Special Report: Light Rail

Light Rail Generates Highest Return on Investment: Transport Minister

Speaking at a luncheon at Sarcoa Restaurant organized by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, Murray presented an evidence-based case for investment in great civic infrastructure, explaining that beautiful, well-made infrastructure in the right locations del

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 03, 2014

In a lunchtime talk last Friday, Ontario Transport Minister Glen Murray stopped just short of telling Hamilton we'd be crazy not to invest in Light Rail Transit (LRT).

Glen Murray (Image Credit: Richard Allen)
Glen Murray (Image Credit: Richard Allen)

Speaking at a luncheon at Sarcoa Restaurant organized by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, Murray presented an evidence-based case for investment in great civic infrastructure, explaining that beautiful, well-made infrastructure in the right locations delivers tremendous returns on investment.

Murray was in Hamilton to announce that the Province has put out a tender to build a $44 million GO Train station on James Street North, across the street from Liuna Station.

James North GO Station location (RTH file photo)
James North GO Station location (RTH file photo)

LRT Generates Economic Development

Murray extolled the economic benefits of LRT, pointing out that it produces a much higher return on investment than bus rapid transit (BRT) by attracting new private developments around the line.

He demurred, "I am not endorsing types of technology here, I am not a salesperson for Bombardier." Then he added that the City has "been working on a plan that is both an economic development plan, a cultural plan, a fiscal plan and a transportation plan" - the city's Rapid Ready LRT plan for the east-west B-Line between McMaster University and Eastgate Square.

Murray put up an image of Portland, Oregon's LRT system with new economic development around the line. "Portland was a lumber town that went into deep decline and depopulated. Portland now has the highest per capita GDP on the west coast. It has not one Fortune 500 company, not one. It is home to more small and medium enterprises than any other. You know, as Mayor Sam [Adams] in Portland says, people go to Los Angeles to get rich, they come to Portland to be prosperous."

(This reflected Murray's earlier comments on the Bill Kelly Show on AM 900 CHML on Friday morning, in which he noted that BRT does not attract much economic development.)

Attracting Young People

Murray noted that the job recovery in Ontario is driven by small, entrepreneurial companies being started by young people with university and college educations. Pointing to Portland's LRT, he said, "This is the kind of infrastructure that you need to attract that young creative class.

"This is the first generation where most young people don't want to own cars and are not owning cars. So walkable friendly neighbourhoods are also important." The audience applauded.

"You can see how the urban landscape changes around these kinds of things, and we can talk about GO or bus rapid transit or LRT, but you can see the dynamic of this environment." One problem is that we don't have local examples of modern LRT systems. New systems are being built in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ottawa and on Eglinton Avenue in Toronto, but many people don't know what to expect and are afraid of the unknown.

Talking about LRT in other parts of the world he said, "Every place that's done it, once there's one up everyone wants more of it."

Local Leadership

Murray then pointed out that it takes "local leadership" to make the decision on how and where to invest. He said it is not up to Queen's Park to tell Hamilton's leaders what to choose.

However, he went on to show how cities can calculate the economic uplift that comes from LRT investment. He often reiterated that to make good decisions, cities need to focus not just on the cost of a project but on the return on investment.

After the talk, Murray noted that transit investment in economically depressed urban corridors produces the biggest uplift because there's so much potential for improvement.

He said that he would be willing to go with Hamilton's leaders to Ottawa to ask for a Federal contribution to Hamilton's rapid transit system, noting that the Federal government will not contribute to an infrastructure project that has already been announced.

He also noted that tax-increment financing (TIF) is one way to help cover the capital cost of a public infrastructure project without imposing any burden on the property tax levy, based on the future value of the economic uplift that comes from the project.

Innovation Economy

During his talk, Murray also drew a parallel to Pittsburgh, another city whose economy was formerly based on steel that has reinvented itself and rebuilt its tax base around education and creative entrepreneurialism.

Like Hamilton, Pittsburgh still makes lots of steel but it is no longer a significant source of jobs. Manufacturing by itself has stopped being a significant source of jobs. Rather, employment is growing in the innovation economy, which cities need to cultivate through post-secondary education and great civic infrastructure.

"If you're actually going to have job growth and not just GDP growth, you have to open it up, and that's why universities and colleges are the single most important cultural, social and economic institutions in our society today," he said.

