In 2013 Hamilton City Council received the Rapid Ready Report. The Rapid Ready Report laid out an aspirational plan to improve transit services for nearly every area of the city. It noted that the deficiencies in our present system must be fixed in order to move our transit system to the next level and take us to a point where we require higher order transit.
Ten Year Transit Strategy
In 2015 Council approved the 10 Year Transit Strategy which called for the addition of 100 new busses to be added to our network to fix the deficiencies in our system and begin the deployment of the full BLAST network that would provide enhanced transit services to the entire city. The plan also called for the construction of a new bus storage and maintenance facility to store the new busses as our present facility is at capacity. The 10 Year Transit Strategy was appended to the ask to Metrolinx for funding to build a rapid transit network to ensure that if the LRT were ever to be funded that we would have the conventional transportation network in place to support it. By fixing the deficiencies in our network we would serve more people, more often, add capacity to routes that were already experiencing strain and help increase ridership.
Hamilton has been looking at what would be needed to build an LRT and what we need to do to get ready for that day for over ten years. Our two former transit directors both told us that we need to build ridership and solve our deficincies before building any higher order transit.
Last year Premier Kathleen Wynne came to Hamilton to announce funding for two transit projects for Hamilton. A new GO Rail station was to be built at Centennial Rd and one billion dollars would be spent to build an LRT that would connect McMaster University to the Queenston traffic circle. This announcement caught many people off guard including many councillors like myself. Although funding was provided for the LRT component of Rapid Ready it ignored the greater need: funding the 10 Year Transit Strategy.
Once the initial excitement had settled down, my office began looking at Hamilton’s plan in greater detail. With a firm funding commitment the LRT project was no longer a “what if” scenario, but a potential sure thing. Many Councillors including myself never thought we would receive funding for the B-Line. After all, the purpose of the Big Move was to reduce congestion and help people move through the region faster by building better regional (GO) transportation.
The LRT plan as it stands now really doesn’t address those concerns. How will we get people out of their cars and on to an LRT to reduce congestion?
LRT or Nothing?
LRT in Hamilton is nothing if not a politically charged issue. There are people for and against who are very passionate about the issue. Once the announcement was made from the province there were those in the community that worried that any questions or concerns or anything that might delay the project would cause Hamilton to lose out on a billion dollar investment. There were even fears that if Hamilton opted for a different transit project instead, that the City would lose out on any investment at all.
The question was put to the Premier herself who stated:
“It’s never been LRT or nothing. I really want to hear what council’s decision is.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne
CBC Hamilton: May 25, 2016
Can Hamilton Put Forth a Better Plan?
As the Premier stated, its never been LRT or nothing for Hamilton. Metrolinx simply approved part of a plan submitted to it by the City. We can just as easily submit a new plan to the province. We’ve seen people point to the City of Brampton as a cautionary tale. Some people state that when Brampton said no to the province for the LRT route it had selected that Brampton lost its opportunity to build higher order transit. This is patently untrue.
Our office reached out to a Brampton City Councillor to find out what happened when their council declined to deploy the LRT along its proposed route. He told us that they are submitting a new plan to the province, one that will work better for the residents of Brampton.
With this in mind, my office began an extensive research project into the implementation of LRT in Hamilton. We looked at every report issued by the City and every report submitted to the City by consultants. We even reviewed many reports that were issued to the City but never submitted to Council. This included two major studies by the McMaster Institute of Transportation & Logistics.
We also looked at LRT systems throughout North America to determine how to make Hamilton’s LRT implementation a success. During the evaluation process we have heard glowing reports from systems in Portland, Oregon and Charlotte, North Carolina. We’ve looked at Canadian cities as well with most attention being paid to places like Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa to see what they did and what their outcomes were.
We also spent considerable time researching current transit technologies as well as looking at what technologies are on the horizon.
Why are we doing this?
Proponents for this project tell us that the deployment of an LRT system in our downtown will transform our city. It will kickstart development and cause intensification all along its line. Property values will rise and tax revenue for the city will increase taking pressure off of the suburbs and the outlying areas. With this in mind we tried to get a handle on what the Land Value Uplift (LVU) would be for Hamilton by looking at the most recent and up to date studies on LVU that we could find.
Proponents of LRT tell us the operating costs for an LRT will be a fraction of a BRT and even our conventional bus service. The promise of providing a higher quality service for a better price would mean the savings could be spent elsewhere in Hamilton improving service to our under served areas.
Proponents of LRT tell us the service will be faster than our present bus system which will cause an increase in ridership. So we looked at other LRT systems to see how their ridership was affected when they went online.
Proponents of LRT tell us that congestion will be reduced, vehicle use will be reduced, and as a result pollution will be reduced by putting into place an LRT system. So we looked at congestion and vehicle trips in cities where LRTs were put in to place to see if they had any affect.
The reports submitted to the City provide glowing accounts of LRT in other places. Unfortunately they also leave out a lot of details. These details must be considered prior to beginning a project that if done wrong could cause problems for a generation. When LRT is done right like in places like Calgary it moves tens of thousands of people every day on an efficient system that runs from destination to destination. When an LRT is done wrong however, the costs go far above the loss of the initial capital investment. It leaves a legacy of operating costs and problems that can remain for a generation. It can also lead to a negative impact on land values and assessments.
As a City Councillor, it is my responsibility to weigh all of the pros and cons before making a decision. When it comes to something as important as a billion dollar system, I thought it prudent to go well beyond the staff supplied reports and really dig in to the empirical data. We looked at non-partisan empirical reports from: McMaster Institute of Transportation & Logistics, The US Federal Transportation Authority, The University of Utah, The US Federal Reserve, Harvard University, and many others. Wherever possible, we tried to focus entirely on empirical research done by a neutral party and not one produced by a conservative or progressive think tank organization. We also avoided any study that was funded by an LRT manufacturer.
At the request of my council colleagues and many many members of the public, I have had this new microsite created to provide a summary of the research we have done. We have cited our sources which you will be able to see on the right hand side of the page so that you can read the full report or study yourself.
We need to get this right!
The information within the microsite needs to be carefully weighed and measured against the claims being made by LRT proponents. Further to that, questions and concerns that have been raised on this site in many cases have already been put to City staff, and will be put to them again during public meetings in order to have the answers to many of the unanswered questions on the record.
If Hamilton is going to implement an LRT system, it needs to be done right. We need to learn from the best practices of cities around the world. We also need to learn from their mistakes. We need to make sure that the claims made in support of this project can be proven, and that any system we put into place will be successful and self sustaining for years to come.