Special Report: Light Rail

The Little Engine that Must

It is precisely the transformative potential of LRT to change how this city grows and develops over the next 50 years that has the staunchest guardians of the status quo running scared.

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 15, 2016

After literally half a century of false starts and fumbled opportunities, the City of Hamilton is closer to achieving a real rapid transit system than it has ever been. All of the necessary pieces are now in place:

The City and Metrolinx have signed a Memorandum of Agreement that commits the City to implementing land use and transportation policies that support LRT success, as well as streamlining and expediting any necessary approvals so the project can move forward quickly.

City and Metrolinx staff are already working hard on completing the design work that is necessary before the Province can put out a Request for Proposals in order for consortia to bid on the project.

Not all good news

This should be a breathtakingly good-news story, and for the most part, it is - except that a few Hamilton City Councillors have recently decided to try to build a cottage industry out of confusing, undermining, delaying, and ultimately derailing this transformative project.

One of their tactics has been to keep revisiting design decisions that have already been made and validated.

Why not BRT?

The first objection is to claim that we should be looking at bus rapid transit (BRT) instead of LRT. BRT is a rapid transit system using articulated (high capacity) buses running on dedicated lanes. Passengers get on and off at stations rather than bus stops, so they can prepay and board more quickly.

The City and the Province both studied BRT in their feasibility and benefits case studies, and concluded that LRT provides a bigger overall benefit. BRT is cheaper to build than LRT, since it does not require tracks laid into the street, but it is more expensive to operate - mainly because the biggest operating cost is paying drivers, and each LRT vehicle can carry many more passengers than each bus.

Compared to LRT, BRT also attracts less investment in new transit-oriented development and entices fewer new transit passengers.

For LRT opponents who object to lanes being "taken away" from automobiles, BRT also runs on dedicated lanes (and indeed, the roadbed needs to be rebuilt and the road paved in concrete to handle the weight of high-volume articulated buses) and has the same impact on vehicle traffic, while delivering less overall benefit.

Location, location

Another objection has been to ask why LRT runs along King Street between Dundurn and the Delta, rather than along Main Street. Staff and the transportation consultant considered both options, but King Street was preferred.

Main is only 600 metres north of the Escarpment for a significant stretch through the central lower city. That means the potential for new transit-oriented development is significantly reduced along that section of the transit corridor. Putting the route on King means a higher potential for new development and land use uplift.

At the same time, if LRT goes on Main, the narrowing of King Street through the International Village means it cannot serve as an arterial for automobile traffic.

But aside from the International Village, King and Main are actually the same right- of-way width. (I was surprised to learn this.) It doesn't look that way because Main has five narrow lanes and extremely narrow sidewalks, whereas King has 3-4 lanes and much wider sidewalks.

Have no doubt: if LRT was going on Main Street instead of King, the opponents would be arguing that it should have gone on King Street.

Moving in the same direction

The next objection is to argue that the first LRT system should go on the north-south A-Line (or some other route) rather than the east-west B-Line. But those routes don't have the key advantages the B-Line has.

LRT is most successful when it operates on a line that already has strong transit ridership, so it makes the most sense to start Hamilton's rapid transit system here. The B-Line route is already Hamilton's busiest transit corridor, carrying over 40 percent of all the city's bus passenger trips. Despite attempts to address service deficiencies, the current system is still over capacity with crammed buses and frequent "pass-bys."

According to a calculation by Chris Higgins, a postdoctoral fellow at the McMaster Institute for Transportation and Logistics, Hamilton's LRT route would have the sixth-highest rapid transit ridership in North America on a passengers-per-kilometre basis - on opening day!

Just as important, this corridor also has a very high proportion of unused and under-used properties along the corridor that can be redeveloped. That means it has a high potential for new investment and value uplift.

Thinking long-term

It's important to remember that the City has a long-term plan to build a network of five rapid transit lines spanning the entire city. The current plan being implemented is only the first phase.

Those councilors noisily questioning whether we should be building rapid transit somewhere else would do their constituents a better service by working on building up ridership along the other rapid transit corridors, starting with the north-south A-Line, so that we will be ready to expand our network in the next phase.

Ultimately, these and other anti-LRT objections are not really about coming up with a "better" plan. No councilor who voted against the transit-only lane can credibly claim they would support our LRT plan if it was actually a BRT plan!

What they are really trying to do is stall and delay any kind of rapid transit implementation for as long as possible. They're not afraid LRT will be a failure, they're afraid it will be a success. It is precisely the transformative potential of LRT to change how this city grows and develops over the next 50 years that has the staunchest guardians of the status quo running scared.

