The basic question currently kicking around - Is LRT worth it? - has been answered conclusively but we are not hearing these arguments from our leaders or the staff who report to them.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 21, 2013
The McMaster Institute of Transportation and Logistics published a study last year on the light rail transit (LRT) experience in North America. It reviewed 30 cities that have built LRT and it concluded that LRT in Hamilton can provide a real net benefit to the city, but must be integrated with compatible land use planning and pedestrian-friendly street design.
It also concluded that LRT needs a strong political champion to be successful: "A political champion can help to realize success by marshalling resources, building coalitions and resolving disputes.
"Co-ordinating institutions, streamlining processes and minimizing red tape are seen as crucial in implementing transit-oriented development projects and are dependent on strong political leadership."
The importance of a political champion has never been clearer than today, as the coalition in support of Hamilton's east-west B-Line LRT slowly dissolves in the absence of such leadership.
The Hamilton Spectator has recently published a spate of anti-LRT letters to the editor, all of which pose questions of feasibility that have already been answered and raise objections that have already been addressed.
But without a political champion, there is no one to answer those objections and assuage these concerns.
The City of Hamilton's Rapid Transit Office, once renowned for its broad engagement with Hamiltonians, has been silent for almost a year and a half.
Our mayor openly disparages the city's LRT plan, bragging that Hamilton is a "20-minute city" for drivers and questioning whether the investment is worth making.
This opposition comes amid continued uncertainty from Metrolinx and the province over who will pay the capital costs and how the money will be raised. Council's unanimous resolution in support of LRT is now wavering.
It may help our councillors to bolster their conviction if we review how we got here.
That fall, the Ontario Liberal Party pledged to build "two light rail lines across Hamilton" - the east-west B-Line and a subsequent north-south A-line. In response, several community volunteers organized Hamilton Light Rail and appealed to the city to review its transportation plan in light of this new provincial initiative.
In 2008, council approved the creation of a Rapid Transit Office and the new team prepared a feasibility study comparing LRT to the cheaper alternative of bus rapid transit (BRT). The study reviewed the evidence from other cities and consulted more than 1,600 Hamiltonians.
Its conclusion was unambiguous: build light rail, integrate with community and economic development policies, start with the east-west line, and move quickly and decisively to get priority funding from the province.
The study determined that LRT would confer a clear net advantage over bus rapid transit in attracting economic development and revitalizing downtown neighbourhoods.
Council unanimously approved the recommendation and staff got to work on developing a detailed LRT plan for the B-Line, including a land use plan for the area around the line to ensure the maximum economic benefit from new investment.
In 2010, Metrolinx released a comprehensive Benefits Case Analysis for the B-Line. It concluded that LRT will produce a large net benefit in terms of economic development, urban revitalization, environmental sustainability and user experience.
In light of these arguments, a large number of organizations in Hamilton have endorsed the B-Line LRT plan, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington, Clean Air Hamilton, the Downtown BIA, the International Village BIA, numerous community councils and neighbourhood associations, and the Hamilton Spectator editorial board.
Several developers have expressed interest in LRT but emphasize that they need to see commitments from the city and province before they invest.
Waterloo region recently approved their LRT plan after city planners concluded that the cost of not building LRT would actually be higher than the cost of building it, after considering the net infrastructure cost of business-as-usual development compared to the more compact, cost-effective development around the LRT line.
More than 400 cities around the world have working LRT systems today, and many are in the process of expanding their systems. LRT is proven, in a wide variety of cities of different shapes, sizes and densities, as a way to transform municipal economies by anchoring high-value land use around the line.
In other words, the basic question currently kicking around - Is LRT worth it? - has been answered conclusively by municipal, provincial and independent analyzes.
However, we are not hearing these arguments from our leaders or the staff who report to them. We have forgotten the enthusiasm, excitement and hope that drove the LRT plan forward just a few short years ago.
It's time to reacquaint ourselves with the case for LRT so we don't squander the opportunity to transform our city.
First published in The Spectator on May 18, 2013.