Special Report: Light Rail

Council Needs to Advance, Not Punt on LRT

The Provincial decision on which rapid transit projects will get funded is a political decision, and the level of support and enthusiasm - from Hamilton's citizens and politicians alike - will be a significant factor in what the Province decides.

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 08, 2011

Last week, Mayor Bob Bratina worried light rail transit (LRT) supporters by saying that he is "not hearing any kind of clamour from the public" and that he has reservations about LRT. This was surprising, given Bratina's own past enthusiastic support for LRT and the unprecedented level of public engagement and enthusiasm about LRT - engagement and enthusiasm that preceded the City's own interest in the proposal.

In a follow-up email to Nicholas Kevlahan, the Mayor noted that Council is "committed to a four year plan of zero tax increases" and does not know how much money the City would have to contribute to the program.

Bratina also raised the issue of project mismanagement in Edinburgh, Scotland's LRT plan in saying his "personal enthusiasm for LRT is tempered by certain realities involving risk."

Then Councillors Brad Clark and Chad Collins stirred more uncertainty by pushing back on a staff intensification study [PDF] that focuses on the B-Line rapid transit corridor - even though staff are focusing on the B-Line on Council's own (prior) direction:

As part of the City's Nodes and Corridors Planning and Rapid Transit initiative, a number of reports for Council's consideration have been brought forward for endorsement and information. This Information Report and accompanying presentation provide an update on the planning work underway for the B-Line Nodes and Corridors Land Use Planning Study, specifically as it relates to proposed mid-rise development along the corridor.

Councillors Clark and Collins would prefer to see staff focus in the near term on the proposed GO Train stations in anticipation of all-day GO service and along Centennial Parkway and Rymal Road.

In response, RTH encouraged Hamiltonians to contact City Council and express support for light rail to remind Council about why they unanimously voted in October 2008 on a motion to instruct staff to work with Metrolinx in order to plan and implement LRT on the B-Line.

Responses From Council Members

RTH sent emails to the Mayor and all the Councillors asking for clarification on how each member of Council feels about LRT. As of this writing, only three members of council have replied: Mayor Bratina, Councillor Bernie Morelli and Councillor Brian McHattie.

Bratina simply wrote, "Council is continuing to participate in the process of evaluating the LRT proposal."

Morelli wrote, "I have supported the concept to date but we need more answers." He expressed hope that Council will get "a better handle on more detail, such as: capital/operating costs, neighbourhood/traffic impacts, how will this project be financed, how much will the other levels of government contribute, etc."

He also noted that he has attended a Rapid Transit public meeting at Delta United Church and an all-day Council workshop and that he "continue[s] to meet on a regular basis with senior City staff who are heading up the Rapid Transit initiative."

McHattie stated, "I continue to support LRT on the B-Line route." Before LRT can go ahead, "Council needs a clear explanation of all costs and benefits, with which we can consider a funding strategy." He added that he expects Council will have that information by late this year.

McHattie also praised the job staff are doing planning for LRT and added that Metrolinx are impressed with the city's work. He also noted the value of local LRT advocates Richard Koroscil, who sits on the Metrolinx board, Metrolinx Chair Rob MacIsaac.

Clark 'Kicked the Hornet's Nest'

Clark did not respond to RTH, but he did post an entry on his blog to explain why he "kicked the hornet's nest". (Aside: every councillor should consider starting a blog - it's a great way to communicate directly with citizens.)

He argued that staff are only prioritizing the B-Line corridor in their intensification study because "they could use money from the LRT project."

He believes the James Street and Lower Centennial Parkway GO Train nodes should take priority, saying they have "a sense of urgency since Go Transit has indicated their preference for access points at those locations." In addition, the city should also hurry to put corridor planning in place for Upper James and Rymal "because of the imminent employment lands, commercial and residential developments."

Clark also raised the following procedural questions:

  • Why isn't council setting the corridor planning priorities?

  • Why have we not had a status update on LRT since the beginning of the year?

  • Why have we not had an update on the status the $3 million LRT fund?

  • Why are our planning priorities being sidelined by the LRT that may or may not become a reality?

  • What is the status on the capital and operating funding requests to pay for LRT?

  • Since we now know that HSR service must be maintained along the LRT line, what is the additional cost?

  • How much will Hamilton have to contribute to capital and operating?

Clark made a point of clarifying that Council voted in October 2008 to designate LRT as the city's preferred option for the B-Line, not to approve LRT.

He concluded:

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.

I would argue that staff are focusing on the B-Line because that is the direction they received from Council in the first place. Nevertheless, Clark has a sharp eye for process and his questions certainly have merit. Rapid Transit staff are doing a solid job of engaging Hamiltonians throughout the planning process, but it's important for Council to receive updates on a regular basis.

Champions Still Required

The big problem with Council's approach is that it punts instead of charging, by ceding the political ground of advocacy with the Province.

The demand from cities for high quality rapid transit is tremendous and the resources are scarce, and only those cities that do the best job of advocating for funding will receive it. It's not enough to sit back and say, 'We'll go along with LRT but only if the Province coughs up the money.'

The Provincial decision on which projects will get funded is a political decision, and the level of support and enthusiasm - from Hamilton's citizens and politicians alike - will be a significant factor in what the Province decides.

In the absence of any obvious champions for LRT among Hamilton's political leaders - particularly the mayor - it looks like we're not really that committed to it. Council needs to send a clear message: Hamilton needs LRT, and we're going to keep pushing until the Province comes through with a commitment that delivers the goods.

