We can't properly evaluate the state of LRT planning in Hamilton today without the context of the four-year history that brought us here.
By Ryan McGreal
Published September 14, 2011
With all the political games over Hamilton's light rail transit (LRT) planning the past few months, it is easy to lose sight of the history and context in which our advanced LRT planning efforts, now discredited and stalled, came to be.
However, it helps to have a clear background on where our LRT plan originated, particularly considering some of the disingenuous claims being made about it today.
Our story begins in June 2007, when the Ontario Government launched an ambitious $17 billion proposal to build transit across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, including two rapid transit lines in Hamilton.
A few months later, the Ontario Liberal Party issued a news release as part of their re-election campaign that pledged to build "two light rail lines across Hamilton".
At the time, senior City of Hamilton staff and most councillors were still wedded to the then-current plan to upgrade the B-Line, eventually, into some kind of Bus Rapid Transit, which is cheaper to build but more expensive to operate and does not attract much private investment. They saw LRT as a very-long-term possibility, not something to consider seriously for at least a couple of decades.
In response to the Provincial interest in higher order transit, a group of Hamilton residents formed Hamilton Light Rail, an advocacy group to explain, promote and build community support for LRT. The Hamilton Spectator editorial board was an early LRT supporter, calling it "the 21st century solution" to transform Hamilton.
We spent months holding open planning meetings, doing research and developing a presentation to introduce people to LRT and the economic development potential it holds. Then we started meeting with neighbourhood associations, community councils, business improvement areas and other community stakeholders.
Before long, the list of LRT supporters included the Ainslie Wood-Westdale Community Association, Clean Air Hamilton, the Downtown Hamilton BIA, the Durand Neighbourhood Association, the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, Hamilton Partners for Healthy Weights, the International Village BIA, the Kirkendall Neighbourhood Association, the McMaster Students' Union, the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington, and a number of high profile individuals across the city.
Then-Mayor Fred Eisenberger also supported LRT, and persuaded Council to form a Rapid Transit Office to investigate LRT. The Office released phase 1 of its rapid transit feasibility study in April 2008. The study had some methodological issues but did provide a basis on which to continue stuying the options.
Extensive public consultation by staff over the next two months demonstrated strong public support for LRT and led staff to recommend moving to phase 2 with an emphasis on LRT over BRT. The June update concluded:
The idea of status quo, however, is in contravention of the City's Transportation Master Plan and Metrolinx's draft Regional Transportation Plan Green Papers and White Papers. Particularly, in regards to the continuing issues related to peak oil prices and the demand for environmentally sustainable transportation options, the general sense from the public is that the time is now for Hamilton to do something bold and innovative.
Council approved the move to phase 2, though councillors asked staff to conduct additional public consultation over the summer. By September, staff had consulted more than 1,600 residents and found that a large majority supported LRT.
Later that month, Metrolinx released its Regional Transportation Plan, a 25-year, $50 billion plan that called for two rapid transit lines to be built in Hamilton in the first 15 years - the east-west B-Line and then the north-south A-Line - with a third line built in the following ten years. The B-Line was listed as one of the top 15 projects for the fifteen-year plan.
In October, staff released their phase 2 report, which recommended to build LRT, starting with the B-Line and integrating with community and economic development policies. It also recommended moving quickly to take advantage of priority capital funding through Metrolinx.
Staff also stressed that the City had to move quickly to take advantage of the $17 billion that had already been confirmed for the top priority projects.
At their October 31, 2008 meeting, Council unanimously approved the staff recommendation instructing staff to work with Metrolinx to undertake "the functional design, detail design and construction of the B-line rapid transit corridor for the City of Hamilton in their 2009 - 2013 (5-year) Capital Budget, utilizing Light Rail Technology".
After many delays, Metrolinx finally published its rapid transit benefits case analysis for the B-Line in February 2010. It concluded that LRT is more expensive to build than BRT but provides the greatest net economic, environmental, social and user benefits.
Meanwhile, city staff continued the job of engaging stakeholders - including neighbouring residents, business and property owners and developers - and undertaking the planning, design and engineering work necessary to make a finalized plan. This work was supported by $3 million in funding from the Province to undertake a class environmental assessment.
