Special Report: Light Rail

LRT Director Debunks Operating Cost Fearmongering

If the LRT opponents in the community and around the council table are honest, they will stop trying to frighten and misinform Hamiltonians about the 'unknown' LRT operating cost.

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 04, 2017

This article has been updated.

In an email to Council, City of Hamilton Light Rail Transit (LRT) director Paul Johnson has provided a factual response to the latest anti-LRT dodge of stirring up fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about the operating cost.

Last week, Flamborough Councillor Judi Partridge guessed that LRT could cost $23 million a year to operate in a newspaper op-ed that stated her opposition, citing the operating cost of Toronto's Eglinton Crosstown LRT for comparison.

Johnson made the obvious - at least, to anyone seriously interested in an honest debate - point that the Eglinton Crosstown has "dramatically higher" capital and operations costs due to a large section of it running underground.

A better comparison for Hamilton's LRT is the Waterloo Region ION LRT system that is currently almost finished construction. Johnson wrote, "While longer than Hamilton's (at 19 km) it is more similar to Hamilton's project as it runs on the surface of the roadway. Waterloo has estimated its operations and maintenance costs at $8.5 Million annually (plus HST and inflation)."

Johnson noted that Waterloo has to cover its $8.5 million operating cost plus the lifecycle, financing and insurance costs. According to the Region of Waterloo LRT frequently asked questions page, Operations are $4 million, Maintenance is $4.5 million (that's the $8.5 million), Lifecycle is $8.7 million, Financing is $11 million and Insurance is $1.7 million.

In Hamilton, those other costs will be 100 percent the responsibility of the Province, which will own the system. (Waterloo Region owns its LRT system, having contributed some of the capital cost.)

Hamilton's LRT is 11 km in length. Assuming a linear relationship between length and operating cost, it would cost something on the order of $5 million to operate Hamilton's line if our cost structure is similar to Waterloo.

Johnson's letter also notes a 2013 estimate on a net levy increase for LRT operations and maintenance costs for the full McMaster-to-Eastgate corridor of $2.9-3.5 million, plus $8.7 million for additional corridor maintenance services, like garbage collection and snow clearing, which the city already performs.

Given that the fully-funded phase one LRT runs from McMaster to Queenston Traffic Circle, a comparator cost of the shorter phased route would be $2.3-2.8 million, plus $6.8 million, for a total of $9.1-9.6 million.

Right now, the City pays $18.2 million to operate the four bus routes that serve the B-Line LRT corridor. There will still have to be some local service along the corridor with LRT, but even if we conservatively assume that we will have to provide half the service, that still means $9.1 million a year in savings from LRT.

Ridership Growth, Land Development

And all of that assumes no increase in ridership, which is absurdly pessimistic given how successful LRT is at attracting new by-choice transit riders and new transit-oriented developments that add new residences and jobs and increase the pool of transit riders along the corridor.

So even if the City somehow had to cover 100 percent of the operating costs for LRT, a terrible deal that no one seriously thinks will happen, we would end up no worse than we are today, but with a higher-order, higher capacity service that can steadily increase ridership and revenues without having to increase operating cost with more buses and drivers.

We would also be able to take advantage of new transit-oriented developments along this already-serviced corridor, paying development charges and significantly increasing the city's property tax base.

If the LRT opponents in the community and around the council table are honest, they will stop trying to frighten and misinform Hamiltonians about the "unknown" LRT operating cost.

Text of the Email

Following is the full text of Johnson's email:

Further to your request, Mr. Mayor, I can provide the following information that I shared verbally at the General Issues Committee meeting last week.

The operations and maintenance costs of the Toronto LRT projects - and in particular the Eglinton project - are not a great comparison for the Hamilton LRT project. For example, the Eglinton LRT (called the Crosstown) is 19km long with a 10km underground section. As such the capital and operations costs are dramatically higher.

Hamilton's LRT project is 11km long and runs on the surface of the roadway only and as such a stronger comparison is the Waterloo ION LRT project. While longer than Hamilton's (at 19km) it is more similar to Hamilton's project as it runs on the surface of the roadway. Waterloo has estimated its operations and maintenance costs at $8.5M annually (plus HST and inflation). Waterloo has also calculated its financing, insurance and lifecycle costs but in Hamilton those costs are expected to be covered 100% by the Province as this is their asset. The Waterloo information can be found at:

http://rapidtransit.regionofwaterloo.ca/en/projectinformation/frequentlyaskedquestions.asp (see the ION Costs section)

In 2013 City finance staff also provided estimates on the operations and maintenance costs of the LRT as it was proposed at that time (McMaster to Eastgate). The increase to the net levy for transit was estimated at $2.9M to $3.5M (depending on ridership and frequency of service) and an additional $8.7M was estimated for additional costs related to maintaining the corridor (garbage, snow removal etc.). The 2013 information was provided to Council in the following report:


The above examples provide some context for the operations and maintenance discussion. The final figures for Hamilton will be part of the bidding process that will be completed in early 2018.

In order to maximize opportunities for new development along the LRT corridor, the City of Hamilton developed Transit Oriented Corridor Zoning in an effort to encourage new development and discourage uses that were not compatible with rapid transit.

Update: Updated to clarify that the Financing, Lifecycle and Insurance costs for Waterloo LRT are over and above their operations and maintenance cost. You can jump to the changed paragraph.

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 George (registered) | Posted April 04, 2017 at 13:25:03

Would it be fair to say that there will be further savings to be had by removing the usual costs associated with maintaining, repairing and replacing 2 lanes of paved roadway?

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 04, 2017 at 17:07:43 in reply to Comment 121072

In short, yes, that is fair. However, it needs to also be recognized that to the extent traffic is diverted, it will to some degree raise maintenance, repair, and replacement costs of other roadways, since those increase with traffic. But it's still a helpful savings!

