Special Report: Light Rail

We Need to Remember the Case for LRT

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.

In 2007, the province announced an ambitious plan to build transit across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area that included two rapid transit lines in Hamilton.

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.

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 writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.


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By bones (anonymous) | Posted May 21, 2013 at 10:07:11

this whole province is backwards when it comes to LRT, our whole country is caught up in the freedom of having a vehicle. More roads for more cars has never been the answer for a city but it sure helps automotive and oil companies. It is cheaper to rent a car for the weekend to travel than it is to take bus or via rail. That's just backwards

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted May 21, 2013 at 13:54:37

Hey Ryan when is this LRT dead line is i sure hope its after the election for the city cuz i whant to see a new mayor to champion the LRT

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted May 21, 2013 at 19:30:38

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

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By kevin (registered) | Posted May 22, 2013 at 17:32:49 in reply to Comment 88855

In, just, your second sentence: you spelled "too" wrong; it's a city “which” has… a system “of” one-way…; you’re missing several commas; and you used “city” twice. Man, you’re dumb. LOL all over again!

Why should eye consider any thing you right when ewe are to stuped to from a sentence snmple! LOL all over again!

"Taxpayers are ready to revolt…" Really? The senate, bob young, mike harris, peggy-gate, gas plants, hwdsb, rob ford… haven’t created a ripple, so cool the hyperbole, or there’ll be terrible world-ending consequences and no one will take you seriously, anymore! LOL all over again!

There’s no way you’d be this obnoxious in a face-to-face setting, so I'd guess you’re just another cowardly puke, hiding behind his big brave keyboard. LOL all over again!

Your obsession with voting on RTH is as childish as your writing. This time, I’m cereal.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2013 at 21:31:03 in reply to Comment 88868

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By Kevin (registered) | Posted May 22, 2013 at 21:51:36 in reply to Comment 88871

You can't capitalize. You spelled "whiz" wrong. You spelled "too" wrong, again, stupid. Who's "we?" I'm in offensive mode because you are an offensive cowardly, obnoxious little puke, who ruins my visits to RTH. Sign your name, sissy. Learn two spell, stupid.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2013 at 23:05:48 in reply to Comment 88874

If i thought this site or u were worth it i would put some efford intooit but u are such narrow minded microbrained lemmings that u just arnt

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By Cultosaurus (registered) | Posted May 22, 2013 at 16:18:23 in reply to Comment 88855

Hamilton will continue to be a second-rate, former factory town as long as the mentality you're supporting continues. It will be a bedroom community for more prosperous neighbouring cities and it will never be seen as a place where you can both work and live. It won't attract new employers or retain quality (tax-paying, affluent) employees. It will continue to decay. An LRT, among many other things (walkable streets, bike infrastructure, etc.) is how you make a city attractive (and sane) to live in.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2013 at 12:20:04 in reply to Comment 88867

And broke.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 21, 2013 at 21:46:23 in reply to Comment 88855

This would have been an awesome comment in 1958.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted May 22, 2013 at 07:32:55 in reply to Comment 88860

^Even then it would have been ridiculous.

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By viennacafe (registered) | Posted May 22, 2013 at 20:18:10

The LRT and the Big Move will both die slow, agonizing deaths unless we, the voters, indicate to both the Liberals and the NDP that we support the vision and we will back it with our ballots. If you put yourselves in the shoes of Wynne, for a moment, the Liberal Party has been advancing a modest green agenda and has little to show for it in terms of electoral support. Recent polls show a Hudak majority if an election was held today and if you like Rob Ford and his War Of The Car you'll love Tim Hudak.

On the other hand, the Liberals have failed and are failing to engage the public in explaining the benefits of the Big Move in terms of economy, ecology, and energy. In the coming years climate change is going to radically reshape how we live and we can either prepare for that or we can, pardon the pun, be hammered when it is imposed upon us.

I do sympathize with Wynne in acknowledging that an adult discussion with Ontarians can be difficult in light of the utter failure of corporate media to adequately frame the debate. In Hamilton, for example, while The Spectator reports on the product offerings at Tim Horton's and McDonalds, it is yet to report (to the best of my knowledge) that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have reached 400 ppm.