We can't let fear govern us any longer. If we can sustain the courage, vision, and commitment to progress that brought the LRT project this far against the odds, we can once again lay claim to our once-proud nickname: The Ambitious City.

This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of Urbanicity Magazine.

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 Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted August 16, 2016 at 08:27:55

You've managed to sidestep the real issues people are having with LRT.

1. The *cost* and the failure of Metrolinx to reveal its "Scope Ladder" which will determine which stops are eliminated in the event of cost overruns (which are inevitable since LRTs already cost $110 million per km of track putting Hamilton's LRT $210 million over budget before we even break ground. Even if you disagree with this you must agree that the Scope Ladder must be made public before the project is started. This is a public project and must be transparent.)

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/metrolinx-will-trim-hamilton-lrt-project-before-it-goes-over-budget-1.3240881

2. The moral obligation to reject funding from a province $300 billion in debt
3. The fact that stops are nearly 1km apart in some instances (and may be pushed further apart once cost overruns are included.)
4. The fact that the HSR will be losing its most profitable route and handing it to Metrolinx with no plan to recoup lost fares except "We will redeploy buses to the Mountain." To which I say if you can add buses to an underserved Mountain and make money why not do it *now?*
5. Metrolinx has already been shown to be incompetent on numerous occasions. The Toronto Transit Union is calling for a full investigation of Metrolinx:

http://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/toronto-transit-union-president-calls- for-independent-public-enquiry-into-metrolinx-570087521.html

6. The fact that we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift in public transit; by the time the ribbon is cut on LRT autonomous vehicles will be navigating public roads. I'm not claiming all vehicles will be self-driving but now is not the time to invest in trains.
7. The fact that LRT will never be able to access the Mountain. Hamilton's unique geography precludes rail. You'll always need bus links to get up the escarpment unless you plan on bringing back the Incline Railway which would still require a switch over from one system to the next.
8. The fact that City Council has a record of making the wrong decision ("After 50 years of false starts..."). What are the odds that Council has finally hit upon the correct course of action this time? I've lived in this city my entire life and Council has done nothing but hinder development. They destroyed the downtown with their aggressive rezoning of the Mountain. The only reason downtown is coming back now is because Toronto rents are out of reach for most millennials. It has nothing to do with anything City Hall has done.
9. Uncertainties about the effect on cycling infrastructure along the King St corridor. If the bike lanes between Dundurn and Mac are removed to accommodate LRT then what is the alternative for cyclists travelling west? Aberdeen to Longwood to Main? That's quite an ask for those commuting by bicycle to Westdale.

Overall, I'd rather see an investment in further cycling infrastructure and simple electric buses (not a BRT system with dedicated lanes.)

Hamilton isn't at the point where we need to reinvent the wheel yet. We have a system that tends to be congested along a single route between September and April due to Mac students. That's it. That's the only issue. Why build a billion dollar train to remedy that? Surely, there's a more cost effective and flexible solution? Electric buses can be run on any route, go up the Mountain, can bypass stops, can change stops and routes on the fly (due to road construction, passenger request, passenger safety), can take bicycles on front racks, are non-polluting, can be replaced quickly in case of breakdown, can be run by the HSR, can employ Hamiltonians (Unlike Ryan I like to see people with good paying jobs: "mainly because the biggest operating cost is paying drivers..." Pro-tip: staffing costs are the most expensive part of *any* business Ryan. Your capitalism is showing.)

Finally, what is this about courage, vision, and commitment? The whole story is that the province dangled a billion dollars in front of City Hall and council jumped. Let's get real here. That's the bottom line. There's no vision or courage or anything else. This is about money. Cold hard cash for a city that's been an underdog for decades. We want our piece of the pie. It's sad really. If only we could spend it to fix our existing infrastructure instead of building new infrastructure. Wouldn't that make a lot more sense?

Comment edited by JimC on 2016-08-16 08:31:39

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2016 at 14:45:38 in reply to Comment 119799

LRTs already cost $110 million per km of track

You've cited the high-end cost, not the average cost. Waterloo Region's ION LRT has a capital cost of $818 million for a 19 km line with 19 stations, for a cost of $43 million per km of track.

The moral obligation to reject funding from a province $300 billion in debt

The Province is committed to investing this money in rapid transit. If we turn it down, Hamiltonians will still have to contribute through provincial taxes but the money will be invested in another city.

In any case, interest rates are at historic lows - and overwhelmingly likely to remain low for many years to come - so it has never been cheaper for governments to borrow in order to make transformative public investments.

stops are nearly 1km apart in some instances

Rapid transit generally has a longer distance between stops than local bus service. The longer distance allows the service to be more rapid and high-capacity.

