Back in 2008, Hamilton City Council approved the creation of a Rapid Transit Office. Its first major project was to conduct an extensive, two- phase feasibility study for an east-west light rail transit (LRT) line between McMaster University and Eastgate Square. The study compared LRT with bus rapid transit (BRT), a cheaper alternative that runs express buses on dedicated lanes.
Over several months of research, including studying examples from other cities and engaging over 1,600 Hamiltonians, the report came back with a strong recommendation to build LRT, integrate it with economic and neighbourhood development policies, and move quickly and decisively to get Provincial capital funding through the then-new Metrolinx transit authority.
The study found that LRT would deliver a real net advantage over BRT in attracting new riders, encouraging new private investment and revitalizing under-performing lower city neighbourhoods.
Also, while LRT is more expensive to build, it is much cheaper to operate than buses. This is because LRT vehicles are cheaper to fuel and last three or four times as long as buses with less wear and tear, and each LRT vehicle can carry many more passengers than a bus, reducing the operator cost.
But of all the advantages LRT has over BRT, the economic development potential is decisive: LRT is able to attract hundreds of millions of dollars in new private investment around the stations. All that new development makes more productive use of the civic infrastructure that is already built and significantly increases the city’s property tax revenue.
Council unanimously approved the recommendation and got to work on two connected projects: the 30% engineering and detailed design of the LRT system, and a concurrent secondary plan to encourage transit- oriented development along the line. Staff also engaged in a broad community engagement initiative across the city that showed overwhelming support from the public.
This two-pronged strategy was vital because the lesson from other cities is that LRT plans are a lot more successful when the line construction is coupled with zoning and building policies that encourage developers to take advantage of proximity to the stations.
In 2010, Metrolinx released its own comprehensive analysis on Hamilton’s LRT plan, a Benefits Case Analysis that also compared LRT to the cheaper BRT option. It concluded that LRT will provide a large net benefit in economic development, urban revitalization, environmental protection and superior user experience.
In 2012, as the City was completing its detailed LRT system design work, the McMaster Institute of Transportation and Logistics (MITL) published an independent study of 30 other North American cities that have built LRT lines for insights to apply to Hamilton’s plan.
It also concluded that LRT can provide a real net benefit to the city, as long as it is integrated with supporting land use planning – i.e. the secondary plan the city developed alongside the LRT design work.
Similar to the City Feasibility Study and the Metrolinx Benefits Case Analysis, MITL advised that the line will be more successful if it is implemented with two-way conversions and pedestrian-friendly street design to make the LRT a more accessible and attractive option.
Last year, City staff presented the mammoth Rapid Ready LRT report to Council, who approved it unanimously and submitted it to Metrolinx. The Province has already approved the plan and is waiting to decide on a funding strategy to pay for the next phase of Metrolinx projects, of which Hamilton’s LRT is near the top of the list.
Another essential component of a successful LRT project is strong political leadership. As the MITL study noted, “A political champion can help to realize success by marshaling resources, building coalitions and resolving disputes.”
Unfortunately, Hamilton has been missing a political champion for LRT for the past three-plus years. Mayor Bob Bratina campaigned in support of Hamilton’s LRT plan in 2010 but quickly turned against it after he won, undermining the city’s LRT planning, speaking against it in media interviews and refusing to champion Council’s position at Queen’s Park.
One result of this vacuum of leadership has been the proliferation of false myths about Hamilton’s LRT plan that clear, articulate leadership could address.
For example, Mayor Bratina claims that Hamilton needs to boost its transit ridership before it is enough to support LRT, but ridership on east-west buses along the LRT line was already 13,000 passengers a day in 2010. The Rapid Ready report states:
“If introduced today, LRT between the eastern Sub-Regional Service node (Eastgate) and western Major Activity Centre (McMaster) of the lower City would exhibit ridership performance in the mid-range of existing North American systems, such as San Francisco, Portland and Minneapolis.”
Note also that transit ridership generally goes up significantly once the line is upgraded from buses to LRT, so we can safely predict that ridership would quickly grow much higher than the current 13,000.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Lynx line was supposed to attract 9,100 daily passengers when it opened in 2007, a number that was predicted to rise to 18,000 riders by 2025. Despite the 2008 economic downturn, ridership was already over 16,000 in 2013.
To recap the story so far: Hamilton’s LRT plan has been proven to generate a net economic and community benefit in extensive studies by the City, the Province and an independent university logistics team. It has Council approval and approval in principle by the Province, with the Province agreeing to pay the capital cost once it settles on a funding strategy.
The plan comes with a very strong economic and business case, and we have dozens of examples from other cities of successful LRT systems to assuage our fear of the unknown.
Why on earth would we turn our backs on such an exciting, timely and well-supported opportunity to transform this city for the better, for decades to come?
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