Special Report: Light Rail

LRT and Hamilton's Industrial Future

In the LRT debate, not only the appeal of various technical solutions are at issue but it is also a visioning exercise that involves the psyche of the whole city. What does Hamilton want to become?

By Michael Cumming
Published July 20, 2011

I recently read an article in the local paper that made me think, "Oh no! Surely it can't go that way!"

Light rail transit (LRT), a scheme to use streetcars for public transit, seems like a smart idea - one that will encourage productivity and the generation of cultural and material wealth in this city. I believe it will encourage urban revitalization and help to create a critical mass of other good things happening.

First, a personal disclosure. If the LRT is built it will help us personally: the proposed LRT B-line is down at the end of our street. It will surely raise our property values. But since the B-line is many kilometers long, many in this city might be in a similar position.

There have been several articles in the last few weeks suggesting that the LRT concept doesn't have much support from the current mayor and his city manager.

I believe that if this opportunity is not seized right now the momentum will be lost.

There is an argument that all-day GO train service is more important than LRT. Most LRT supporters would not pit these two issues at odds with one another. They are surely complementary: all-day GO train suggests that much money for Hamilton can be made in Toronto, while the LRT plan suggests that money might be made right here in town. Both ideas should be able to co-exist in perfect harmony.

Transparency of decision-making

One of the benefits of democracy is that decisions are made in an open manner. If a bad idea is about to be axed then it is clear from the public record why this occurred. If an idea is good and it gathers support from many sectors of the population then you expect it to do well.

The enemy of democracy is the idea that the real decision-making takes place behind closed doors.

The reason that doors are usually closed in what is purportedly a democratic process is that the people making the decision to be not want to be held accountable for their own decisions. They want the power to make the decisions but not suffer the consequences if these decisions turn south.

This latest LRT decision seems to fail the transparency test. It is not clear why this LRT idea - given the broad base of support which it has gained - was so abruptly de-prioritized. Is there something here that the ordinary citizen is missing?

Post-industrial malaise and beyond

One thing that really defines current-day Hamilton is the concern about what it wants to become when, and if, all its factories close. In the past, people made money and found employment from industrial production. In the future much less money will likely be made this way.

Hamilton puts itself on the 'psycho-analytical couch' perhaps more frequently than other places I lived because it really is puzzling what Hamilton should do for itself in future. I think the LRT debate involves such considerations.

What is clear is that new industries will need to spring up to fill the employment gaps created by the closure of hundreds of Hamilton's former factories. The nature of these new industries is the source of much debate and anxiety.

This might be like the Pittsburgh experience, but one that is taking much, much longer.

In Pittsburgh it seems like the possibility of a reinvented industrialism was erased almost immediately by the unseemly and quick evacuation of almost all industrial production. If that city was to do well, then people saw that it must go 'post-industrial.'

The sudden loss of employment in Pittsburgh was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because air quality improved overnight, but a curse because many hundreds of thousand of residents found they had to move from Pittsburgh in order to survive.

At least what this dramatic de-industrialization did was to focus the minds of its civic leaders.

However, in In Hamilton there still might be possibilities of investment and employment in heavy industry.

Therefore, there is significant ambiguity here about whether a post-industrial future might be able to co-exist within a continuing industrial city. There is much to recommend such an idea. Hamilton needs all the money it can get. It is in no position to discourage future industrialization, despite how unattractive this might seem to those who prefer their Hamilton to be grit free.

Therefore, Hamilton may or may not be in the middle of a post-industrial malaise. Yet it may be generations before Hamilton is truly post-industrial. It is quite likely that to become truly 'post-industrial' is not even an appropriate goal for Hamilton.

A knowledge economy is certainly attractive in many ways, but what seems most appropriate for Hamilton is a mixed knowledge/industrial economy.

If Hamilton's economy remains mixed this makes the job of planning for future development trickier. Hamilton must acknowledge the important role that 'dirty jobs' play in this city while at the same time encourage - in a forceful way - the influx of people who have no interest in dirty jobs.

LRT and post-industrialization

How then does this involve the LRT debate?