Citizens, not Whiners

A recurring theme in his talk was a sharp distinction between thinking and acting as citizens - people who are invested in their country and community and want to work for its betterment - as opposed to mere "taxpayers" or "consumers".

He spoke about the construction of the beautiful High Level Bridge as an inspiring example of the understanding that "making beauty necessary and making necessity beautiful was important, and that our public works shouldn't be, you know, stretching tax dollars so far that every GO station, every college, every library looks like a fertilizer factory. But we are manifesting in our public works, in our public buildings, the expression of our civic pride and great design."

Before the 1970s, which Murray characterized as the beginning of "the age of whiners", civic leaders understood that beautiful cities attract and retain passionate people. "They built a city that people want to live in and be part of."

Murray attacked the "taxpayer" meme head-on, pointing out, "I pay about 25 percent less taxes than my father did." At the time, Canada spent 5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on infrastructure. "That's how all those buildings got built."

He went on, "Then in the 1970s, that great age of citizenship [got] took over by the age of whiners." Provincial infrastructure spending dropped to just 0.25 percent of GDP.

He said the government has now restored infrastructure spending to 2 percent of GDP. "We built everything in this country that we own and love with that level of commitment."

Local Leaders Missing

It was disheartening to note that, aside from Mayor Bob Bratina, there were only four out of 15 City Councillors in attendance: Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie, Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr, Ward 3 Councillor Bob Morrow and Ward 15 Councillor Judi Partridge.

Mayor Bob Bratina, front, with Councillors Jason Farr (left) and Bob Morrow (right) behind him (Image Credit: Richard Allen)
Mayor Bob Bratina, front, with Councillors Jason Farr (left) and Bob Morrow (right) behind him (Image Credit: Richard Allen)

For those members of council who don't already understand that LRT is a necessary investment in economic development and sustainability rather than merely an expensive bus, Murray's talk would have been highly informative.

Also notably absent were any senior managers from Public Works, the department that actually builds and maintains Hamilton's critical infrastructure, or from Planning and Economic Development, the department whose job it is to understand and explain why Hamilton needs LRT in the first place.

Hamilton's LRT plan has effectively been left to wither on the vine. Its mayor doesn't support it, most Councillors won't stick their necks out for it and the staff teams who developed it have been dispersed (Justin Readman, the rapid transit project manager who shepherded Rapid Ready to completion, is now working for Waterloo Region on their LRT system).

Almost no one is explaining or promoting LRT to Hamiltonians. Without a champion pushing the plan forward, fear and misinformation are slowly taking over the public discourse.

People who don't understand the economic development impact are asking why we don't just build a cheaper bus system. People who don't know the east-west route of the B-Line already has 13,000 rides a day claim we don't have enough ridership for LRT.

And of course, anti-LRT political opportunists who do know these things exploit the relative paucity of public information to sow uncertainty and doubt.

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. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 11:25:46

I don't disagree with Murray's ideas, but this is a bit disingenuous:

"It has not one Fortune 500 company, not one." A shoe company's headquarters are in Beaverton which is pretty close to downtown Portland and I'm sure a lot of Portland residents work there.

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 11:26:31 in reply to Comment 98131

^N I K E

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 11:49:35 in reply to Comment 98132

...thought that as well. However, I still see the point. Doesn't seem like a city that's flush with head offices. Though (like most large U.S. cities), may have a few more big shooters (ie. Paul Allen) than what an equivalent Canadian city may have. (Just an assumption based on massive gaps between rich and poor -- more massive there than here.)

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 11:44:00

Thanks for the summary. Still, despite the misinformation and lack of civic leadership on the issue, these feel like strong steps in the right direction.

It feels to me like the case in favour of LRT is becoming too strong to be ignored and/or refuted. (Kudos to Raise the Hammer and other grassroots efforts that have helped engage and educate.)

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 11:58:14

Why are we not considering BRT?

The LRT all-or-nothing rhetoric is driving us to the nothing result.


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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 12:57:48 in reply to Comment 98136

That report was authored by BRT lobbyists and consultants, who are being funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to promote BRT systems across the US. To their credit, they are quite upfront about their agenda. From their website:


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By anon (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 12:30:00 in reply to Comment 98136

We did consider BRT - there have been years of research behind the city's decision to choose LRT. Better service, lower operating costs, much better ROI - there are huge advantages to LRT and the disrutip of installtion of proper BRT versus LRT is basically the same. In other words, on a line with ridership levels that already justify LRT why would we half-ass it?

