purchasing 81 new buses. These would have been internal combustion powered buses. Since the report was produced in 2014, there has been significant advances in E-Buses. Electric buses are being rolled out in Burlington, Oakville Guelph and London. If Hamilton chose to green the BLAST system, substituting E buses in the BLAST proposal would add approximately $30 Million to the price tag. Charging infrastructure for the buses based on a study London Ontario is conducting would add another $15 Million, approximately. Total cost for a green BLAST network would be $345 Million. The total estimated cost for A and B line Bus Rapid Transit plus a green BLAST system would be under $700 Million, leaving room for further enhancements and the cost overruns that always accompany large projects.
When Hamilton transit officials pointed out that under Hamilton’s current ridership, the city barely qualified for Bus Rapid Transit, the argument by LRT supporters then shifted to the possible economic uplift, that they argued could only occur with light rail. However, with the recent rapid increase in the number of cities adopting BRT because of its lower cost and greater flexibility, it turns out Bus Rapid Transit can also lead to a similar result. The National Bus Rapid Transit Institute in the US provided figures showing significant development along BRT routes.
Hamilton is presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform transit in the community. The $1 Billion being offered by the province is not being offered to any other city. There is more than enough funding to take our ten-year transit plans and compress them into two or three years and at the same time accelerate the conversion of the fleet to clean energy. Bus Rapid Transit is growing by leaps and bounds every year and the use of E-Buses is moving along at a similar pace. Building out the BLAST system will hasten the end of area rating as frequent, clean, reliable transit becomes available to all of the communities.
Hamilton can replace an existing transit corridor that only serves a third of the city with expensive and inflexible technology, or it can not only replace that corridor but transform transit in all parts of the city. LRT proponents have portrayed those opposed as lacking vision. What is being suggested here is a real vision one that embraces the latest green technologies and creates a transit vision that the entire community can embrace. Council should not wait for decisions to be handed down from above. It should strike a special committee to explore this opportunity now and make an informed decision. John Best