I believe that the issue of whether Hamilton is to have a knowledge-based future or an industrial one is related to the acceptance of the LRT.

LRT seems more aligned to a post-industrial future, while 'no LRT' seems best suited to an industrial status quo political position. [I would be interested to know if there is any sociological support for this idea].

In the LRT debate, not only the appeal of various technical solutions are at issue but it is also a visioning exercise that involves the psyche of the whole city. What does Hamilton want to become?

In Hamilton there is often the hint of what kinds of pleasures are appropriate for an industrial city of its station. A familiar trope found in the civic discourse is 'failures that originate in hubris.' Perhaps the desire for an LRT system - like what you find in the well-heeled cities of Europe - is excessive and unseemly.

LRT opponents suggest that LRT is an inappropriate goal for Hamilton; that it is too fancy, costs too much money and that the public transit status quo is acceptable. LRT supporters counter that the LRT is not only an appropriate and sensible goal but actually the most financially rationally solution.

In the event that Hamilton fails to find its inner Pittsburgh and does not become completely post-industrial in short order, then is LRT still an appropriate solution to public transit and city-building? Many, including myself, believe yes.

Originally published on Michael's personal website.

Michael Cumming is a designer, writer and photographer concerned about sustainable design and urban development. He has training in Architecture and Computational Design and has lived in several cities in Canada, the US and Europe. He is delighted to have settled with his wife and two children in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Hamilton. You can view his website or follow him on Twitter.


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By bill mitchell (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 08:58:37

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By RB (registered) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 12:46:05 in reply to Comment 66559

Is it true that there is no welfare service in Burlington, Oakville, Brantford or St Catharines?

Is that the reason why there seem to be a large amount of people on welfare in Hamilton?

Comment edited by RB on 2011-07-20 12:46:32

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 09:50:28 in reply to Comment 66559

Why does everyone thing LRT only goes downtown? What about the people from Stoney Creek who want to go to McMaster, or work at McMaster? Or what about students living in the Durand neighbourhood who want to go to McMaster?

What about seniors living near in one of the assisted living residences along the line (there are at least three I can think of) heading east to Eastgate Square, or to downtown, maybe transferring to the A-line Bus to get up to St. Joes for testing?

What about students from Westdale heading east to James Street to go on the art crawls, or out to Eastgate Sqaure? Or for drinks at Hess village?

LRT's ridership will be reflective of the current ridership on the B-line buses, the King Street buses, the University buses, and the Delaware (5c) buses.

Take those buses during the day, and tell me that the only ridership is the bingo crownd and pandhandlers?

I can't deny that it seems like a number of neighbouring municipalities "drop" their poor on our doorstep, but I don't think that is fatal to the ridership of LRT.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2011 at 11:16:16 in reply to Comment 66564

Does anybody know if LRT will have more stops than the current B-line? Because I don't take the B-line because of how sparse the stops are - I take the King instead. The whole "no stops between Westdale High and McMaster" basically means longish walk to get home for me.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 10:34:23

RElated: Committee hearings on P3 Funding of Transit Infrastructure currently running on C-SPAN.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 10:35:26 in reply to Comment 66569

C-SPAN Radio, at least. Can't speak for the TV feed.

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By Another Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 11:42:21

This is not going to be popular but I have to disagree with most of the people on here.

I want LRT, BUT I don't believe the B-Line is the way to go. The not knowing the full costs, revenue sharing aside, the current B-Line bus system is a great system. It works, I love using it and in my opinion, it doesn't need to change. Especially for riders from Eastgate to Mac.

I don't see the economic opportunities from the LRT down this line.

The reality is the traffic does move well, even in rush hour. Downtown to Stoney Creek takes minutes.

Now, the mountain to downtown is another story. I would love to see an LRT line using Upper James (the middle corridor is large and it already exists on Upper James), turning left on Fennell, then right on West 5th using that access only for LRT down the Mountain. It would go straight down James all the way to a new GO Station past Barton and finish at the Harbour.