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By anon (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 12:31:27 in reply to Comment 98140

"disruption of installation"

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 12:39:22 in reply to Comment 98141

Installing a full BRT would also be disruptive as it would require station platforms similar to LRT, physically separated lanes and generally a new concrete road surface to sustain the very high frequency of heavy articulated bus traffic.

The only additions for LRT would be the overhead power lines and rails in the concrete track bed. There is really not too much difference. And remember that LRT is infrastructure with (at least) a 40 year life span. Two years of traffic disruption is not a really heavy price to pay (and dozens of cities have already done it). And, due to the excess capacity on Hamilton's main arterials, the disruption should be much less than in most other cities.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 12:00:16 in reply to Comment 98136

Please read the pdf linked to the right of the page.


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By YHMDesigns (registered) - website | Posted March 03, 2014 at 13:22:25

Glen Murray draws the distinction between citizen and consumer more articulately than I have been able to. A pedestrian-friendly downtown Hamilton well-served by transit is a good thing regardless of where you live in the city. LRT is a worthwhile capital investment for the many reasons cited in the article above (and that's far from the first time they've been itemized). The B-Line is a sensible start because the density is there to support it. Later expansion across the city is also logical. Others appear to see the B-Line LRT as a luxury that would simply get in the way more than anything else. Of course it is expensive, and we will end up paying for it one way or another. But that is how all capital projects go. Why is this one the lightning rod? Ultimately, one cannot refute facts. The facts support LRT, so why don't our civic leaders and representatives?

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By positive1@cogeco.ca (registered) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 21:22:44

To Mr. Janitor, I believe that you, as much as anyone else in this conversation wants rapid transit - of some kind. However, it appears to me that the difference between you and those who support (and actively fight for ) LRT is that you have given up the fight and waved the white flag. You are willing to settle for the second best option for Hamilton. Maybe BRT is better for some communities but not here. Studies have proven it, the public has been consulted and supports it as does council, the Chamber of Commerce, McMaster etc. Because a few ill-informed, uninformed or actively mis-informed (thank you, His Worship, the Mayor) people take up space in the Spec is in no way representative of community support. Frankly, I'm surprised that the Spec published some anti-LRT letters and Op-Ed pieces that are based on false information or as you say, trying to create a 'wedge issue' (especially since their own editorials support LRT). At the first sign of any oppositions, some councillors have chosen to head for the hills. Good. I hope they stay there. That is not leadership.

Kevlahan, McGreal and many others, myself included, won't capitulate to ignorance of the facts and whining naysayers and settle for a system, that, as pointed out numerous times, will do little to encourage development and will cost more to operate (which we will be on the hook for). The fact that we are still debating this is a testament to the leadership vacuum and timid council members without the intestinal fortitude to stand by their earlier convictions. Sad but true. The Province is handing the City a tool that will not only help move people efficiently, but even more important, help Hamilton grow and develop. Those parochial-types in the suburbs who complain that it is only for 'downtown' are sadly missing the point. What is good about being smug and comfy in your enclave in the 'burbs while your downtown collapses? "You can't be a suburb of nothing" to quote Oklahoma Mayor Mick Cornett. Helping the core is helping all Hamilton, including all of the amalgamated Hamilton. Whatever happened to the 'common good'? Instead of constantly being negative, why not convert your passion and anger in to helping spread positive, accurate information and rationale for LRT. Clearly you have put some time and energy into this. We need you on the front lines, not retreating to the safety and comfort of a compromise position (and a poor one at that).

A second thing. You called Ryan out for what you felt was a snarky comment: "Finally, the conversation is where it is today because an enormous amount of work has already gone into researching and developing the city's plans - work that you conveniently ignore when you call for us to consider an option that was already studied closely and rejected as an inferior alternative." To be fair, you did not mention it either by neglect, oversight or intent. Ryan may have attributed motives to your comments but never the less, if 'snark' was intended, it is way less snarky than your subsequent comment: "No kidding, LRT is better, duh... thanks for pointing that out to me". So let it go.

