Remind Council that the only way to transform Hamilton's transit profile is to invest in rapid transit, but the Ten Year Transit Strategy effectively pushes even the beginning of rapid transit construction out beyond the ten-year horizon.
By Ryan McGreal
Published March 03, 2015
The Ontario Government has budgeted $15 billion for rapid transit investments in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) that are identified in The Big Move, the Regional Transportation Plan. That plan includes two rapid transit lines in Hamilton: an east-west light rail transit (LRT) line between Eastgate Square and McMaster and listed in the next wave of priority projects, followed by a north-south line between the waterfront and Hamilton Airport.
Since 2007, the Province has been saying they are committed to funding the capital costs for rapid transit in Hamilton. As recently as this past January 26, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne reiterated the Province's commitment to 100 percent capital funding for Hamilton's rapid transit plan.
The City of Hamilton's official position for the past two years has been Rapid Ready: an $811 million plan to build the east-west LRT line and start preliminary work on the north-south line. The plan has been in development since 2008 and includes a class Environmental Assessment, 30 percent engineering and detailed design (ready to start tendering construction bids), a land use study for the area around the line, and the engagement of thousands of Hamiltonians.
The Strategy started out as a Council request for a plan to start making local investments in growing local transit service, funded mainly from the local tax levy and transit fares.
Somehow, it has mutated into a $302 million project to build a city-wide express bus network, of which two-thirds of the capital, or $200 million, is going into a new bus storage and maintenance facility.
Most of the new capital dollars are expected to come from the Province, and most of the new operating dollars are expected to come from the fare box, despite the fact that the Strategy explicitly states that the cost should be shared jointly between riders and taxpayers.
During the first two years, the Strategy calls for an extra $15.6 million in capital for 25 new buses, with $6.9 million coming from Metrolinx. For the $6 million operating cost of those 25 buses, $5.7 million would come from dramatic fare increases and only $300,000 would come from new levy costs.
The new storage facility - I'm tempted to call it a "bus mansion" - is particularly surprising, considering that it was originally estimated to cost around $25 million. The identified site for consideration is 330 Wentworth Street North, which was also the staff recommendation to build the LRT storage and maintenance facility.
The Strategy acknowledges that the City will not be able to achieve its ten-year goal of 80-100 transit rides per year without rapid transit:
Even with a fully implemented express bus network, only approximately 50 rides per capita by 2024 will be achieved. In order to approach 80-100 rides per capita, higher order transit will be needed.
Hamilton currently has 45 annual rides per capita, which is down from 48 rides per capita in 2006. In other words, the Strategy is effectively a plan to stop per capita ridership from declining, rather than a plan to grow per capita ridership significantly.
The only way to transform Hamilton's transit profile is to invest in rapid transit, but the Strategy effectively pushes even the beginning of rapid transit construction out beyond the ten-year horizon.
The Strategy claims Hamilton will not be ready for LRT until we have a city-wide network of express bus routes, but Rapid Ready notes that given current ridership on the B-Line, LRT would be in the mid-range of successful North American cities on opening day and one of the top performers by 2031:
The Region of Waterloo has aggressively grown its transit ridership since 2000 and has only just reached the same ridership as Hamilton - the level Waterloo wanted to reach in order to be ready for its LRT to launch in 2017.
The purpose of the Metrolinx regional fund is to invest in rapid transit in the GTHA. LRT is a big, transformative investment that local governments simply cannot be expected to afford.
The Province has been telling Hamilton since 2007 that they are prepared to cover 100 percent of the capital cost for rapid transit in Hamilton - indeed, that is the mandate the Province gave itself when it established Metrolinx.
But City of Hamilton staff are now recommending that we defer our request for that rapid transit investment and ask for provincial funding for local bus transit instead.
They are recommending that we set aside our request for $811 million for rapid transit and instead submit a request for $302 million for local transit - again, of which fully two-thirds of the money is for a maintenance facility.
Make no mistake: this is a highly political document, crafted behind closed doors by senior management to be both an easy sell for a Council that has collectively forgotten its vision to transform this city, and an easy buy for a Province that would much rather cut a cheque for $302 million than $811 million.
The price for that easy sell is that it effectively gives our rapid transit money to another municipality.
Once the Province agrees to this $302 million request, that will be it for the $15 billion rapid transit fund. LRT delayed will be LRT denied.
The Province has been extremely coy about how much it will fund and when the money will become available. That has led to an epidemic of "reading the tea leaves" among Hamilton politicians and bureaucrats, and the whisper is that the Province won't give us the money.
But here's the thing about tasseography: it is magical thinking, a bogus method of predicting an uncertain future through ritualistic guesswork.
Maybe the pessimists are right and the Province won't keep their promise. But if that's going to happen anyway, why on earth would we cover for them? Let the Province make that decision and let them wear it, good or bad.
The fact that senior management is recommending abandoning LRT under the guise of preparing for LRT raises serious questions. Why are we not demanding our fair allocation of rapid transit funding?
The GTHA has 6 million people, so Hamilton's proportion of the $15 billion Metrolinx envelope is $1.35 billion. By accepting just $302 million over the next ten years, we would be leaving a billion dollars in necessary rapid transit investment on the table.
In a February 6 op-ed, Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Waterdown MPP Ted McMeekin wrote:
We have been very clear that we remain committed to fully funding the capital costs of a Hamilton rapid transit project, in whatever form the community decides on. [emphasis added]
He closed with the following:
During the municipal election, Mayor Fred Eisenberger campaigned on a promise to engage citizens in Hamilton on transit options for the city. I look forward to seeing that process unfold.
If Council votes to accept this $300 million capital plan without allowing Mayor Eisenberger's Citizens Forum process to play out, it will undermine the Mayor and betray the voters' mandate on which he was elected.
Given that our Councillors couldn't bring themselves to vote for a minor alteration to the bus lane without running the decision through the two-year Transportation Master Plan review, it would be extremely out of character for them to approve an out-of-nowhere $302 million capital request without a due process of community consultation and review.
Please, contact City Council and tell them to wait for the Citizens Forum process to play out before voting to lock Hamilton into a capital request that shuts the door on LRT.
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