At the same time, Council needs to acknowledge that there is no realistic scenario in which Hamilton does not have to contribute any capital - and they cannot allow that to be a deal-breaker.

Given Council's target of a zero percent tax increase, it will be difficult to make a compelling case for the Province to pour its scarce capital into our LRT plan if we're not prepared to invest any of our own. At the very least, Council must be open to creative local funding mechanisms.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2011 at 15:14:59

Has anyone heard from the city's prime connection to Metrolinx, Board member Richard Koroscil? How about inaugural Chair Rob MacIsaac? Is the mainstreaming of "hub" PR-speak and the bloopy Presto Card going to be the meat of our city’s inheritance?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 08, 2011 at 15:27:42 in reply to Comment 65867

I've been corresponding with Richard Koroscil. He definitely supports LRT and advocates a broad public campaign to keep strengthening the case for LRT.

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By Vod_Kann (registered) | Posted July 14, 2011 at 18:44:18 in reply to Comment 65869

On a related note, Jason Farr came out in a twitter feed as firmly in support of LRT.

Also tweeting his LRT support- (this surpised me) Larry Di Ianni.

I can't get the links for either at this moment

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 14, 2011 at 21:57:35 in reply to Comment 66187

@LarryDiIanni:

LRT is an idea whose time has come. Period.

@Councillor_Farr:

I support LRT & believe in its ability to transform the B-line. Not all costs are in. We'll get an update from LRT chief Jill Stephen soon.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted July 14, 2011 at 19:10:39 in reply to Comment 66187

Doesn't surprise me re Di Ianni. AFAIK, he's always been a supporter. The Chamber, Hamilton/Burlington Real Estate Board, and Hamilton/Halton Builders Association are behind it so what's not to love?

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2011 at 15:45:03 in reply to Comment 65869

Will LRT make it more expensive to live downtown?

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2011 at 15:49:25

I'm sure politically he can't be seen to be playing a role in that advocacy at the local level, that he's confined to a benign neutrality.

http://www.thespec.com/opinion/columns/article/547678--think-gateway-think-hub-think-cargo

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted July 08, 2011 at 16:04:37

I'm not an LRT at any cost kind of guy. For that matter, I'm not an anything at any cost kind of guy. Having said that, let me reaffirm my support for LRT.

What annoys me are Councillors who use unknown costs as a way of not expressing a position (see Mr. Morelli's essentially non-response). Of course LRT is subject to cost. Everything is.

Which university your kid goes to is subject to cost, but that doesn't mean you mope around and tell your kid maybe this university thing is just not in the cards and maybe we should all lower our goals. No! You keep dreaming, and investigating, and assessing, but you don't give up before you start. This all too clever phrasing by Councillors may work in court, but personally I like my civic leaders to be a little clearer on where they stand, what they want, and what they plan on doing about it.

You can add buying a house, building a business, revitalizing a street, etc. to that same file labelled "Subject to Cost".

Maybe it's time to start the "Dream Big" file, subject to cost of course.

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By BoBra (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2011 at 16:21:17 in reply to Comment 65875

How about leadership in Hamilton...subject to cost.

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By Mark-Alan Whittle (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2011 at 16:21:22

So far we have received about $27m or so in "quick wins" funding from Metrolinx, mostly spent on new buses, plus the $3m to do the 30% pre-design for the B line LRT.

According to Metrolinx, the B Line is in their 5 to 10 year time frame while the A line is in the 15 to 25 year time frame.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2011 at 16:46:43 in reply to Comment 65880

Strikes me as a fuzzy grey area, though: We'll get LRT or BRT sometime in the next 5-10 years, depending on how together we are. And then based on implementation and adoption, we'll possibly see another story unfold by 2035 or thereabouts. I don't doubt that we'll get upgrades, but what I'm curious about is whether it's just a higher volume of hybrid accordions or whether we'll see some real city-building.

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By Ottawa (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2011 at 17:09:58

Ottawa plans $2-billion light rail project

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ottawa-plans-2-billion-light-rail-project/article2090607/

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 13, 2011 at 11:09:06

Where's the Chamber's voice in all of this? Still playing possum?

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted July 13, 2011 at 11:30:52 in reply to Comment 66108

http://www.hamiltonchamber.on.ca/newslet...

The second paragraph is the waffle... they endorse LRT, but what route?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 13, 2011 at 11:39:21 in reply to Comment 66111

That newsletter is from June 20, 2008, before either the City or the Province had completed its benefits case analysis. AFAIK their support has solidified since then.

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By Rene Gauthier (anonymous) | Posted July 14, 2011 at 12:41:32

There is only one way to really see what kind of impact an LRT system will have on the city. And that is to build the damn thing! Unfortunately we are starting to turn into a society of dead-beats. Nobody wants to pay for anything, and now we bitch and moan about having to pay the taxes that actually make civilization possible.

And for $3-million, couldn't they have snuck in a study on the A-Line? That's still a lot of money to spend on studying a single city corridor.

As we are forced into an age of individual objectivism, all the great visions we once had will be gone, because as great as these concepts are, nobody will want to pay for it. And that's probably the most disturbing aspect of the whole thing...

We had a chance to get the LRT system that Vancouver got, but as it always happens in Hamilton, we blew it. And yet, the same people are re-elected. Sad.

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