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:
We have a well-considered light rail transit (LRT) plan that has evolved and been tested through eight years of feasibility studies, public consultation, design work and expert review;
We have a mayor who has staked his political legacy on seeing this project succeed;
We have a Planning and Economic Development team at City Hall that understands the importance of effective land use policy to ensure that the LRT can attract investment in new, high-quality transit-oriented development;
We have a Transportation and Traffic team at City Hall that increasingly understands the value of complete, walkable streets, active transportation, and modal integration to provide a high quality of life;
We have an LRT office that takes public engagement seriously and is repeatedly visiting all 1,095 addresses along the LRT corridor to ensure that people understand the plan and can provide meaningful feedback on issues that are still up for consideration;
We have a provincial government committed to investing in an integrated network of rapid transit and regional express rail across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area;
We have formal approval from the Province, with a specific funding commitment and implementation timeline;
We have a regional transportation authority, Metrolinx, with the mandate and expertise to implement the plan successfully;
We have a political context in which all three major political parties have committed to honouring the funding commitment, no matter who wins the next provincial election; and
We have an amazingly large , broad and diverse coalition of business, environmental, social, community, and service organizations that have formally stated their support for the plan.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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