Councillors approved Hamilton's LRT plan to be submitted to Metrolinx, but punted a vote on a proposed bike share until late march.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 26, 2013
After an epic general issues committee meeting dedicated to transportation, Councillors voted unanimously to submit Hamilton's east-west LRT plan to Metrolinx for approval and funding. The report, titled Rapid Ready - Expanding Mobility Choices in Hamilton, recommends a two-fold strategy to improve and grow the current transit system so that Hamilton is ready to make the most of LRT when it comes. You can read an RTH analysis of the report.
It was exciting to see city manager Chris Murray and transit director Don Hull present the report to councillors. Murray sounded like a real leader, making a spirited case for transit as an integral part of a healthy, vibrant city. It was a nice change from the summer of 2011, in which Murray sat by Mayor Bratina's side and poured cold water on the idea of LRT as an investment in vibrancy.
Noting that Hamilton's streets don't suffer the same traffic congestion as Toronto and Mississauga, Murray argued yesterday that Hamilton needs to take a proactive approach, planning now so that we don't have to play catch-up from congestion later. "Hamilton is going to grow. It's expected to grow by the Province. How it will grow - transportation is the key."
He maintained that the Province can be expected to acknowledge and reward Hamilton's commitment. "I would hope that the province would not turn its back on good planning."
Pointing out Hamilton's position along the transportation corridor between Toronto and New York state, Murray noted, "We are in an area where growth has to be focused, and we know transit is a key component of growth. It's in their best interest" to support this plan.
Murray also stressed the "paradigm shift" that is happening across North America. Sounding like an RTH article, Murray pointed out that young people increasingly want to live in cities with good public transit and land use that supports active transportation and integrates transit with walking and cycling.
As the long-time manager in charge of the HSR, Don Hull reluctantly presided over steady declines in transit funding through the 1990s and well into the middle of the last decade. Real transit spending per capita plummeted over that time, and ridership followed suit.
The at-best anemic gains of the past several years have yet to bring ridership levels even close to the levels of the 1980s, and for a long time that status quo seemed unassailable.
So it was particularly refreshing to hear Hull make a forceful case for a real commitment to expanded and integrated transit - transit as essential civic infrastructure and an investment in a successful city.
Dr Ninh Tran, associate medical officer of health for the city, made a persuasive case that investing in transit pays net dividends in public health by improving air quality and by reducing obesity and the health impacts - including heart disease and diabetes - that accompany it.
In Hamilton, air pollution is responsible for 700 hospital visits and over 100 premature deaths a year. According to Clean Air Hamilton, automobiles are responsible for more than half the total nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compound emissions in Hamilton.
Obesity is epidemic in Hamilton, with three quarters of adults obese or overweight. Research has shown that the incidence of diabetes is higher in less walkable communities. High quality transit, combined with land use that supports active transportation, is proven to reduce obesity.
Tran argued that Hamilton's transportation policy should "put people first" (incidentally, the title of Hamilton's transportation master plan is "Putting People First"), and that cars should be "an option, not a necessity."
Since the Province bears a significant portion of health care costs, it has an interest in investing in a transportation system for Hamilton that improves public health and reduces its own health care costs.
While Council should be commended for unanimously approving the motion, it became clear during the meeting that some councillors are more enthusiastic about LRT - and transit in general - than others.
Councillor Tom Jackson, in particular, seemed to take offense to the idea that it should be possible to get around the city without a car. "I hope you're not suggesting that people who own a car should give it up for equity."
At one point he actually red-baited the transit plan, worrying about Hamilton doing down "the communist state route". Hull responded with the obvious point that balanced transportation means "all citizens can walk, use bikes, take transit and drive."
In a city that supports active transportation, more people choose to drive less. As Murray argued, young people are increasingly choosing to live in cities that provide the freedom not to have to own a car.
Council voted yesterday that the City will request 100 percent capital funding from the Province for the LRT plan, the same deal that Toronto has already received for the Eglinton Crosstown, Scarborough, Finch West and Sheppard East LRT lines, and that Mississauga is requesting for its planned Hurontario LRT.
According to a CBC Hamilton article, Metrolinx spokesperson Malon Edwards confirmed Metrolinx intends to provide 100 percent capital funding for Hamilton's rapid transit system.
I'm not as reassured as I'd like to be. In email responses to Raise the Hammer, Edwards has repeatedly stated, "while planning is still in progress for LRT technology, no final decisions have been made on technology."
This may just be a careful organization making sure to cover its bases, but it could also be an escape clause for an organization that would rather pay the much lower capital cost for bus rapid transit (BRT) instead of LRT. BRT would be grossly inferior in terms of economic development potential and ridership update, and the per passenger operating costs are actually much higher for buses than for LRT.
Unfortunately, Mayor Bratina continued to muddy the waters yesterday, pointing out that Metrolinx didn't provide 100 percent capital funding for the Mississauga BRT network currently under construction. That project, with a capital cost of $259 million, has been in development since the 1990s and is being funded in partnership with the federal government, province, GO Transit and Mississauga.
Councillor Sam Merulla took Bratina to task, saying Bratina's comment "lends credence that we might be willing to give them an out, and I'm not willing to do that today."
Bratina also pointed out that former transport minister Bob Chiarelli suggested Hamilton would have to come up with some of the capital funding for LRT. Murray responded, "We were already told ... we would be given 100 percent funding." He added he thinks Council can reasonably "demand that they continue to keep the commitment they made that convinced us to be a part of" Metrolinx.
More than ever, Hamiltonians need to make sure the City and the Province know we will not accept less than the full LRT that Hamilton was first promised back in 2007 and 2008.
By the time Councillors got around to considering the public bike share proposal [PDF] that was also on the agenda, they seemed to be too progress-exhausted from supporting the LRT plan to go two-for-two.
Bixi bike share station in Toronto (RTH file photo)
The proposal makes a business case for a network of 300 bikes at 35 stations between west Hamilton and downtown, a catchment area reaching over 53,000 residents, plus 30,000 students and various businesses.
The $1.6 million capital costs would be fully funded by earmarked Metrolinx money. The operation would then be run by a private company and would be self-funding with 3,000 annual subscriptions plus 0.5 non-subcribed trips per station. Those numbers are realistic, given comparisons to other similar cities with successful bike shares.
Despite the fact that 200 cities already have working bike share programs, including Toronto and Montreal, Councillors punted the report back to staff for a closer look at the city's potential liability.
Velib' bike share in Paris, France (RTH file photo)
It really seems as though Council was just too exhausted to bring themselves to commit to the project. As Councillor Jackson put it, "I just don't have a comfort level with this today." I hope Council will take the between now and when they see the report again in late March to get past their discomfort and make a decision based on the evidence.
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