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By VivSaunders (registered) | Posted April 04, 2017 at 13:27:29

I was good with everything you said except the part about the other corridor buses at half the service. The other corridor buses, such as the #1 King will have enhanced service and likely go to Jones Road in the east. Personally, I think the operating costs will be a wash first year and we'll realize the savings due to lower costs annually after that.

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By john1242 (registered) | Posted April 04, 2017 at 16:12:10

Would it be safe to said Ridership will be adding 7-8 minutes to travel time to connect from Eastgate Square to Queenston Rd Circle eg 44 Rymal rd /Centennial BUS.LRT is to reduce travel time for ridership.Plus increase in Emission to the environmental From Buses ? Ridership in Wards 5;9;10;11 deserve LRT Service today not 5-10 yrs.Who's lobbying for RIDERSHIP to pay the bill,lobby City Council/Metrolinx the #1 priority LRT From Eastgate Square to McMaster rated #1 value for money investment.What is the revenue (taxes) connected on a Transit terminal Zero What is the revenue(taxes)connected on 30mil project of new development? Say yes for LRT Phase 1 Eastgate Square to McMaster for all Citizens of Hamilton. Build a Transit System made for Hamilton not by Merolinx and Wynne's Liberals.

     .Lobby City Council /Metrolinx '

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 04, 2017 at 16:39:32

that still means $9.1 million a year in savings from LRT.

There's the money quote: LRT is cheaper to operate. And since it will increase ridership, revenue will be up. Costs down, revenue up and a vastly better quality of service. What's not to like?

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By VivSaunders (registered) | Posted April 04, 2017 at 17:04:26 in reply to Comment 121079

I'd love for there to be $9m a year in savings, but I just can't see how that figure is even remotely possible. The 3 corridor buses will continue to run won't they? They'll just be re-routed to parallel roads I thought as per the presentations and EA addendum. I'd hate for this savings figure to be requoted only to be countered with it being alternate facts. Are you absolutely sure Ryan?

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 05, 2017 at 08:07:32 in reply to Comment 121081

Yes, the existing buses will be redeployed, and not just to parallel routes. But that is a service improvement in the places where these buses go.

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By VivSaunders (registered) | Posted April 05, 2017 at 08:42:37 in reply to Comment 121087

Thanks, but I'm not questioning the costs of improved service. Just the costs of providing existing service. For example, right now the #10 B Line bus goes as far east as Jones Road along Queenston Rd as well as to the Levi Loop at Barton/Fruitland Rd. The BLine LRT will end at QTC. In fairness, I think the savings referenced in the article should be reduced by the cost to have the #1 King run from QTC to Jones Road & Levi Loop. In other words, the operating costs to continue to provide the same service we have now. Otherwise, it's not a true reflection of potential savings imho

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By Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2017 at 16:52:19 in reply to Comment 121079

What's not to like? Apart from increased car traffic and widened lanes to accommodate cars? Aberdeen traffic is predicted to rise by 60%. Removal of bike lanes? How does that grab you? Apart from that? There's the increased cost to run it. It's a half-truth that LRT is cheaper to run. It's only cheaper to operate as opposed to a bus when you need to maintain a consistent capacity along the line. The problem is that the B-Line has seasonal and time of day ridership. It's not consistently high. It drops mid-day and between April and September. However, you'll be running the train constantly. At that point the LRT costs more. If the ridership isn't there to justify constantly running the train then buses are cheaper. And relying on "if they build, they will ride" as a reason to build the LRT is just foolhardy. First you need the ridership, then you build the capacity. Otherwise Podunk, Wisconsin would be building subways. And HSR ridership is falling. This seems so straightforward.


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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted April 05, 2017 at 08:30:46 in reply to Comment 121080

Yes they are removing bike lanes and replacing them with new lanes. You have been told this probably 4 or 5 times already and yet it still hasn't sunk in. It's a simple straightforward idea.

You know what else they are removing? 11 km of f'd up old sewer lines and water mains - 100's of millions of dollars worth - to be replaced with brand new ones.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 05, 2017 at 08:22:31 in reply to Comment 121080

The B-Line is currently over capacity and needs the additional capacity that will be provided by LRT. The future development that is currently underway cannot be supported by existing over-capacity transit services. However, the LRT system is future-proofed, as more vehicles can be run at closer headways to accommodate Hamilton's steadily increasing population.

In short, our alternatives are either LRT or hanging out a sign that says, "Hamilton: Closed for business."

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted April 05, 2017 at 08:07:10

What the Bus people forget to mention is the huge amount damage increasing numbers of buses do to the road, especially at the stops. LRT vehicles have their extra mass supported by better ballast support and track structure. If there is no LRT and increased B-line bus service on downtown streets, busy stops and their stop lanes will have to be re-paved in concrete. Concrete is a more robust material than asphalt when dealing with heavy vehicles and their constant repetitive wheel ware but much more expensive to put down and maintain. Concrete as a lane surface is quite necessary and common on real BRT systems, especially in the stop lanes and bus bay areas. The constant need to maintain these stretches of concrete were part of the very high maintenance costs in Ottawa's Transitways. Those lanes were resurfaced with concrete every 3-4 years at busy stops and every 5-7 years at all others. Mississauga put concrete on all lanes at stations on their new bus Transitway to avoid the extra damage that occurs to both surfaces at the concrete/asphalt transition zone.


Note the concrete "Pads" at Westboro Station on the Western Transitway (below)


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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 05, 2017 at 08:34:08 in reply to Comment 121086

There are examples of such concrete pads here in Hamilton. For example, at Herkimer and Bay Streets.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2017-04-05 08:35:16

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