These days it's as if no one at City Hall even cares whether the City's already-approved LRT project goes ahead.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 10, 2014
For years we have been arguing that Hamilton needs a political champion to explain, defend, promote and advocate for the City's light rail transit (LRT) plan. This call is supported by a 2012 McMaster Institute of Transportation and Logistics (MITL) study on LRT in North American cities, which found:
A political champion can help to realize success by marshaling resources, building coalitions, and resolving disputes. Coordinating institutions, streamlining processes, and minimizing red tape are seen as crucial in implementing TOD projects and are dependent on strong political leadership.
For more than three years, we have suffered a vacuum of that political championship in Hamilton. Mayor Bob Bratina campaigned in support of LRT in the 2010 election, but since becoming mayor he has not merely failed to follow up on this campaign promise, but worked actively to confuse and undermine the case for LRT.
In several key votes over the past six years, Council has voted unanimously or overwhelmingly to support Hamilton's LRT plan, from the first vote to establish a Rapid Transit office and conduct a feasibility study on LRT through the planning, engineering and design process for the system itself to last year's final vote to submit the City's LRT plan to the Province.
Yet despite this steady, ongoing Council support, the City has been strangely silent in the ongoing public discussion over LRT. The City's LRT planning started with an unprecedented public engagement campaign that directly contacted 1,600 Hamiltonians from across the city and found very strong support for LRT, but these days it's as if no one at City Hall even cares whether the project goes ahead.
Aside from a single update on May 17, 2013 to report that the City submitted its LRT plan to Metrolinx, the city's Rapid Transit website has been stagnant for over two years.
The problem with this failure to communicate and engage is that there is no one to answer questions or address objections. As a result, a steady trickle of letters and opinion pieces pieces goes unanswered, leading to the impression that the objections raised are legitimate reasons not to proceed.
The latest is a long letter published in this month's issue of Urbanicity arguing against LRT. The author makes several arguments based on straight-up misinformation that would be easily addressed by someone at City Hall who cared what people think.
We're certainly trying to do our part as engaged citizens to address these concerns, but the LRT is an official city plan, not just some idea cooked up by a few activists, and we shouldn't be the only people helping Hamiltonians to understand the facts.
But onto the opinion piece in Urbanicity, since we're not holding our breath for anyone at the City to speak up and defend their plan.
First, author Susan J. Creer references an April 2013 Spectator op-ed by Ron Johnson titled "The Billion-Dollar Long Shot". I've already undertaken a point-by-point rebuttal of that piece; in any case, Creer writes that she hasn't checked Johnson's numbers but agrees with his conclusion that we can't afford LRT.
For the record, the Province has consistently said they will pay the capital costs, and that analysis of other systems demonstrates that LRT actually has significantly lower per-passenger operating costs than buses.
Next, Creer quotes from an unidentified City report that operating LRT in mixed traffic "is highly undesirable as it introduces delays which are amplified as the operation progresses and increases passenger waiting times."
This would be a good time for someone from the City to step in and point out that Hamilton's LRT line has been designed to run in dedicated lanes with traffic signal priority, so the objection is moot.
Then Creer asserts, "not everyone wants to live downtown." I've written more about the "not everyone wants to live downtown" trope here, but ridership on the planned LRT route is already around 13,000 trips a day, which would put Hamilton in the middle of the pack for North American LRT systems on its opening day.
Creer then makes a confusing argument: she notes that downtown Hamilton is currently an undesirable place to live with low rents - "I lived downtown for three years and disliked it intensely" - and that the LRT would encourage new development that would make downtown more attractive, but that this would raise the cost of living downtown for the working poor.
Let's get something straight: deliberately keeping downtown Hamilton undesirable so rents stay cheap is not a viable affordable housing strategy.
In any case, the research indicates that LRT will actually help low-income households by improving access to jobs, increasing the sense of attachment to a neighbourhood and improving public health.
Meanwhile, the new development spurred by LRT brings in tens of millions of additional dollars in annual tax revenue to the municipality, giving it more flexibility to ensure that affordable housing strategies are put in place so no one is left behind.
Creer then argues that the LRT is not inclusive because it won't directly serve Binbrook, Waterdown and Greensville, which currently have minimal HSR service. Part of the problem is that those communities are small, isolated and low-density, so a high level of transit service just doesn't make a lot of economic or operational sense.
