There are three challenges that face transit expansion in Hamilton that are each defeating and together fatal: project timelines, area rating, and an abject failure of political leadership.
By Sean Hurley
Published January 05, 2020
CBC Hamilton reporter Samantha Craggs wrote an article on the possibilty of bus rapid transit (BRT) in Hamilton, in which she asked: "will BRT have its time?"
BRT won't have its time. Don't bet on Just More Buses (JMB) either.
There are three challenges that face transit expansion in Hamilton that are each defeating and together fatal. They are: (1) project timelines, (2) area rating, and (3) an abject failure of political leadership.
We know it would take a minimum of seven years to build A-Line BRT, assuming there were no bumps along the road, once all the planning decisions are made.
And that is highly optimistic. Active planning for Hamilton's B-Line light rail transit (LRT) line began in 2007 and a funding commitment was not announced until nine years later, in 2015.
Even if those timelines could be cut in half, the reality remains that there will be no shovels in the ground prior to provincial and municipal elections in 2022. Should Ontario and Hamilton voters each or separately sweep the slate clean, chances are, just like now, we will be starting all over again.
Nevertheless, Craggs reports in her article that Ward 9 Councillor Brad Clark "would opt for two BRT lines: one across the lower city and one on the Mountain." That is almost the plan that was to be implemented from 2015, which provided for B-Line LRT and A-Line BRT.
Clark told Craggs, "he'd also like to see more buses running along the BLAST network, which is a series of city-wide routes designated for rapid transit." Craggs helpfully points out that B-line LRT "was the first stage of that" network.
When Clark challenged Fred Eisenberger for the Mayor's office in 2014, he ran against LRT and in favour of BRT. He avoided defining his vision of BRT until near the end of the campaign, but eventually conceded that when he says "BRT" he means "express buses".
Indeed, he told Craggs: "We could put in right across the city bus rapid transit, express routes", as though they're the same thing. They're not. One is rapid transit and the other is buses in mixed traffic that makes fewer stops.
Let us be generous and accept in good faith the councillor's vision of JMB and even look to the example of Brampton. Brampton has implemented an express bus network that has some characteristics of BRT, like traffic signal priority and all-door boarding.
Brampton has grown its transit ridership, breaking with the general trend of stagnant or declining ridership, and their ZÜM express bus service appears to be the driving force. So it could work, but not in Hamilton and the reason is area rating.
In the 2018 municipal election, Clark backed mayoralty challenger Vito Sgro, who also ran against building LRT. Like Clark, Sgro proposed JMB with what he called "express routes".
What Sgro, Clark and some other members on council were promising was more transit for the suburban wards. However, the other aspect of their transit plan is "to keep the existing area-rating tax policy for transit".
During his mayoralty campaign, Sgro wouldn't say how he would fund JMB that "would extend from Fifty Point in Winona to Waterdown, from Mount Hope to the water" with area rating in place.
What is area rating? In 2001, as part of the amalgamation of Hamilton with its five neighbouring suburban municipalities, HSR taxes were rated according to the level of service received in suburban wards prior to amalgamation.
This was supposed to be a temporary measure but it has become permanent. What it means is that residents in the old city of Hamilton pay as much as three times more in taxes for HSR than do residents in the amalgamated suburbs. Expanding HSR to Fifty Point, Waterdown, and Mount Hope necessarily means raising taxes on residents in those wards, which the same politicians making the promises refuse to do.
The proposed LRT was to be designed, built, financed, operated and maintained by a private operator, meaning the tax levy would not be required to provide service. That is why it was possible. In any scenario where HSR operated BRT or JMB, especially on routes that serve suburban areas, local property taxes must go up to pay for it.
That is why Clark will not say how he would finance expanded HSR operations.
Like Clark, Ward 15 councillor Judi Partridge opposed LRT, and she too "wants any solution to include the whole city, even rural areas like the ones in her ward."
Partridge has no objection to residents of the lower city contributing to a highway by-pass that only benefits residents of Waterdown who commute to the GTA, but she opposes provincial investment for transit in the core.
Meanwhile, Partridge also opposes eliminating area rating for transit, making her claims to want transit for the "whole city" empty rhetoric.
Thanks in part to the legacy of area rating, the last major advance in public transit in Hamilton precedes amalgamation and that was the development of BLAST and the implementation of the B-Line Express Bus as a first step toward frequent, rapid mass transit - way, way back in 1986.
The stunted BLAST network followed on the heels of Hamilton turning down the provincial gift of what later became the very successful Vancouver SkyTrain back in 1981.
Ultimately, the failure to build transit in Hamilton is a failure of leadership. Doug Lychak, who was the regional planning and development manager championing the ill-fated rapid transit project in 1981, sums up the problem succinctly: "If Hamilton has lacked anything in the past, it's the ability to see strategically and think strategically".
In almost 40 years, little has changed.
People will oppose transit for any number of contradictory reasons. In 1981, Limeridge and Jackson Square ]were considered "nowhere"](/article/3021/alegacyofmissedopportunity:thehamiltonrapidtransitplansthatcouldhave_been). Today, "nowhere" is everywhere from Eastgate to McMaster.
Recurring theme in anti-LRT arguments
In 1981, detractors opposed a grade-separated transit system and today they oppose a surface transit system. There will never be a consensus among Hamiltonians - that is where planning and leadership come into play. And leadership has failed Hamilton every single time.
Take a moment to think of the world we live in today. We are confronted by the looming and potentially catastrophic crisis of climate change and we are challenged by the emerging technologies of electrification and automation. These realities will shape how people move around cities and the affordability of doing so.
Public transit is the great equalizer that will bridge disparate technologies and modes to ensure everyone can get to where they need to be. But Hamilton is more than a generation behind in that investment [PDF].
In another 25 years, do people want to live in a Hamilton unchanged from today? Because that is the "strategy" of the council leadership we have had to endure since amalgamation.
This should be particularly alarming for those concerned about social justice and housing. The Hamilton for which Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney is preparing for us, along with council members like Clark and Partridge, is a Hamilton that is a bedroom community for the GTA, which is projected to add another four million people to the current ten million within 25 years.
Sacrificing local transit to build highways and regional transit serves only commuters seeking less expensive housing in Hamilton and beyond. The LRT project primarily serves people who live and work in Hamilton.
There will never be progress through a process of developing plans over many years, investing time, energy, and tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars, and then brushing it all away to start over again. What can we do?
Add your voice to the many demanding Premier Doug Ford reverse Mulroney's decision.
Alternatively, demand that council freeze the current plan and do all that can be done to prevent Metrolinx from unloading properties acquired for LRT.
At the same time, plan to elect a new provincial government and council in 2022 to get LRT back on track and to once and for all end area rating. Two years late is better than yet another generation behind.
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