I see large economic opportunities building this line. New businesses/factories on both the Industrial area and the Mountain Parks and I really do see more people moving to the lower city, even if they work on the mountain.

My two cents

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2011 at 12:26:48

The term "post-industrial" really irks me. There's nothing "post-industrial" about this process or the result. Industries may vanish from some areas, but only as a result of larger global patterns of consolidation and centralization. This sort of regional division of labour is exactly what industrialism has always been about, the only different is that it has now outgrown our particular place. "Post-industrial societies" virtually always rely heavily on mass-produced goods, often more than their "industrial" neighbours, they just don't produce them locally.

If you want to see how this kind of economic policy works out in the long run, buy some overpriced gas and take a drive to Michigan. "Buy more, work less" is a fun idea for a while, but it just can't last.

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By peakoilist (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 20:51:29

I don't think this thing will fly..I absolutely love the concept but..just too expensive..they can save millions and order more fuel efficient buses..Hamilton may experience a renaissance, but the city is still too small downtown to support such a huge $800 million expenditure realistically.

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By BobInnes (registered) - website | Posted July 21, 2011 at 00:13:01

The only valuable part of this article is the post industrial question. The rest is putting the cart before the horse. Restore the Hamilton economy and amenities will follow. Trying to do this backwards will ensure utter failure - taxes have been driving businesses away for years.

Using Pittsburgh as a comparator is not a good idea. Last time I looked, they had huge pools of money in foundations (Mellon, Carnegie?). Such money can focus the civic mind wonderfully. That turnover you mentioned probably helped too, so is the lesson to boot out all the stick-in-the-mud types around here? Come to think of it...... ;-)

My own recommendation is for everyone to cancel their subscriptions to the Spec, the single most deleterious influence in the city, and TV, the biggest time waster and brain scrambler in modern life. Then perhaps one will hear different voices when it comes time for citizens to exercise their franchise in our system. My hope is that this will sort of happen of its own accord when the soon-to-be-experienced brown stuff hits the fan.

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By YYZ (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2011 at 00:14:48

To put this in context, the LRT line envisioned is going to cost more than three times as much as the Red Hill Parkway, and it won't even cover the full "B-Line" corridor described in the BLAST network plan. How much would the full BLAST network cost at this rate? It's clearly in the billions, especially if at least one tunnel up the mountain is included. I'm certainly not convinced it's worth it. The Metrolinx BCA analysis showed that BRT could be built at a third the price for the full corridor (roughly $300 million) with a better cost:benefit ratio. Instead of building by bits and pieces, waiting on the province for funding for the next piece of our puzzle, we should be thinking of a transit NETWORK that would connect important points of the city as efficiently as possible. I'd rather see resources devoted to developing high frequency (<10 minute headway) routes along King/Main, Upper James/James St. and Mohawk Rd than this white elephant. Several large North American cities like LA and Toronto have had success with just increasing service frequency on core routes while cancelling under-performing, meandering local routes in recent years. Buses may not have as much sex appeal as trams but they get the job done at a fraction (1/3 in this case) of the cost. Take a look at what York Region is doing with VIVA if you want a local (i.e. GTA) example.

And please don't mention Ottawa as a counter-point if you're an LRT booster: they never built a proper downtown route for the volume of bus traffic coming in off the transitways (like building a giant freeway and having it end at a residential street) so obviously congestion is a problem and the cards were stacked against their BRT system from the outset.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 21, 2011 at 00:51:54 in reply to Comment 66681

You can't just look at the cost. You have to look at the cost-benefit.

RHVP run 10 km and cost $250 million, of which the city paid about half. It has attracted only minimal industrial development (we subsidized Canada Bread), and the suburban commercial and especially residential development it attracted will actually cost the city in increased net infrastructure liabilities to pay for servicing it.

By contrast, the B-Line LRT will run 15 km and cost $800 million, of which the city will likely have to pay around $100 million. Unlike RHVP, it will attract infill development that will reduce the city's per-person infrastructure cost and generate net increases in tax assessments on the order of $80-100 million a year.

