Special Report: Light Rail

Light Rail Needs Leadership From Mayor

If our own Mayor still doesn't clearly support LRT, we are going to lose out to our neighbouring competitor cities, who are better able to enunciate their priorities clearly and forcefully.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published July 05, 2011

this article has been updated

A Spectator article last week suggests that Mayor Bob Bratina may no longer support LRT:

In an interview, Bratina said the city's current unemployment rate of 5.4 per cent shows the economy is performing well and that shows the city is on the right track.

On the thorny transit issues, he said he's fully supportive of expanded GO service, but has reservations about the LRT plan. He also doesn't think there's wide public support for the plan.

"We still haven't figured out what all the costs of that are going to be," he said. "We're not hearing any kind of clamour from the public on that file."

I was confused and disappointed by this report, and hoped he had been perhaps misquoted. After all, Bob Bratina strongly supported LRT when he was Ward 2 Councillor, and when Council voted unanimously to endorse Hamilton's LRT bid. In fact, Bratina even hosted Hamilton Light Rail's packed-out LRT information night on April 1, 2008.

I was particularly surprised by the claim that there is no public "clamour" for LRT in Hamilton. Bob himself had seen hundreds come out for that public meeting about rapid transit on a rainy evening three years ago. Metrolinx has called the public response in Hamilton "unprecedented".

The LRT project has the official support of many neighbourhood associations (including Durand, Kirkendall and Ainsliewood/Westdale), the Chamber of Commerce, the Realtors, several BIAs, Clean Air Hamilton, McMaster and the Spectator Editorial Board.

In fact, City staff can't recall any other initiative with such widespread support and resident participation, uniting business, environmental, social action and neighbourhood groups. The Rapid Transit team has held dozens of open houses, and received thousands of comments, and the vast majority have been highly supportive.

What more evidence do we need?

I have strongly and actively supported LRT for Hamilton for many years now. As a founding member of Hamilton Light Rail, and as a member of the City's Rapid Transit Citizen's Advisory Committee, I have seen firsthand the enthusiasm of hundreds of Hamiltonians from all walks of life for LRT.

Dublin Luas LRT (RTH File Photo)
Dublin Luas LRT (RTH File Photo)

Shift in Thinking

I contacted the Mayor asking for clarification on whether he still supports LRT, or was somehow misquoted. He kindly responded with some clarification of his shift in thinking about LRT.

This is a big, expensive and potentially controversial project, and I now better understand (although I disagree with) Bob's reticence, and preference for all-day GO over LRT. Here is my interpretation of the reasons for the Mayor's reluctance to champion LRT:

1. Risk minimization. Since LRT involves disruption during construction, possibly significant investment from the City and a major change in how we see the City, Bob sees it as all very risky.

In contrast, all-day GO service would involve no investment from the City, no disruption during construction and no change in the way we see the City.

A "go slow" approach on LRT minimizes the maximum risk, although it also minimizes the benefits to the City. Perhaps Bob saw the price paid by former Mayor Eisenberger for championing an evidence-based solution on the stadium, and is understandably concerned about an even bigger (and more important) infrastructure project.

2. Zero property tax increase. So far, Bob's signature policy has the been a zero property tax increase. Although this policy will do little to improve Hamilton, he feels (probably rightly) that it resonates with voters. Bob is worried that committing to LRT could force him to do a u-turn on the zero tax increase promise.

3. Fear of failure. Bob has been reading reports from Scotland describing controversy and delays with Edinburgh's LRT, and so, despite the dozens of success stories in Europe and North America and all the careful consultation and planning work done by the Rapid Transit Team, Bob is concerned that LRT won't be done right here in Hamilton.

This 'do-nothing' approach is increasingly popular in Canadian cities. Although risk-minimizing in the short term, this strategy is gradually and inexorably eroding the economic dynamism and quality of life of our cities.

Prudent, Evidence-Based

I agree that the Mayor and Council must make a prudent, evidence-based decision. Metrolinx and the City have been investigating LRT for years now, and have published numerous studies and consulted the public widely.