There are a couple of places where I would like to see additional stations; as far as I understand, staff are exploring these options.

the HSR will be losing its most profitable route and handing it to Metrolinx with no plan to recoup lost fares

The revenue and cost sharing arrangement with Metrolinx is still being negotiated.

Metrolinx has already been shown to be incompetent on numerous occasions.

Most Metrolinx projects are completed on time and on budget. They are not perfect, and every organization can benefit from effective oversight, but having to adjust the ticket price for UPX is not an extraordinary event or evidence the organization is incompetent.

autonomous vehicles will be navigating public roads

Autonomous vehicles will most likely change how people choose to get around, but not in such a way that they render public transit irrelevant. If anything, it will accelerate the shift away from universal private vehicle ownershp and toward a basket of transportation services that includes walking, cycling, transit, ridesharing, carsharing, self-driving taxis, and so on.

Whether a car is self-driving or not, it still takes up a lot of scarce right-of-way on a public road. The only way Hamilton can significantly grow the number of people and jobs across the lower city without creating serious congestion is by investing now in high-capacity rapid transit.

LRT will never be able to access the Mountain

That's just not true (see kevlahan's comment), but in any case is strictly irrelevant when we're talking about the phase one LRT, which does not need to access the mountain. When it comes time to build out the north-south A-Line, there will be a number of technology and route options to consider how best to navigate the escarpment.

What are the odds that Council has finally hit upon the correct course of action this time?

The plan has been developed over many years with broad participation and has been reviewed by the Province and independent academic researchers. It is abundantly a good, workable plan that has excellent prospects for success. It is extremely cynical to argue we should fail to complete this rapid transit plan because Council has a history of failing to complete rapid transit plans!

Uncertainties about the effect on cycling infrastructure along the King St corridor.

You do not cancel a billion dollar project because details like the location of bike lanes have not yet been worked out, eight years before the line is to be completed!

As one friend of mine put it, this is like rejecting a bathroom renovation right at the start because it has not yet been confirmed where the toothbrush holder will end up going. We have to have a bit of trust that these issues will be worked out collaboratively through the rest of the design and implementation phase - a phase that, again, will happen over the next eight years.

Hamilton isn't at the point where we need to reinvent the wheel yet.

LRT is hardly "reinvent[ing] the wheel" - over 400 mid-sized cities around the world have working LRT systems, and the overwhelming majority have been highly successful at carrying transit riders as well as attracting and shaping land use to make more effective use of existing infrastructure and generate urban growth and development.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2016-08-16 14:46:55

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 16, 2016 at 11:56:57 in reply to Comment 119799

LRT has no problem at all going up the Claremont access (it can handle grades of up to about 9%, much steeper than the 6% of Claremont).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh...

http://www.apta.com/resources/standards/...

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By glend1967 (registered) | Posted August 16, 2016 at 09:05:35

Jim..the autonomous car argument is B.S...it only replaces the driver..not the car..What does that do for conjestion..And they are at least twenty yrs away. And you have absolutely no vision for the future..

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By glend1967 (registered) | Posted August 16, 2016 at 09:06:58

And all the infrastructure along the route is being replaced..Did you miss that part?

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By stone (registered) | Posted August 16, 2016 at 09:12:57

You are right about council though, the Rural/Urban fight has been going on for years usually to the detriment of everyone.

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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2016 at 09:40:35

The B Line LRT is the decided route and work on it continues. The actions of the noNO-Yes-LRT crowd is an insurgency pushing to derail fair process with the repetition of fabrication.

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted August 16, 2016 at 10:40:33

At the same time, if LRT goes on Main, the narrowing of King Street through the International Village means it cannot serve as an arterial for automobile traffic.

You mean International Village would become somewhere to GO TO rather than somewhere to drive THROUGH? Such a notion would result in many blank expressions.

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted August 17, 2016 at 09:00:14

The estimation by the US Department of Transport is that, as long as ownership levels stay the same, fully autonomous vehicles will add at the least 20-25% percent to the amount of total miles driven by all cars. This is because people will send the cars back home to pick up other family members once they are done with it. This will add to congestion.

The president of Toyota warned everyone that the cost of cars will explode in the next few decades because of the combination of driverless technology and the adoption of non fossil fueled engines. The technology for both are far from fully developed and are all very expensive which he said, will significantly drive up the cost of building cars. Regardless if they sell more of them to try and lower costs through economy of scale, the technology is still 15 years away at best. 30 years if you want it to be affordable.

Since both comments seem to suggest opposite directions for car ownership what you come away with is that, no one really knows yet what the technology will bring. Big changes yes, wipe out the need for higher order public transit, hardly. Both statements assume that future generations will have the same desire for car ownership at anywhere near the same level of today, which thanks to our current generations of younger adults seems to already be challenging that assumption.

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