That leaves it to alternative media, social media, and ourselves to get the message out.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2013 at 23:36:31 in reply to Comment 88870

It's not just Hamilton (though the city is reliably backwards). Look at the recent debate in Toronto's council chambers, or the Brampton vs. Mississauga dust-up, or the Western GTA Summit whose big takeaway was that transit is an important priority. The province had doubtless hopedto take its cues from the GGH/GTHA municipalities, but it's increasingly looking like a bigfooting is in order.

I'd say that mainstream media has done a decent job of pushing the discussion (Metrolinx surrogate Civic Action basically have a soapbox on 680New, the Star is very pro-transit, and even the National Post has run its share of Bedford op-eds). For all of that, Metrolinx is still all but unknown to 90% of the voting public. This despite spending wads on PR. The adult discussion is mostly difficult at this stage because the province and Metrolinx have avoided having that discussion for the last three years. Instead, they launched their conversation mere months before they were to deliver their funding recommendations. That deadline is basically here now. Ten days from now, the other shoe drops, and we will go on to improvise the most ambitious infrastructure undertaking in a generation.

Fingers crossed it turns out well.


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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2013 at 21:33:15 in reply to Comment 88870

As long as Wynne keeps talking about implementing new and creative taxes I doubt her popularity will grow.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2013 at 12:22:32

I am still trying to understand why a city that has virtually no congestion on its roadways could possibly benefit from LRT. If the buses are crowded during rush hour on King/Main than lets add a few more buses at a fraction of the cost.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 23, 2013 at 13:16:50 in reply to Comment 88884

We have virtually no congestion in large part because we have prioritized our public infrastructure investments on highways, low-density suburban sprawl and vastly overbuilt lower-city streets that destroy the neighbourhoods they cut through.

High quality rapid transit is an essential part of the necessary transformation of this city from a depressed place you can drive through in 20 minutes - a talking point no one should be proud of - into a lively, healthy place where people actually want to live, work and socialize.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2013 at 15:13:50

"...place you can drive through in 20 minutes - a talking point no one should be proud of -..."

Try telling that to someone who has just called an ambulance or the fire department. I am sure they would be glad that the city can be driven through in 20 minutes.

"We have virtually no congestion in large part because we have prioritized our public infrastructure investments on highways, low-density suburban sprawl and vastly overbuilt lower-city streets that destroy the neighbourhoods they cut through."

How do you expect people and goods to travel without highways? Please name an urban centre in NA that does not have a highway network?

Our suburbs are not as low density as you might think. The rural areas might be but if you go to Ancaster and Dundas etc they are just as high density as the lower city (but not the dt core). Besides LRT is not planned for the suburbs.

Our lower city streets were not overbuilt a generation ago and the neighbourhoods were not destroyed a generation ago either. Downtown decline has been a trend across the western world for years now - not just Hamilton. It is the population in the lower city that has declined as people chose to move to bigger houses and nicer neighbourhoods with less crime.

Your reasoning does not provide an answer for why LRT is needed or cost effective. Basically you made my case. The lower city is not congested. With no congestion LRT will be a complete failure.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 23, 2013 at 21:59:20 in reply to Comment 88899

How do you expect people and goods to travel without highways?

Some places have committed more to highway construction than others. The GTHA has been more committed than most regions. Extensive highway construction creates induced demand and crowds out public funding for better regional transit.

Our suburbs are not as low density as you might think.

Wards 1-8 (excluding 2) range in density from around 2,000 and 3,500 people per square kilometre. As you note, ward 2 is over 6,000 people per square kilometre.

But there's more to density than people divided by area. You also have to consider the form of the built environment. Spaghetti suburbs of townhouses and freeholds on small lots might have fairly decent density, but they're not walkable or cyclable, and in any case there is not a mix of amenities within walking distance.

Downtown decline has been a trend across the western world for years now - not just Hamilton.

It's been very clearly established that some cities experienced this phenomenon worse than others. The cities that declined the hardest are the places that:

  • Converted their streets to paired one-way thoroughfares;
  • Demolished Victorian city blocks for postwar "renewal" projects;
  • Demolished old buildings to make room for surface parking;
  • Slapped suburban-style zoning and parking requirements on pre-existing neighbourhoods;
  • Opened their rural surroundings to unrestrained suburban sprawl;
  • Ripped up their streetcar networks;

And so on. Most cities did this to a greater or lesser extent, but some cities figured out more quickly how harmful these policies were and changed them. Those cities suffered the least and bounced back the most quickly. We would be foolish to continue ignoring the lessons from North American cities that are enjoying great success in urban revitalization.