Running the transit system is a tricky balance between ensuring equitable access for all residents and meeting demand in areas with high levels of ridership - like the B-Line, which is persistently over-capacity and experiences daily "pass-bys" as over-stuffed buses fail to stop for people waiting to board.
The LRT will provide a significant boost in ridership capacity along the corridor with the highest demand while freeing up resources - including articulated buses - to improve service in the rest of the city.
After acknowledging that the LRT will attract new economic development that raises property values along the transit corridor, Creer then suggests that the LRT won't attract new development after all, citing the Lincoln Alexander Parkway (Linc) that runs east-west across the Mountain.
In fact, the Linc and the connecting Red Hill Valley Parkway have been responsible for considerable new development on the south mountain, nearly all of it use-separated, low-density, automobile-dependent suburban sprawl.
Hamilton simply cannot afford to service the lifecycle costs of all the suburban municipal infrastructure it needs to maintain without doing a much better job of leveraging our existing urban infrastructure more productively to incubate new businesses and create more jobs.
Ironically, Creer cites Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, who encouraged Hamilton to curb the growth of its suburban sprawl in a keynote speech she gave last December at a Hamilton Chamber of Commerce event.
Keesmaat's closing advice for Hamilton was: "Go after light rail transit. It's a total game changer."
Next, Creer suggests that building LRT and converting more streets to two-way could result in slower response times for Emergency Services (EMS). However, since the LRT will run on dedicated lanes, it will not get in the way of ambulances or fire trucks trying to reach a destination.
Indeed, if EMS vehicles have access to the dedicated lanes as is the case in other cities, it would provide them with an additional route through busy city streets.
As for two-way conversion, the City looked at EMS times after James and John were converted to two-way, and concluded that it was a wash: the slightly slower average vehicle speeds were offset by the fact that vehicles could approach their destination from either direction and had to do less circling around the block.
A couple of months ago, while walking on James Street North near Cannon Street, I observed an EMS responder dealing with the fact that James is now two-way. With siren blaring, the northbound ambulance pulled into the oncoming lane, quickly passed the cars stopped at Cannon, went through the intersection and continued to its destination.
When James was one-way southbound, the ambulance would have had to go a block out of its way to a northbound street, pass its destination and then double back.
Creer then argues that LRT should not be implemented until after the city replaces all of its remaining buses that don't have accessible low floors. Again, since LRT will replace the accessible buses (including articulated buses) currently running on the B-Line, it will actually accelerate the replacement of any non-accessible buses remaining on other routes.
The LRT vehicles themselves are entirely low-floor accessible as a standard design.
Creer also argues that the City should clear sidewalks around transit stops during winter weather. Well, yes, and that is the City's policy today. That is strictly irrelevant to the question of whether to support LRT.
Then Creer claims that the LRT will not connect to any other transit hubs. Again, this is incorrect. McMaster University is a transit hub with connections to GO Transit, Coach Canada, Greyhound and Scarborough Transit. MacNab Terminal is the main transit hub in Hamilton. Eastgate Square is also a dedicated east-end hub serving several HSR routes. GO, Coach, Greyhound and other connections are available at various locations along th B-Line.
The second phase of Hamilton's rapid transit plan, the north-south A-Line, will intersect the B-Line and connect the Hunter Street GO Station and the planned James North GO Station.
This many years into the process of designing and building our LRT system, the basic facts of the LRT should be broad public knowledge by now. The failure of our political leaders and staff to communicate and engage the public on an ongoing basis imperils the plan by leaving it exposed to misinformation and confusion, and by leaving the sense that no one in power knows or cares to set the record straight.
The LRT is a billion-dollar investment in Hamilton's economic development that we cannot afford to screw up. However, our messaging on LRT is so confused that even Premier Kathleen Wynne, who has staked her political career on her commitment to higher-order transit, does not know Hamilton's position.
This is outrageous and entirely avoidable. The arguments for LRT have already been made, the evidence has already been collected, and the question - *is LRT worth it?* - has already been answered conclusively. For crying out loud, Council has already approved and submitted our plan to the Province.
All we need is for a political leader to stand behind the work that has already been done and continue the unfinished job of explaining to Hamiltonians why LRT is the right plan for the city's future.
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