Improved bus service costs less, but has been proven in jurisdiction after jurisdiction not to attract significant amounts of private investment or to grow net tax revenues. In addition, LRT has vastly lower per-passenger operating costs than buses.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2011-07-21 01:04:11

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By YYZ (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2011 at 07:04:58 in reply to Comment 66683

I am looking at the cost benefit, which is why I mentioned the Metrolinx BCA. I suggest you review slides 8 and 9 of this Metrolinx presentation which summarizes their findings
and the full Benefits Case document. It clearly shows that as you say LRT will provide better land value improvement (roughly twice as much) and twice the network capacity of BRT on the same line. In terms of actual costs however (and I refer you to page 38 of the benefits case) the total operational and capital costs are almost FOUR TIMES HIGHER for LRT. It's true that operational costs are a greater proportion of the BRT cost but this is offset by the high initial capital cost of LRT. You say that

"Improved bus service costs less, but has been proven in jurisdiction after jurisdiction not to attract significant amounts of private investment or to grow net tax revenues. In addition, LRT has vastly lower per-passenger operating costs than buses."

But your second point is completely contradicted by the Metrolinx BCA, and I would like to see you present some studies that "prove" your first point.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2011 at 09:42:46 in reply to Comment 66686

Can I ask, why ultimate costs matter if the federal and provincial government may be paying for the lions share of same?

I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm not an LRT at all costs person, but I think we need to pursue LRT up to the point where we can find out what it will cost Hamilton, and then determine if we can live with that cost, or if we need to grudgingly move back to BRT.

As for improved bus frequency, I'd love to see that, and we used to have more frequent bus service in this city, but the number of buses and number of service hours, has decreased steadily since the 80s. Just consider the budget presentations the HSR made last year and early this year to find the numbers.

Council definitley needs to put more money into the transit system in general, but I think they also need to look at increasing capacity on the B-line beyond what buses can provide. The buses that LRT will free up, including articulating buses, can help develop further routes in the BLAST network using buses initially, and upgrading to LRT as ridership, and funding, warrants.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 21, 2011 at 09:22:04 in reply to Comment 66686

That doesn't count the $488 million increase to GDP, the 5800 job-years, the significant improvements to air quality and reductions in GHG emissions, the qualitative improvement in transit user experience, the improved per-passenger operating cost, and the reduced pressure to build new suburban developments that will worsen the city's net liabilities.

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By YYZ (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2011 at 12:33:19 in reply to Comment 66692

#1 - $488 million GDP generation during LRT construction versus $129 million for BRT from the Metrolinx BCA summary: This is an absurd use of this number, it's taken completely out of context. This includes construction-related economic activity, so obviously it's higher for LRT than BRT by a factor of four because the LRT is four times more expensive to build, requiring four times as much expenditure! This is circular logic and the same applies for the "person-years of employment." I'm not convinced from your comment that you understand what these numbers really mean. If we spent $800 million building a giant statue of Bob Bratina made of steel and concrete we could also generate similar figures because people would need to be employed and money spent building the statue. This doesn't argue in favour of LRT at all, it's just another way of Metrolinx trying to put a positive spin on the fact that LRT will be more expensive and require more people to build.

#2 - Air quality & GHG emissions: the best way to reduce these is to get as many people out of their cars and onto transit, or bikes, or walking as possible. Building a single expensive line in the lower city will benefit people in that corridor a lot, no doubt. But it won't convince a single person on the mountain to leave their car at home when they go to the Meadowlands or Lime Ridge Mall. If we have no money left after the B-line LRT (you can bet Hudak's conservatives won't be lining up to build a tunnel up the mountain if they get in) the benefits will end there. In the BCA there is a little more than four times the GHG reduction with LRT versus BRT but at four times the cost, so LRT only comes out ahead by a nose in this area.

#3 - Qualitative improvements: Completely subjective. We'll have to agree to disagree. Sure the LRT train looks cool. But have you ever ridden on a streetcar in Toronto or San Francisco when there was a breakdown? If one streetcar derails or breaks down the entire line is out of commission until it's fixed. It's maddening and pretty much wipes out any "aesthetic benefits" in my book. I like buses. For years I took a bus to work every day in Montreal. I don't mind them at all and couldn't care less if I'm on a tram or bus so long as I get where I want to go reliably.