The City is now spending $3 million in provincial money and hundreds of thousands in City money to do a detailed design and land use study of the proposed LRT alignment.

These studies all agree that LRT will provide a big net economic development benefit, as well as being a future-proof investment in our transportation infrastructure.

I am concerned that if our own Mayor still doesn't clearly support Hamilton's LRT project in principle, despite its economic development benefits and broad community support, we are going to lose out to our neighbouring competitor cities, who are better able to enunciate clearly and forcefully what their priorities and interests really are.

It is clear that the campaign for LRT is not over, despite the fact that Hamilton City Council voted unanimously in favour of pursuing LRT as Hamilton's preferred rapid transit solution.

The Council vote was a decision that the LRT is the only Rapid Transit technology the City would be considering, i.e. it is the preferred solution. We should be discussing the best way to implement LRT, and whether it can be financed affordably - not whether an LRT system is a good idea.

Unlike the case in Waterloo, Metrolinx has indicated that they would pay all direct costs of Hamilton's LRT system. Hamilton could also minimize the impact to property tax rates by using Tax Increment Financing, which has recently been permitted in Ontario, and the Rapid Transit team is exploring a variety of other funding mechanisms.

Show Your Support

The most important action that supporters of LRT can take now is to remind our Mayor and Council that the public is still "clamouring" for the economic and social benefits LRT will bring to Hamilton.

If you support LRT, please email or phone the Mayor and Council and tell them that you want to add your voice to the thousands of Hamiltonians who support this vital initiative for Hamilton's future.

We need to give Mayor Bratina and the rest of Council a clamour they can't ignore!

Bratina's Statement

Here is the full text of Mayor Bratina's response to me:

We are completing our mandated Planning, Design and Engineering study for LRT and approaching the time of critical decision. Council will base its decision on answers to a number of questions upon which the success of the project will hinge. Simply put risks will be measured against rewards, based on analysis and evaluation of information accumulated through the process.

The critical missing piece to date is financing and the local contribution that would likely be required. Since our Council is committed to a four year plan of zero tax increases in a sustainable regime of service delivery, and no commitment has yet been made by Council the Waterloo case provides a helpful funding model for our consideration. I have copied it below.

My personal enthusiam for LRT is tempered by certain realities involving risk. The current example of Edinburgh Scotland's LRT project can be studied through many links including the following:

http://news.scotsman.com/transport-news/Edinburghs-disgrace-II-Tram-fiasco.6783582.jp

Hamilton's current estimated cost is $830 million (2008) dollars. Below is the analysis provided for Waterloo Region. This is one of many pieces that will guide Council in its decision on LRT.

Respectfully,

Bob Bratina,

Mayor, City of Hamilton

LRT: What will this cost me?

Construction: $818 million. This includes estimated inflation impacts until the launch of construction in 2014. Senior governments are paying up to $565 million, leaving $253 million to local taxpayers.

Operating subsidy: $13.7 million a year in 2017 declining to $9.1 million a year by 2031.

Local tax impact: Council is considering an increase of up to 10.5 per cent in regional taxes, phased in between 2012 and 2018. This pays for rail transit construction and operating costs and expands bus service by 25 per cent to support rail transit.

Over seven years an average home (assessed at $254,000) would pay a total of $700 as tax increases are phased in. By 2018 annual taxes on an average home would be $175 higher than today.

However: Council will consider an alternate financing plan to increase regional taxes by seven per cent, phased in between 2012 and 2018. This pays for rail transit construction and operating costs and expands bus service by 25 per cent. Funding for the remaining transit costs would be paid out of tax savings from other programs.

Over seven years an average home would pay a total of $450 as tax increases are phased in. By 2018 annual taxes on an average home would be $113 higher than today.

For comparison under this option, a home assessed at $400,000 would pay a total of $709 over seven years as tax increases are phased in. By 2018 annual property taxes would be $177 higher than today.

Can the tax impact on existing homes be further reduced?

Politicians could seek to increase development charges on new buildings. This would need provincial approval. They could also designate new taxes from new buildings to the project.


