Special Report: Light Rail

Overcoming Domesticated Ambition

The Public Works Department claims to be undergoing a conceptual shift in what city building means, but it still has a way to go.

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 27, 2007

Last Wednesday, I sat down with Scott Stewart (General Manger), Jillian Stephen (Manager, Strategic Planning - Capital Planning and Implementation Division), Natasha D'Souza (Project Manager, Environmental Planning) and Brian Hollingworth (consultant from IBI Group) from the Public Works Department to talk about rapid transit initiatives in Hamilton.

They deserve credit for reaching out to the alternative media in Hamilton and attempting to make themselves more accessible. RTH appreciates the opportunity to be part of the public policy discussion.

In the past we at RTH have expressed some frustration with the fixation Public Works seems to have on making traffic flow their principal business. The good news is that they seem to 'get' that they don't 'get it'.

They recognize that converting streets to two-way slows traffic and provides a welcoming environment for pedestrians, who then feel comfortable to stroll and patronize local businesses.

As Stewart put it, "We converted James and John to two-way and the sky didnt't fall." He added, "We asked the local business owners how they feel about traffic congestion and they said, 'Yes, please'."

They understand that transit improvements, pedestrianization, two-way conversion, cycling infrastructure and streetscaping are essential for creating vibrant neighbourhoods.

They admit that the city's track record on transit isn't something to be proud of, and agree that there's tremendous potential to grow transit ridership dramatically.

They also recognize that raising fares reduces ridership.

They even acknowledge, significantly, that bus rapid transit (BRT) simply can't compare with light rail transit for attracting new private investment along the transit corridor.

Transit Fare Increase Undermines Goals

Nevertheless, the conceptual shift at Public Works is still a work in progress. They accept the idea that city building entails vibrant streets, pedestrian amenities, and high quality transit. Yet they seem afraid to embrace really bold plans to do this.

Worse, they presented a budget proposal to the 2008 transit budget Committee of the Whole (COW) that recommends a fare increase, even though they know this will almost certainly reduce ridership.

The Councillors at the COW followed the staff recommendation and voted to approve the fare increase, which will go to full Council for final ratification.

Light Rail in the (Distant) Future

As you may know, RTH is involved with a new grassroots organization to promote light rail in Hamilton. I took the opportunity to make a case for light rail with the department that controls the HSR.

They agreed that it's the best long-term option, but still seem to favour B-Line style service improvements and BRT in the short to medium term.

Why is this? I wasn't there long enough to get a full sense of their hesitancy, but Brian Hollingworth, the consultant, noted that his firm has been associated with just about every BRT project in Ontario.

BRT is a consultant's dream: it looks snazzy and promises "higher order" transit but costs less to build than light rail and is more flexible in routing.

Consultants can recommend BRT as a lower cost alternative for cities that are looking to beef up their transit system but afraid to commit to a large, fixed capital project.

BRT also tends to boost ridership somewhat, since it is coupled with dedicated lanes and/or signal priority and upgraded transit stations that improve its speed and convenience compared to conventional bus service.

The Playing Field Has Changed

For years the city had to finance its higher order transit plans using only municipal financing. Under those conditions, BRT made sense as a feasible service improvement on a smaller capital budget.

However, the province has announced $300 million in capital funding for rapid transit in Hamilton, coordinated via the Greater Toronto Transit Authority (GTTA). That changes everything, but it seems the planners are so invested in developing BRT plans that they just can't break out of that mindset.

Furthermore, the province is taking its lead from the city in what it's willing to build. If Hamilton decides it wants to build light rail rather than BRT, the province will likely follow our lead.

Consider Toronto, which unveiled a highly ambitious plan with billions of dollars in new light rail lines. When the Ontario Government announced its MoveOntario 2020 plan to build new rapid transit lines across the GTA+Hamilton, it adopted Toronto's light rail plans almost verbatim.

If Hamilton wants a commitment to pay for light rail, we need to decide that we want light rail. If we persist with modest, domesticated plans for dressed-up buses, that's all we'll get.

Council Needs to Provide Direction

Ultimately, Public Works is constrained in what it can do by the budgets it receives from Council. Now, this is something of a chicken-and-egg problem, because staff tend to ask for what they think Council will approve, and Council tends to make budget decisions based on what staff recommend.

As Don McLean recently argued in an op-ed for the Hamilton Spectator, Council regards transit as a "budgetary pressure", not as an investment opportunity.

The planners at Public Works are deeply concerned about operating costs. Light rail is cheaper to operate per passenger, but because it attracts so many more new passengers than buses or BRT, the total HSR budget would be higher.

In a more rational city government, dramatically improved ridership and lower per passenger operating costs would seem like a desirable outcome, but this is Hamilton, where highways are investments but transit is a subsidy.

This mutual domestication of ambition is why Public Works is recommending a fare increase. It's also why they're planning for BRT, not the far superior LRT, along the McMaster / Eastgate route in their proposal to the GTTA.

Changing the Mindset

The only way we can transform the economics of development is to change people's mindsets. That means a three-pronged approach: convince the public, convince staff, and convince council.

It's clear from the evidence in cities around the world that people will happily choose transit if it's fast, comfortable and convenient. As the fare increase recommendation noted, "92 percent of urban Canadians think public transit makes their community a better, healthier place to live."

There's a huge latent demand in Hamilton for a mode that says, This is a real transportation choice for a real city.

City staff may be willing to propose a light rail plan if they believe Council would support it. They are not opposed to light rail; they just think it's too ambitious for the short-term.

Similarly, City Council may be willing to support real transit improvements if they learn how higher order transit can act as a catalyst for economic development and even pay for itself in new tax revenue.

If we wait for some champion in the city government to take the lead on this, we will wait forever. It's up to regular citizens to organize, reach out to the community, make a strong case for what the Hamilton Spectator editors called "the 21st century solution", and lower the political risk for Council and staff until they're willing to get on board.

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 oxymoron (anonymous) | Posted November 30, 2007 at 10:36:35

You're being too charitable. They may be talking the talk, but it's clear they're not interested in walking the walk. Public Works is still an oxymoron.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 30, 2007 at 18:49:20

oxymoron - that's it exactly. I've never thought of it that way before. That IS what "public" works is.

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By Objective (anonymous) | Posted November 30, 2007 at 19:18:08

Pipe dreams or what?

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By Brian (registered) | Posted December 03, 2007 at 16:11:14

Why does this surprise anyone? Public Works, City Council, the Mayor's Office, Queens' Park - none of these venerable institutions care a whit about bringing RTH into the community. This will not take leadership, but public activism. Those who know of RTH cannot argue against the value it would bring to Hamilton, But why do we think that our elected leadership or esteemed city bureaucracy want to effect real change? It will only happen when the public is convinced it is inevitable, much like the Red Hill Creek Ex-Conservation Way.

In that spirit, of course RTH will happen! It is part of the downtown revitalization plan! Kudos to the Mayor and City Council for proposing such a bold initiative. To those which still grumble, hey, the plan is inevitable, all part of the master lobbying plan of greedy downtown property developers who are scheming to derail city hall’s long range plan of suburbanizing the whole of Hamilton Wentworth. I know everyone is disappointed of the loss of jobs; thousands of hours of work to extend city water mains into north Flamborough and Waterdown, but hey, how can we fight them?

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