Special Report: Light Rail

The Case for Light Rail Transit in Hamilton

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?

By RTH Staff
Published February 10, 2014

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.

Rendering: LRT in Hamilton
Rendering: LRT in Hamilton

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: build light rail, integrate with community and economic development policies, start with the east-west line, and move quickly and decisively to get priority fundingn from the Province.

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 per passenger 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 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 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 marshalling 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, 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?

First published in the February 2014 issue of Urbanicity.

This article was written by Ryan McGreal and Nicholas Kevlahan.

12 Comments

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By BobPatrick (anonymous) | Posted February 10, 2014 at 12:44:53

This is all wishful thinking if you can't get funding.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 10, 2014 at 13:21:05 in reply to Comment 97524

And the provincial government is currently working out the funding, using new revenue tools. The funding is going to the one of the major issues of the next provincial election. And it is absolutely clear that if a funding arrangement is agreed, Hamilton will pay its share whether or not we get LRT!

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted February 10, 2014 at 15:36:59

The province has already given funding to lots of other GTA projects while giving crumbs for Hamilton, check out their page for Hamilton.

We've got to fight for our fair share and having Bratina in charge isn't helping with that.

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted February 10, 2014 at 19:09:18

I should preface these reasons by stating that they're my memory of two conflated conversations between myself and a driver for the Hamilton Street Railway; anecdotal evidence is rarely admissible as premises to an argument, but here we go, all the same:

First of all, Metrolinx is a corporation bent on breaking unions, as it's done in other, smaller municipalities. Hamilton remains, to this point, untouched, as they have a large and difficult amalgamated transit union. Aspects of the story, published in 2011, are available at http://www.citynews.ca/2011/09/19/talks-... Does the fact that it is a Crown corporation, subject to public over-sight, make any difference in this regard? Second, buses are much more flexible on the roads, able to move around accidents, break-downs, and itinerant cyclists. (Bear in mind: this reason was given by a driver of the Hamilton Street Railway, who may have a vested interest in keeping more buses on the road over fewer street-cars and, consequently, fewer drivers.)

Comment edited by Joshua on 2014-02-10 19:09:42

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 10, 2014 at 20:37:07 in reply to Comment 97537

Metrolinx is a corporation bent on breaking unions

I'm not familiar with this, but a Google search for "metrolinx anti-union" and "metrolinx union busting" did not turn up anything of note, aside from a boilerplate warning in the minutes for an ATU local meeting and the article you linked, which only notes that contract negotiations between the ATU and Metrolinx were progressing "slowly" in 2011.

Second, buses are much more flexible on the roads

Since Hamilton's LRT will run in its own dedicated (and likely grade-separated) lane with traffic signal priority, it will not get stuck in traffic or have to navigate around other vehicles.

More generally, the very "inflexibility" of LRT is one of its main value propositions: it represents a fixed, long-term civic investment in the area served by the line. Buses can easily be rerouted or canceled, but LRT is permanent.

That, coupled with its superior ability to attract new transit users, makes it a highly effective anchor for new private investment around the line.

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted February 10, 2014 at 22:18:48 in reply to Comment 97538

Metrolinx's union-busting and the flexibility of buses were noted by drivers of the Hamilton Street Railway, so those phrases were conveyances of received opinions; it's good to get some clarity about the picture of light-rail transit on the ground. As for light-rail transit's inflexibility, wouldn't it be better to have a transit system that remains somewhat flexible, bending to the dictates of urban planning and population densities as needed? It'd be something akin to the re-purposing of schools for communal uses, I suppose. Regarding private investment and light-rail transit, how are fears alleviated regarding a lack of public over-sight and responsibility or the creation of a transit monopoly? I'm thinking, for example, of the privatisation of Canadian National Rail in 1995 and the accompanying invulnerability to Freedom of Information requests because of that privatisation. Thanks, again, for the clarifications on light-rail.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 10, 2014 at 22:42:20 in reply to Comment 97539

As for light-rail transit's inflexibility, wouldn't it be better to have a transit system that remains somewhat flexible

The transit system does remain somewhat flexible - all the other routes are still bus routes for now.

bending to the dictates of urban planning and population densities as needed?

Density and ridership along the B-Line are already high enough for LRT. Based on current ridership, the LRT would be in the middle of the pack for North American LRT systems on opening day, and the proven track record of LRT at attracting new riders and anchoring new private investment means ridership will grow continuously for many years.

Regarding private investment and light-rail transit, how are fears alleviated regarding a lack of public over-sight and responsibility or the creation of a transit monopoly?

The private investment will be in new high-density, mixed-use land developments around the LRT line, not in the line itself.

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted February 13, 2014 at 00:45:12 in reply to Comment 97540

Thank you for answering my questions and allaying my concerns. It's appreciated, in an age of double-speak and logorrhea.

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By George (registered) | Posted February 11, 2014 at 09:36:38 in reply to Comment 97540

^^^ Which is exactly what good infrastructure is supposed to do.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:48:39 in reply to Comment 97544

Yes, precisely.

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By Porkwarrior (registered) | Posted February 11, 2014 at 17:17:38

Ah, actually reading the article, recommendations & conclusions, LRT can only work in Hamilton if:

1) The smoothest flowing inner city traffic is artificially disrupted with dedicated lanes and two way traffic, constructing purpose made traffic calming gridlock for private vehicles.

2) Taxing yet more blood from a stone with "revenue tools".

3) Demolishing present infrastructure and building anew, specifically catering to LRT.

4) Somehow find private investment to fall from the sky with offers of trapped commuters that they can hock their franchised wares too, hopefully at a higher rate than they will be taxed to pay for the LRT in the first place.

Little wonder support for LRT is nil with the general populace.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 12, 2014 at 07:24:14 in reply to Comment 97555

1) The fast, dangerous, high-volume inner city thoroughfares need to change into safe, calm, pedestrian-friendly urban streets regardless of what happens with LRT. For close to 60 years they have been depressing lower city property values, deterring residents and visitors alike and crippling streetfront retail.

We are paying an unbearable price in missed economic development and sheer livability for the narrow convenience of driving through the city at 60-70 km/h. The result is an underperforming lower city that cannot afford to subsidize the low-density sprawl surrounding it, and a city with a huge and steadily growing infrastructure maintenance deficit.

2) What we can't afford is to continue maintaining the current unsustainable arrangement, which chokes off the essential urban economies that generate wealth and tax revenue. Like any public good, LRT is an investment that more than pays for itself with the economic development it makes possible.

3) If by "demolishing present infrastructure" you mean setting rails into a lane of King Street, then, um, okay. If you are referring to private buildings around the line, there is plenty of vacant land to develop along the line.

4) LRT has already succeeded in attracting transformational levels of new private investment in dozens of cities across North America and hundreds of cities around the world. There is no good reason to think Hamilton will be any different.

Finally, in the years of community engagement the City did between 2008 and 2011, they consistently found strong public support for LRT.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2014-02-12 07:25:17

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