Update: The article has been updated to add a paragraph. You can jump to the added paragraph.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.

34 Comments

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By lettie (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 10:25:57

Fear of failure says it all. That is always a problem for Hamilton. Hamilton never thinks big or achieves great things. Never takes risks like other great cities in the world. You can't just think of today, you have to plan for tomorrow. Think, big medical centre downtown for one and how to get there....Duh!

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By Johnny Velvet (anonymous) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 10:29:11

You actually got a response from the Mayor's office?!?! oh wow!!

I guess after all the flip flops on the stadium issue, now being the Mayor and under greater public scrutiny, he will wait it out for someone else to make a principled approach.

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By Binbury (anonymous) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 10:33:20

witness Bob Bratina's transformation from progressive Ward 2 councillor to conservative mayor. Some call it risk-averse pragmatism, others vote-buying, but none can call this leadership. This kind of risk-aversion is exactly why city hall is staffed by a bevy of people good at writing annual reports inflating their deliverables but bad at achieving anything.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 10:41:15

geez, Boston botched a highway project that resulted in deaths, massive delays and massive cost over-runs. Does that mean we won't build anymore highways?? I'm sure there are plenty of stories of poorly built homes that collapse or had severe damage. Do we outlaw all new home construction?

Bob took a lot of flak for his 'platform schmatform' stuff during the election, but one thing he was consistent on was his desire to be the Ambitious City again and bring new glory years to the city. LRT is his best chance to see that happen. Being the mayor who brought that to fruition would be legendary. One of things we don't need to overstate is the disruption to businesses along the corridor. If the corridor was bursting with commerce and business people fighting and out-bidding each other to locate there, we probably wouldn't need an LRT system.

Comment edited by jason on 2011-07-05 10:50:41

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By bigguy1231 (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 11:09:24 in reply to Comment 65554

Bostons I95 project was fully funded by the federal government in the US. All interstate construction is a federal responsibility.

If this LRT was being fully funded by a higher level of government, it would already be approved by council.

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By Jana (anonymous) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 10:58:38

I am interested in hearing more about the LRT (how it would run, where it would run etc), as I live in the heart of downtown and am having a difficult time imagining how it would work within all of our narrow and jam-packed streets. Is there somewhere I can find more information? I am a 45 minute a day walker, so I would certainly support the LRT if I knew more about it! :)

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By grahamm (registered) | Posted July 06, 2011 at 12:19:38 in reply to Comment 65556

A quick google and I have two websites for you - the City's - http://www.hamiltonrapidtransit.ca/ Citizen's - http://hamiltonlightrail.com/

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 05, 2011 at 13:12:17 in reply to Comment 65556

In general, it will be running east/west through town along King (although they have something strange planned to get it onto Main as it crosses the bridge into Ainsliewood). The LRT tracks will be laid along the South side of the street, and the North side will remain 1-way vehicular traffic. Those LRT lanes will be lost to normal traffic.

Because of how cramped King is east of John, I imagine they'll have to rip out the street-side parking bump-outs in order to get traffic up to 3 or 4 lanes (2 of which will be consumed by the LRT tracks) or make it pedestrian-only altogether.

Each stop will include a proper platform in that you walk directly onto the train on flat ground - no stepping up into the train.

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By lots of room (anonymous) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 11:06:07 in reply to Comment 65556

Narrow? Jam-packed? Have you actually been downtown? Main, King and Cannon are like the QEW going through the core!

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 05, 2011 at 13:13:11 in reply to Comment 65559

LRT is not running on Main and Cannon. It will be running on King. And king is actually rather narrow in the eastern half of the core. It's realistic to be concerned about how the city is going to make that part work.

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By grahamm (registered) | Posted July 06, 2011 at 12:24:09 in reply to Comment 65571

You can see what the planned layout of traffic & LRT is - http://www.hamilton.ca/NR/rdonlyres/DA2F...