FInally, I question the pedigree of the study you provided. LRT supporters want a system that is best for Hamilton, and at one point BRT and LRT were compared side-by-side, (again LRT won hands down). Your use of studies with possible hidden agendas does cast suspicion. I did some digging into the history of ITDB. In the past, it has partnered with the Transportation Research Board, which itself has an interesting history that nowhere includes any mention rapid transit. In fact, there are numerous references to pavement, asphalt, highways etc. You can guess why they support anything with three different letters - namely BRT. (see excerpt below)

History TRB was established in 1920 as the National Advisory Board on Highway Research to provide a mechanism for the exchange of information and research results about highway technology. Renamed the Highway Research Board (HRB) in 1925 … In 1974 the Highway Research Board became the Transportation Research Board. Since then, TRB’s portfolio of services has expanded significantly … of ongoing research programs such as the Long-Term Pavement Performance studies. More recent additions have included new cooperative research programs in airports, freight, and hazardous materials transportation, and the second Strategic Highway Research Program.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted March 05, 2014 at 01:53:43 in reply to Comment 98167

Road-related research may have been the focus of the Transportation Research Board's predecessors, but the range of topics they're involved in expanded greatly in recent decades. Today TRB also supports a tremendous amount of research and discussion on public transit as well as other modes like air, rail, marine transport, and pedestrian and cycling issues as well. For example, they have had a Transit Cooperative Research Program since the early 1990s, and there are a number of transit-related committees (see the main public transportation page: http://www.trb.org/PublicTransportation/... )

Take a deeper look at their website, because the "about" page really doesn't convey the breadth of TRB's interests. The sessions at their annual meeting - which is actually a big conference attended by about 10,000 people - cover just about every transportation issue there is.

Comment edited by ScreamingViking on 2014-03-05 01:54:46

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 04, 2014 at 11:08:13 in reply to Comment 98167

Your use of studies with possible hidden agendas does cast suspicion. I did some digging into the history of ITDB. In the past, it has partnered with the Transportation Research Board, which itself has an interesting history that nowhere includes any mention rapid transit. In fact, there are numerous references to pavement, asphalt, highways etc. You can guess why they support anything with three different letters - namely BRT.

I think we should be careful about judging the ITDB's 'agenda' solely through the filter of our own debate. There's no doubt that in the Hamilton context, BRT is the more regressive choice, but it would be a mistake to extrapolate from there that the ITDB has a regressive agenda. From what I can tell from my admittedly cursory research, in most of the cities the ITDB has been working with, where the polarization around public transit makes Hamilton's debate look like a peace festival, the choice isn't between LRT and BRT, but rather BRT and more highways, making BRT the progressive choice by far. In that kind of climate, I don't begrudge them their advocacy. They are firmly on the side of rapid transit after all.

While there are legitimate questions about their methodology in this particular study - the most glaring being not factoring in BRT's higher operating costs - there are some important takeaways for Hamilton. As I mentioned in my other comments, the authors make it clear that BRT only rivals LRT in terms of ROI when certain conditions are in place. If we accept the authors' premise that B-line BRT would be just as successful LRT, that doesn't change the fact that those conditions are not in place in two out of the three lines being proposed, significantly diminishing the ROI on an investment that would be at least as costly as B-line LRT.

Given this, if LRT opponents are truly opposed on economic grounds, and not simply anti-urban bias and perceptions of 'elitism', they wouldn't even accept two, let alone three BRT lines as an alternative to one LRT.

Comment edited by highwater on 2014-03-04 11:17:10

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 21:28:39

How do you justify the need for 3 BRT lines? I don't think the need is there now. Besides, Minister Murray said it himself, there is little, to no, development associated with BRT as there is with LRT. You miss out on a significant game changing aspect of LRT

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By OntJoke (anonymous) | Posted March 04, 2014 at 18:05:42

This Liberal Government is poorly organized, Wynn can't lead, and her projects are spiralling out of control.

It has become obvious that the Ontario Liberals have lost control of said projects by the raising costs and confusion around them.

PanAm is a sham and BigMove is about nothing but Toronto. Same story as the last 30 + years.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 04, 2014 at 18:54:41 in reply to Comment 98183

So the problem is which of three proven failures do we have to choose from? I suppose the ONDP get the advantage since it's been the longest time since they ruined the province, and they had the strongest excuse since there was a pretty bad recession going on.

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