It looked like everything was going fine, until this past May, when a Spectator article about all-day GO train service called that initiative Mayor Bob Bratina's "No. 1 priority" with nary a mention of LRT. Neither Mayor Bratina nor city manager Chris Murray responded to my request for comments on the priority of LRT.
Then, in early July, Mayor Bratina told the Spectator he has reservations about LRT and doesn't think it has much public support. "We're not hearing any kind of clamour from the public on that file."
Around the same time, Councillors Brad Clark and Chad Collins complained during a planning committee meeting that they felt they were "slowly being backed into a corner" on LRT and that council should "regain control of its destiny" after staff presented an intensification plan along the B-Line corridor to support private investment related to LRT.
LRT advocates and supporters responded by raising a clamour in favour of LRT so the Mayor and Council would be reminded that LRT does have strong public support and should still be a top priority.
Councillor Clark responded by suggesting that LRT supporters were overreacting.
Nobody on council has stated that they oppose LRT or that we are reconsidering. We are acting with all due diligence, waiting for a decision from the province on funding at which point we must make a final decision.
But over the next two months, things went from bad to worse. Mayor Bratina and Murray went together onto the Bill Kelly Show on CHML to say that the city is not hearing any interest from developers about LRT and to suggest that it is unclear what lands along the B-Line corridor might be available for new transit-oriented development.
Over the summer, Bratina went back onto the Bill Kelly Show several more times and continued to downplay and discredit LRT further with each visit. On August 31, Bratina told Kelly that LRT is "not a priority" and added:
if somehow a million people move to Hamilton over the next five years and we have traffic congestion all over the place, we will look at all transit options including LRT. It's a transit option. That's all it is.
On Friday, July 15, Murray sent an email to Council just before leaving on vacation to inform them that he had decided to "suspend all current direct and indirect activities of the Light Rail Transit Initiative other than any work activities required to be completed under the agreement" with the Province to undertake the environmental assessment. Instead, Murray appointed a special task force to work on all-day GO train service.
Both Metrolinx and the Provincial government were caught off guard. Liberal MPP Ted McMeekin warned Hamilton: "To be clear, the City has got to set priorities for the City" and the Province would follow the City's lead.
Metrolinx noted that the city did not have to choose between LRT and all-day GO: "both rapid transit initiatives planned for Hamilton - the Hamilton LRT and all day GO Train service from Toronto to Hamilton - are viable and can co-exist. Hamilton's current rapid transit situation is not an 'either-or' scenario."
This major change in city policy was made without any Council direction, but when Murray was challenged about his email after returning from vacation, he condescendingly replied, "I would suggest reading the email again."
Jill Stephen, director of the Rapid Transit Office, didn't know about Murray's decision until she returned from vacation to find it in her inbox. Staffing at the Rapid Transit Office was all but eliminated as the team was redeployed to other projects.
Stephen was assigned to the City's Pan Am Initiatives file after its previous manager, Trish Chant-Sehl, quit working the city. Then, just last week, Stephen herself resigned from the City to work for Niagara Region instead.
This weekend, the campaign to discredit, de-fund and de-prioritize reached its nadir, when Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty told the Spectator that LRT in Hamilton is no longer a provincial priority.
[All-day GO train service] was the No. 1 ask of the city. We've had some important conversations with the mayor, and this is their priority, which made it our priority. Over time, we can enter into other discussions about things like the LRT.
This is a sharp break from provincial policy back in 2007, when they ran for re-election on the promise of "two light rails lines across Hamilton".
As Councillor Brad Clark notes, it's also a sharp break from city policy, given that Council has never voted either to de-prioritize LRT or to make all-day GO a priority instead.
Did the Mayor and City Manager make that decision [to suspend work on LRT and make all-day GO its top priority]? Because council has not made that decision. It was never brought to us to have a discussion.
Anyone who has followed this story must be wondering who is really in charge: the Mayor, the senior management team, or Council? While the Mayor campaigns along with the Liberals who rubber-stamped his unilateral policy change, citizens and the rest of Council are left on the sidelines.
Are we going to sit back and let this happen?