Your reasoning does not provide an answer for why LRT is needed or cost effective.

I've already answered that question on multiple occasions, including in direct responses to your comments. When you keep asking questions that were already answered, you start to sound like you're trolling.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2013 at 23:15:41 in reply to Comment 88912

So now the answer is not only to invest a king's ransom into LRT but to also completely rebuild the city into something different? This city is very much like most North American cities. The kind of cities that the populace has chosen to have. But YOU decide that YOU know better and are going to lead us into the promised land. People will give up their cars, their SUVs, their large single family homes and have utopia. Really? Get a grip.

There was a great story in The Spec this past week, spread over several days on Barton Street. One of the hardest hit streets running through some of the hardest hit neighbourhoods in the city. Not only has it been hit very hard it is one of the few major 2 way streets in the lower city.

One way streets didn't cause the problems and 2 way streets won't make the problems go away.

Let the downvoting begin.

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By Cultosaurus (registered) | Posted May 24, 2013 at 07:09:18 in reply to Comment 88920

You are right, one way streets didn't cause the problem. That answer is far more complex and involves a number of factors (collapse of the manufacturing industry, unchecked suburban sprawl development, bad urban design, ineffective leadership etc.) That being said, in order for Hamilton to fully turn itself around and be a destination, a place to you work, play and live - it has to stop being a 20 minute city with multiple freeway-like roads running through it.

You state that people won't give up their single-family homes and SUVs, but I argue that people are doing that in record numbers. Yes, there will always be people that want that style of life, but the popularity of inner-city neighbourhoods in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Chicago, etc. show that a ton of people prefer a much different style of life. The millennials coming up right now are rejecting their parent's suburban lifestyle at a ridiculous rate (88% according to the Wall Street Journal), but they can't really afford the cost of living in the larger cities. What city could be a more perfect choice for that then Hamilton?

What you see as waste and illogical is in fact an investment in Hamilton's prosperity and future. If we decide to keep the status quo and not pursue things like two-way streets or the LRT we can guarantee that we'll end up like Indianapolis or Kansas City and the future will pass us by.

Lastly your really sad attempt to target Ryan as some kind of know-more-than-you-elitist is disingenuous. After trolling this site for I don't know how long, do you really think Ryan hasn't backed up his assertions? That these are really just his wild ideas without any academic or analytical foundation? Come on now, let's save the big "YOU"s, unless you actually are that insecure about your knowledge.

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By tre (registered) | Posted May 29, 2013 at 11:56:27

The pro-LRT side has misguided people, on several occasions, with incorrect or partial facts. Take the Charlotte LRT example which the pro-LRT side consistently refers to.

Hamilton Light Rail states: http://hamiltonlightrail.com/the-facts

"Myth: LRT won't attract new ridership.

Fact: LRT systems consistently outperform even optimistic ridership growth projections. Charlotte's Lynx line, which opened in 2007, was supposed to start at 9,100 daily passengers and reach 18,000 daily riders by 2025; but by Q1 2008 it already reached 18,600 daily passengers and has since increased to 21,000 as of 2010. A 2009 survey found that nearly three quarters of Lynx passengers were new to public transit."

A quick fact check on Wikipedia (if you don't trust Wikipedia as a source, follow the references it provided): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynx_Rapid_...

"Prior to the opening of the line in November 2007, CATS projected ridership for the completed Blue Line to be 9,100 on an average weekday in its first year of operation, gradually increasing to 18,100 by 2025. In its first few months of operation, the Blue Line saw an average daily weekday ridership of 8,700 passengers. By the end of the first quarter of 2008, weekday ridership had increased to 18,600, double first-year projections and ahead of the 2025 projections. In March 2008, the single light rail line accounted for 19.5% of total system ridership – 402,600 of the 2,061,700 monthly passenger-trips of all lines including bus, dial-a-ride, and vanpool. Daily ridership continued to climb through the fall of 2008 due to increasing gasoline prices, peaking at 22,300 in the third quarter.