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 10:58:40

Seriously - status quo is the objective? Mediocrity at its finest. Did the Mayor mention the fact the city blew the future fund on half a stadium? Zero tax increase is a bit of sham too, isn't it? Core residents now pay a "reinvestvent" tax instead of lowering the tax for core residents. Anyone know how much this "reinvestment" tax will generate? People who voted for this guy need to be individually slapped. No platform, no vision, no progress.

edit - the politically correct term is "area rating derived funding", not reinvestment tax.

Comment edited by GrapeApe on 2011-07-05 11:20:28

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By lettie (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 11:25:37

We were glad to get rid of him as ward 2 councillor little knowing he would get elected mayor where he can continue going to meetings and leaving early...I'll be dead before this city achieves greatness. At least the harbourfront was restored in my lifetime and that is amazing. As far as GO, sure I want all day GO but that takes people out of town. LRT brings people to town.

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By going going... (anonymous) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 11:30:15 in reply to Comment 65561

All day Go service would also bring people TO hamilton, right now the trains are out bound only.

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 11:37:52 in reply to Comment 65562

True, but if I recall correctly, we had all day go in the past. Times got tough for GO and we were left without service. LRT is a permanent installation that would provide those GO riders an easy way about Hamilton. Imagine coming to town and _not_ needing a car to get around from east to west and hopefully up to the aiport.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted July 06, 2011 at 08:30:30 in reply to Comment 65564

We had all day GO train service in the past? How far back? I have been using GO to commute to Toronto for 17 years, and we certainly haven't had it in that time.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted July 05, 2011 at 11:47:05

I believe Mayor Bratina's son designed the artwork for Steve Sinnick's CD so I assume talent runs in his family, although I am beginning to doubt the Mayor's leadership quality surrounding the soundness of LRT.

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 13:03:07 in reply to Comment 65565

Which CD?

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted July 07, 2011 at 22:39:10 in reply to Comment 65569

If You Don't Want The Genie Don't Rub The Lamp - Artwork by Sam Bratina

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By rednic (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 13:34:41

Im now im off 'track' but

'In an interview, Bratina said the city's current unemployment rate of 5.4 per cent shows the economy is performing well and that shows the city is on the right track. '

So that means the employment rate is 94.6 per cent ?

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By railroaded (anonymous) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 14:31:50

It sounds to me like Bob is planning for the next election rather than the future of the city. He saw what happened to our last mayor.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 05, 2011 at 16:15:51 in reply to Comment 65573

Yup.

Let's be realistic. No matter how good it would be for the city, LRT is political suicide. It's a massive load of short-term-loss-long-term-gain, and elections are a short-term problem.

Basically "I'm going to destroy King Street and raise your property taxes for something that won't be operational much less pay any dividends before my election".

It's political suicide.

Fred would've done it.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 15:45:23

So sad to see coming from such an avowed train guy.

He must understand that local and regional transit are necessary, that one functions better with the other in place.

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By mike_sak (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 16:43:58

This 'do-nothing' approach is increasingly popular in Canadian cities.

LRT is what could actually separate Hamilton from other Canadian cities, for the better.

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By Bobby1 (anonymous) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 16:53:33

Hmm, Think Mayor Bob's position on LTR is correct! Hamilton is huge and I believe most don't live anywhere near where this system will operate! Improve the bus system, much cheaper and proven mode of transportation! All day Go service is a great idea,but people need a valid reason to come to downtown! Lived in Hamilton 11 years and been downtown about 5 times. Please give me a valid reason to go there when I can get everything it offers in a much more desirable setting elsewhere!

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By d.knox (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 17:34:18

If I had to choose, I'd pick all-day Go, leaving from Liuna. But it sounds as if we don't actually have an either or situation here, especially if Metrolinx picks up all direct costs.

I'm generally fairly staunchly on the side of limiting tax increases, but I could see paying for this and I have no intention of ever using it. The all-day Go means people from Toronto can live in downtown Hamilton and get back and forth to work easily. The LRT means that the stretch of easily accessible housing is quite broad and there will be a wide-spread area of gentrification - both from increased property values with existing residents and from an influx of Torontonians who can't afford to live in Toronto. This influx would bring more upscale accommodations in the form of condo development, more people with larger disposable incomes, more amenities. And ultimately, more reasons to go downtown.

