Light Rail

Light Rail: Meeting the Next Challenge

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 24, 2008

If you haven't swung by the Spectator yet today, you need to check out the voluminous coverage they give to Metrolinx releasing their draft Regional Transportation Plan, titled The Big Move:

Columnists Terry Cooke and Andrew Dreschel (!) get in the act, too:

The articles note that while Metrolinx has left the door open to light rail in Hamilton, they have not committed to it. McIsaac explains:

We need to show that the technology and service we're recommending on any given line is providing value for money for the taxpayers' dollars. So, we are leaving open the door to LRT in Hamilton, but we're not saying it's a certainty until we do the detailed analysis.

It's not just about cost, it's about benefits. We will consider the environmental, social, and economic benefits of what's being proposed.

The editorial endorses light rail, writing, "One would hope and expect [the east-west rapid transit line] would be some kind of light rail system".

Both Cooke and Dreschel endorse light rail as well. Cooke writes:

LRT is a modern, efficient and reliable way to move large numbers of people quickly. It will also inevitably attract investment, create jobs and increase property values throughout the city.

It may even succeed in changing a well-earned local political reputation for endless partisan gridlock and the inability to get big things done.

Dreschel focuses more on what he calls "sex and snob appeal", though he is similarly positive:

Anecdote after anecdote suggests that hopping onto electrically powered street trains is generally regarded as more urbane and sophisticated than clambering onto buses.

Although this high-nosed perception is hard to quantify as a factor in light rail's popularity, studies routinely show that rail does take the lead when it comes to growing ridership on public transit.

It's not only seen as more modern, stylish, spacious and enviro-friendly than bus travel, it's generally regarded as a safe, reliable and comfortable alternative to the passenger car.

Opting for a light rail over an express bus service would certainly be a big, bold and costly step.

But it would elevate this city's image and transform its inner transportation patterns like nothing else short of a subway system.

It's truly encouraging to see so much attention being given to an initiative that felt like a hopelessly remote pipe dream less than a year ago.

LRT goes Mainstream

With such a broad cross-section of support, I think it's safe to say that light rail has gone mainstream in Hamilton.

The mayor strongly supports it. Most of council seems to support it (even Councillor Lloyd Ferguson, who joined the staff tour of light rail systems in Charlotte, Portland and Calgary, has made supportive noises since his return). Public Works staff from the General Manager on down are enthusiastic about it.

Federal MP David Sweet supports it. Provincial MPPs Sophia Aggelonitis, Andrea Horwath and Ted McMeekin support it.

The Chamber of Commerce, Realtors Association, Downtown Hamilton BIA, International Village BIA and several neighbourhood associations have formally endorsed it.

Large majorities of citizens from across the city prefer it out of an unprecedented 1,600+ responses to an aggressive public consultation over the summer.

However, it's still far from guaranteed.

Metrolinx Criteria

Metrolinx has announced that they need further study before they're ready to decide what rapid transit system Hamilton needs. In particular, they are looking at the following:
  1. Analysis on Hamilton's rapid transit needs from a set of demographic, economic, land use and demand criteria.
  2. Assessment of public support for light rail or bus rapid transit.
  3. Assessment of political support (staff and council).

1. Criteria

It's not yet clear what criteria Metrolinx plans to use, but at the very least, the east-west line looks like a shoo-in. Demand for the existing B-Line is already very strong, and Metrolinx has identified this as one of its top 15 priorities for the first 15 years of the Plan.

In addition, the population density around the line is high, the potential for economic development is considerable, and Metrolinx has identified downtown Hamilton as an area of high social need.

Light rail on the B-Line is more consistent with the Metrolinx commitment to "dramatic" as opposed to "incremental" change and has considerable potential to integrate closely with the regional transit network.

2. Public Support

Public support for light rail is very strong: 66 percent of over 1,600 respondents support light rail in particular, with another 20 percent supporting either LRT or BRT and only eight percent supporting BRT over LRT.

Even the number of respondents is absolutely tremendous. It's basically unheard-of for city staff to receive anywhere near this kind of response to public consultation requests - especially when people are being asked to comment on something they like.

Council was very impressed with the interim staff report they received on the public feedback, and Metrolinx must consider this in its analysis.

Another important measure of public support will be the feedback Metrolinx receives from their own call for public consultation once they begin studying rapid transit in Hamilton more closely.

RTH has contacted Metrolinx to inquire how residents can get more involved in this public consultation. We will report their response when we receive it.

3. Political Support

It's encouraging that staff and council (not to mention the local media plus business and community groups) seem to be on board with light rail in Hamilton. However, one potential area of concern is the city's commitment to transit in general.

If Hamilton is serious about higher order transit, we need to demonstrate that we are willing to invest our own money into making our transit system work better.

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 gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted September 24, 2008 at 17:19:07

It's interesting that in BC, the savvy riders prefer the B-Line buses to the SkyTrain (light rail). The SkyTrain stations have become magnets for crime and are less comfortable to ride in.

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By ventrems (registered) | Posted September 24, 2008 at 21:53:22

the B-lines service the east-west route to UBC (much like in Hamilton with McMaster), as well as a north-south route along Granville. These are by far busier routes than the areas the Skytrain services.

Most Vancouverites would welcome an LRT system in place of the B-lines.

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2008 at 20:44:18

Agreed, ventrems. The B-line is currently popular because it takes people where they want to go along Broadway and to UBC. A subway or dedicated LRT would be a magnet for the "savvy" bunch who have to commute from anywhere east of Granville.

Related to the above article, I can't help but wonder if not planning to run the LRT more centrally through Mac, not connecting Westdale with downtown, and having nothing in the way of firm re-development and densifying proposals for the Main corridor will imperil Hamilton's chances at obtaining LRT funding.

The Metrolinx chair did, after all, say something about providing value for tax dollars - something the current rapid transit configuration, with underused, articulated buses, does not seem to quite measure up to.

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