The only way to guarantee first-round funding is to send Metrolinx a clear message that the city's political leadership is united behind the light rail initiative.
By Ryan McGreal
Published October 02, 2008
City staff from the Public Works Department just published the Rapid Transit Feasibility Study Phase 2 report, and the message is loud and clear: build light rail, integrate with community and economic development policies, start with the east-west line, and move quickly and decisively to get priority funding from the Province.
It's a very strong recommendation that extolls the clear advantage of light rail over bus rapid transit at attracting economic development and revitalizing downtown neighbourhoods, and it emphasizes how crucial it is for council to act now while the circumstances are strongly in our favour:
[A]s a result of Provincial timelines, which impact the potential funding for rapid transit projects in Hamilton, it has been made clear by Metrolinx that Provincial project priorities, will in part, depend on projects that have strong political support and that can be completed under aggressive timelines. Rapid Transit Team Staff are dedicated, from a technical standpoint and subject to Council pproval at a future date, of making rapid transit in Hamilton happen with an anticipated ground breaking scheduled for Spring 2011, subject to Provincial and Federal funding commitments through the MoveOntario 2020 plan.
Translation: the only way to guarantee provincial funding for light rail in Hamilton is to get our act together right away and demonstrate strong support across residents, council, staff, community groups and businesses.
Fortunately, that unified support is rapidly coming together. Councillor Lloyd Ferguson of Ancaster, an early skeptic, was converted during his trip to Calgary AB, Portland OR and Charlotte NC where he had a chance to experience light rail firsthand and talk with the planners there.
He joins what looks like a strong majority of councillors who have indicated complete or at least qualified support, including Mayor Eisenberger. Public Works staff enthusiastically support it after eleven months of research and public consultation.
Public support is overwhelming, based on more than 1,600 responses to the city's call for public input. 94 percent support rapid transit, with 66 percent specifically supporting light rail and 20 percent supporting either light rail or bus rapid transit.
Several local MPPs and MPs support it, as do most local federal candidates. The Chamber of Commerce, Realtors Association, Downtown Hamilton BIA, International Village BIA, several neighbourhood associations have formally endorsed it.
Clearly, light rail has gone mainstream in Hamilton. Yet despite all the momentum, it's still far from guaranteed.
Metrolinx, the provincial body charged with coordinating rapid transit across the GTA and Hamilton, recently published their draft Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), a $50 billion wishlist for "dramatic" changes to the region's transporation infrastructure.
There's one big problem, though: so far, Metrolinx has only the $11.5 billion committed by the province to spend on the projects it has identified. They have decided to go ahead and start doing what they can with the money they have while concurrently looking for ways (PDF) to raise the next round of funding.
However, it's clear that the only way to be guaranteed capital funding through Metrolinx is to be one of the first projects they fund. The best way to move close to the top is to be fully committed with a clear plan and ready to go ahead.
The RTP specifies two rapid transit lines for Hamilton, an east-west line from Eastgate Square to University Plaza and a north-south line from the waterfront to the airport.
The encouraging news is that the east-west line is identified as one of the top fifteen priorities to be completed first. The troublesome news is that the RTP does not specify whether the line will be light rail transit or bus rapid transit (BRT).
Metrolinx has announced that they need further study before they're ready to decide what rapid transit system Hamilton needs.
It's not yet clear what benchmarks Metrolinx plans to use, but at the very least, the east-west line looks like a shoo-in. Ridership demand for the existing B-Line is already very strong, the population density around the line is high, the potential for economic development is considerable, and Metrolinx has identified downtown Hamilton as an area of high social need.
Light rail on the B-Line is consistent with the Metrolinx commitment to "dramatic" as opposed to "incremental" change and has considerable potential to integrate closely with the regional transit network.
Public support for light rail is very strong. Even the number of respondents is tremendous. It's basically unheard-of for city staff to receive anywhere near this kind of response to public consultation requests - especially when people are being asked to comment on something they like.
Another important measure of public support will be the feedback Metrolinx receives from their own call for public consultation once they begin studying rapid transit in Hamilton more closely.
RTH has contacted Metrolinx to inquire how residents can get more involved in this public consultation. We will report their response when we receive it.
It's encouraging that staff and council (not to mention the local media plus business and community groups) seem to be on board with light rail in Hamilton.
However, one potential area of concern is the city's commitment to transit in general. If Hamilton is serious about higher order transit, we may need to demonstrate that we are willing to invest our own money into making our transit system work better.
City Council needs to act now. This is no time for timid councillors to sit on their hands and hide behind inane calls for more study. The evidence is overwhelming, the political stars are aligned, and the only way to guarantee funding in the first rolling five-year budget is to send Metrolinx a clear message that the city's political leadership is united behind the light rail initiative.
Councillors will have their first chance to demonstrate this leadership during the October 6, 2008 Public Works Committee meeting, which PW staff have encouraged every councillor to attend.
If the committee approves the recommendations of the Phase 2 report, it will proceed to city council for the October 20, 2008 meeting for full ratification.
Staff have identified a "sense of urgency" to commit fast and commit fully so the project can get off the ground and in active development while the provincial government is still committed to improving regional transit.
If council balks, there are a lot of other transit projects across the GTA that will be only too eager to take our place in the top fifteen priorities. This is our big chance to get it right and spur real transformative change.