Hmmmmm, maybe I could use that LRT after-all.

Comment edited by d.knox on 2011-07-05 17:35:17

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 19:50:16 in reply to Comment 65581

Exactly! People travel on the train from Oshawa and Whitby to work in TO. I can't imagine it taking any longer with dedicated GO from Hamilton and IMHO Hamilton offers far more already.

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By Flush (anonymous) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 21:04:08

This is going down the drain fast!

http://www.thespec.com/news/local/article/558498--city-being-backed-into-a-corner-on-lrt-clark

Priorities of council are very different now and LRT is just not there.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 22:09:23 in reply to Comment 65586

Council in general is very short-sighted.

They invite speakers from around the world, hire consultants, etc. etc. all so that council can then ignore them and do whatever the hell they think is right.

What made them experts on urban planning or land use?

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 22:23:15

The only corridor where a Light Rail B-Line could work would be Main St./Queeston. King St is too Narrow as you enter the core (Traffic there is constantly congested as is). Barton St. is in ill repair and cuts off at Dundurn castle, Cannon St. turns into Britannia and then stops at the Red Hill pointing at a park and a cemetery.

Once again, I will say Light Rail is a great idea for Hamilton in 25 years or so, but not now. There isn't enough density yet in the city to justify either it's startup costs or it's ongoing maintenance. There are just too few people living over such a wide area. It's putting the carriage ahead of the horse. LRT is meant to compliment existing density not spontaneously create it. I'm sure my opinions differ with many of this site, but that's just my way of looking at it.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted July 05, 2011 at 23:26:13

Downtown is not about traffic. Nor should it be.

We already have the freeways of Main and Cannon streets.

Let's make the downtown, a proper DOWNTOWN. For people!

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/toronto-eyes-bold-makeover-of-busy-yonge-street-corridor/article2086650/

"A new planning blueprint for revitalizing the tired retail strip on Yonge Street north of Dundas envisions sidewalk cafes and street vendors, mid-rise buildings and heritage storefronts and one lane less in each direction for traffic on the city’s main drag."

"Taking its cue from projects such as New York’s transformation of Broadway or, closer to home, the redo of Kitchener’s downtown, the plan offers a solution to the growing numbers of pedestrians and recommends more street closings for special events.

“Pedestrians are literally falling off the sidewalks at busy times,” said planner Ken Greenberg, author of the study along with architect Marianne McKenna. More than 53,000 pedestrians use Yonge and Dundas in an eight-hour period, he said, making it the country’s busiest intersection, and foot traffic already outnumbers cars by more than two to one along Toronto’s main street. “We want to provide an opportunity for life to spill out onto the street,” he said."

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By I miss the old Bratina (anonymous) | Posted July 06, 2011 at 08:57:23

When Bob won in October I was at least hopeful that some of his progressive thinking and his downtown pride would help shake things up, and that we might get some interesting projects started. I didn't always agree with his vision, but on GO and LRT I was optimistic. I'm surprised how quickly the new job has doused his fire. It's such a stark and complete turnaround from the guy who wanted to build a giant fountain in the harbour or put the stadium at Sir. John A. MacDonald.

I wish he would wrangle council and staff and set a bold goal to get both LRT and all-day GO service done by 2015-2016. I'd even be happy to see him throw a few more pens around if it would bring back that old passion.

If he gets LRT started I'll likely vote for him in 2014. If not, I'll be the first in line to donate to his main opponent.

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By RyanB (anonymous) | Posted July 06, 2011 at 11:24:54 in reply to Comment 65611

Bratina needs to be reminded that there is support out there for LRT. Maybe then he'll jump on the bandwagon.

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By grahamm (registered) | Posted July 06, 2011 at 12:26:48

A bit depressing that the mayor is more concerned with reelection than good city building. I believe that there is a strong desire for LRT among the people of Hamilton. Come on Bob - be bold.

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