By summer 2009, a CATS survey indicated that 72 percent of Lynx riders did not use public transportation prior to its completion. On December 11, 2009, Lynx celebrated its 10 millionth passenger trip since its opening in November 2007. For 2009, Lynx saw a decrease in daily ridership from 19,700 to 19,500 passengers per day. As of the fourth quarter of 2012, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has Lynx daily ridership at 14,800, making Lynx the 21st largest light rail system in the United States in terms of ridership."

Conclusion: While the LRT had a positive effect, the increase in ridership is also largely due to the spike in gas prices around 2008. If you research a bit further, you will notice that pretty much every transit agency had a boost in ridership during those years, regardless of whether they had LRT or not.

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By tre (registered) | Posted May 29, 2013 at 13:14:01

The Benefits Case Analysis claims that the benefits (entirely on estimates and assumptions) of the options are: BRT: $313m Full LRT: $852m Phased LRT: $748m

And the costs: BRT: $220m Full LRT: $784m Phased LRT: $655m

For a benefit-cost ratio of: BRT: 1.4 Full LRT: 1.1 Phased LRT: 1.1

Already, there is creative math in play, for if you actually make the calculations yourself, you will get: BRT: 1.423 for a return on investment (ROI) of 42.3% Full LRT: 1.087 for a ROI of 8.7% Phased LRT: 1.142 for a ROI of 14.2%

How can you call the benefit-cost of the two LRT options the same?

With that kind of number manipulation, it's not surprising why it could manage to conclude in favour of the option with the least bang for the buck (even by their own numbers). But let's argue with reason and not rhetoric. Certainly, the full LRT option may dwarf the other options on some non-measurable factors, but that's because it's the most expensive option, and thus providing the most stimulus for the economy and development. Following the same (flawed) logic one could probably conclude that a subway for the B-line corridor is even better, although it will cost way more. What the report should have considered is that for the price of one full LRT we could build three BRTs in the city (with less cost), benefiting three times the area. Compare that with the smaller-scoped LRT option, and you might conclude differently on which option has the greatest impact on economic development, urban revitalization, environmental sustainability and user experience.

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By tre (registered) | Posted May 29, 2013 at 14:02:19

In the Benefits Case Analysis, travel time savings account for over 70% of the "incremental transportation user benefits". I would like to see what their actual calculations are, because the way it's presented the numbers simply don't add up.

From the Benefits Case Analysis: "With the improvement of transit services along the Main Street / King Street corridor in Hamilton, the analysis shows that the investment will generate significant time savings for existing transit users (those that currently travel on buses), new transit users and auto users."

Existing transit users will benefit only if they take the LRT (or BRT). If the transit user is travelling North-South or taking a bus on another corridor, he or she does not get any benefit from the LRT. For transit users that do take the LRT, the benefit is pro-rated based on the length of the trip on the LRT. You get the full benefit (of 8 minutes or whatever stated in the report) only if you travel the route from one terminus to the other. If you are on the LRT for only two stops, the time savings will be small. Also, because the distance between stops will be longer, the walking time for existing transit users may increase. The time savings you get on the LRT may as well be offset by the increased time to walk from/to your source/destination.

New transit users, if they used to travel by cars, will likely have worse commute times than before. Except in heavily congested areas(which Hamilton is not), public transit will always be slower than cars. Public transit is a cheaper alternative to automobile, and the reason people don't use it is because it's slow. The whole point of building transit is to narrow the gap in commute times between driving and taking transit. The smaller the gap, the more people will see public transit as a tolerable alternative to driving. But this gap will never be eliminated, and those who switch from their cars to the LRT or buses will have their commute times lengthened. Did Metrolinx consider the extra commute time as costs?

I was inclined to agree that auto users will benefit from a faster commute due to fewer cars on the road (thanks to other commuters taking the LRT), but then congestion isn't a problem for Hamilton in the place: http://raisethehammer.org/article/1820/c... Plus, the implementation of transit-priority signals will likely disrupt the vehicular traffic on or crossing the corridor. What we might see are more traffic lights installed and more irregular signal cycles which are designed to speed up transit vehicles at the expense of car traffic.

That's why I'm skeptical about the numbers.

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