#4 - Per-passenger operating cost: See my first post. This is offset by higher LRT capital costs.

#5 - Improving urban development and city finances: See my first post, the best way to do this is through legal measures, not an expensive political pet project like an LRT line. Building an LRT line sure didn't save Buffalo from urban decay, even though that's why their line was built. Off the top of my head zoning changes, increasing development surcharges in the suburbs, rerouting tractor trailers off downtown streets and cleaning up brownfields to be "shovel ready" are four ways to accomplish the same goals.

I agree with many of the values and social objectives you have presented, but this LRT line is not the only way to implement them. We always fall for these schemes - LRT will make Hamilton cool like Pittsburgh, just like Copp's Coliseum will bring us an NHL team, right?

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2011 at 01:23:36

>> the city is still too small downtown to support such a huge $800 million expenditure realistically.

If you're worried about taking on more debt, consider the costs of having too little government debt...

1) Canada's dollar has gone from 67 cents US in 2000, to the current $1.05US. In that time frame, Canada has seen its net exports go from over 5.7% of GDP, to being a net importer of around 1% of GDP. Less exports = less manufacturing jobs.

2) The average home in Canada has gone from $163K to $375K, while mortgage debt has increased from around $400B to $965B (2000-10). In 2000, per capita GDP was $34.7K and it is now $49.2K. That means that the ratio of house price to income has gone from 4.69X in 2000, to 7.62X.

So while the government is in better shape, average Canadians are worse off. More debt, less manufacturing jobs and less projects that voters want, but don't get, because they have been told by government that "we" can't afford them.

Between 1992-98, Canada's federal debt was never under 60% of GDP (currently around 32%). In that time frame, our productivity averaged 1.86%/year and inflation averaged about 1% per year. From 2000-08, as our national debt was being reduced, our productivity has averaged only 0.72%/year, while inflation is now over 3%.

In 2000, the yield on a 10 year bond was around 6.5%, today it's only 2.87%. In Japan, where government debt is over 200% of GDP, the yield is only 1.09%

At the end of 1980, U.S. federal debt was around 33% (GOOD), yet the 10 year bond yield (the rate at which people lend to the government) was around 13% (BAD). Today, when everyone (except lenders) is worried about the U.S. debt approaching 100% of GDP, the bond yield is only 2.91% (GOOD).

The only way we will ever truly know if we have taken on too much debt, is if people stop lending to us. That event has NEVER occurred and if it does, so what? For most of the past decade we have been running surpluses and our economy has performed reasonably well.

But saying that we can't afford something, especially when investors are almost begging us to borrow money, is simply not accurate.

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By Anon. (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2011 at 12:08:38

At first, I was very much in support of an LRT along Main but after looking at the project for some time now, I'm changing my mind. There's too much potential for it to become a billion dollar white elephant. Hamilton would be much better off increasing the frequency of buses along the route. It'll move an acceptable number MORE people than the current service and do it at a fraction of the cost of an LRT. Obviously there comes a point where buses just can't handle the required volume. Spadina Ave in TO is a good example of this. Before they built that line, the TTC figured that it would require a bus every 10 SECONDS to move the required number of passengers. Hamilton is a long way off from reaching that passenger density and by the time it does, I'm sure we'll have money to put the transit line underground, where it should be.

As for 'post-industrial' employers and Hamilton's future, I think it all lies in the success of McMaster Innovation Park. If it delivers what has been promised, I think we'll see other technology firms move into Hamilton (not just the ones set to be tenants at MIP). But they'll all most likely end up in the west end near MIP...not downtown. I can't see how the LRT is going to do anything for job creation (other than construction related ones) that a improved bus service wouldn't.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 22, 2011 at 09:19:42 in reply to Comment 66717

The B-line already has the required density. There's no doubt that for most of the day, a bus every five minutes would collect as many passengers since just about any mountain route. Instead, we run four busses every twenty minutes.

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