The problem is not that Council and staff do not know this stuff. In the absence of leadership, Council and staff have lost the courage of their convictions.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 09, 2014
this article has been updated
At this past Wednesday's General Issues Committee meeting, roads engineer Ted Gill made a presentation arguing that the city abandoned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) prematurely in its rapid transit planning along the east-west B-Line and north-south A-Line transit corridors.
Thanks to Joey Coleman's livestream, you can watch the presentation and discussion in full:
Ted Gill was senior director of roads for the Region of Hamilton-Wentworth from 1990 to 2000. In 2005, Gill started working as a project manager for McCormick Rankin, a Mississauga-based transportation engineering company that specialized in highway design and bus rapid transit. (In 2008, McCormick Rankin merged with MMM Group and the MRC brand was dropped in 2013.) Since 2011, he has been working part-time as Ted Gill Consulting.
In his report to committee [PDF], Gill reviews the 2008 Rapid Transit Feasibility Report and concludes that the City made the right decision in 2008, but "the economic, political, and technical climates have changed since 2008."
The good news is that Gill recognizes that rapid transit is essential. He opens his report with, "Make no mistake - Hamilton needs to get on with implementing rapid transit". During his presentation, he made it clear that the B-Line should be the city's first priority.
Citing 2012 studies by McMaster Centre for Engineering and Public Policy and McMaster Institute for Transportation and Logistics, Gill notes that using LRT technology by itself does not guarantee success. However, the City's own studies clearly acknowledge this, which is why a parallel land use study and secondary plan development for the B-Line was undertaken at the same time as the LRT planning.
I strongly believe that LRT may not necessarily result in greater economic benefit than BRT in Hamilton, all other things being equal ... [sic] station locations, dedicated lanes, traffic signal priority for RT vehicles, high-quality urban design and streetscaping, modern efficient vehicles, and a proof-of-payment fare system. Furthermore, it would be possible to implement a BRT system that could be converted to LRT in future, if conditions warrant, as is happening in York Region's new VIVA system."
Of course, building BRT for future conversion to LRT is by far the most expensive and most disruptive way to build a rapid transit system, because it means paying to build a BRT system and then paying again to convert it to an LRT system. It also creates a situation in which it becomes necessary to disrupt a working BRT system in order to do the conversion work on LRT, after already having disrupted the street to build the BRT system.
Of course, Gill's principal claim is that BRT is just as effective as LRT so there would be no need to convert it later. He describes BRT as "an interim and/or permanent RT technology" but the obvious implication is that BRT is fine as a permanent solution.
Gill argues that BRT should be re-evaluated in light of the recent increased prevalence of diesel-electric hybrid, battery-electric and alternate-fuels buses, including hydrogen fuel cell. "To be clear - BRT technology is evolving!"
While these offer improvements over conventional buses for emissions, they still pollute far more and generate more greenhouse gas emissions than grid-connected LRT vehicles. In Ontario, more than three quarters of our electricity is generated in nuclear (56%) and hydroelectric (22.3%) power plants. Only 2.7% of our electricity comes from coal.
Despite the recent headlines about rising electricity costs, fuel is still far more expensive than electricity, and prices are more volatile. Likewise, battery-electric buses still have limited operating range due to the current state of battery technology.
At the same time, LRT technology is also evolving. Many people who oppose LRT tend to think of it in terms of old-fashioned trolleys, but modern LRT systems are as state-of-the-art as modern buses or, indeed, modern automobiles. No would would argue against buying a car by claiming that the Model T was clunky.
Gill argues that BRT requires less new infrastructure - like electric substations and catenary wires - and saves the need to "remove, repair or replace all underground infrastructure located 1.5m - 3m below and beside LRT rails prior to implementation."
However, much of that infrastructure is due to be replaced anyway so it would be a savings to do it in concert with installing the tracks. In addition, a dedicated BRT line requires a new roadbed and concrete surfacing to handle the impact of the high volume and axle weight of all those buses.
Further, the primary disruption of a rapid transit system - building the dedicated, physically separated transit lanes, constructing stations for level boarding and so on - are equivalent for both BRT and LRT.
Many people who favour BRT (I don't think Gill is one of them) do so because they mistakenly think BRT is just a glorified express bus. When they find out how disruptive it will be to build a proper BRT system, they will oppose it just as strongly as they currently oppose LRT.
Ultimately, Gill's report fails to make a case that BRT will be as successful as LRT at attracting new ridership and leveraging new private investment. At best he provides hand-wavy skepticism about the conclusion from Hamilton's rapid transit feasibility study that: "It is generally accepted that LRT has a greater impact on investment decisions and economic growth than BRT."
However, the evidence from dozens of cities that have build rapid transit systems bears this claim out.
The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a transit advocacy group that promotes BRT in cities that are skeptical about investing in rapid transit, recently released a study that LRT opponents have been citing enthusiastically.
It generated some dramatic headlines by claiming that BRT can attract more new private investment than LRT.
But peel back the headline and the report's own data merely confirms what we already knew: in most cases, BRT costs less to build and attracts less new ridership and lower levels of new private investment than LRT.
The dramatic claim comes from comparing the two most wildly successful outlier systems - Portland's MAX LRT and Cleveland's Healthline BRT - instead of comparing the normal case for each system.
Looking at the full picture of LRT and BRT systems, the study shows that top-of-the-line "Gold Standard" BRT combined with exceptional land use planning produces a similar relative ROI to LRT - relative because it attracts less economic development but it costs less to build.
The study also ignores the ongoing operating cost comparison between the two technologies. BRT requires around three times as many vehicles - and vehicle operators - as LRT to carry an equivalent number of passengers. Since operator wages are the biggest part of transit operating costs, this drives the per-passenger operating cost for BRT way up.
The only way BRT ends up costing less to operate than LRT is if total ridership is far lower. Another study [PDF], this time by the European Automobile Manufacturers Association, makes the claim that BRT can actually be cheaper to operate than LRT. Again, once you parse through the mess of apples-to-oranges comparisons, the claim falls apart.
The study manages to make this claim by comparing the operating cost per vehicle for BRT and LRT, while ignoring the fact that an LRT vehicle can carry a lot more people as a bus.
Since the purpose of rapid transit is to attract high numbers of new riders and leverage new private investment to shape land use around the line, BRT is necessarily an inferior option along the B-Line.
This is a corridor that already carries 13,000 transit rides a day on an overburdened transit system characterized by frequent "pass-bys" of full buses. 13,000 passengers a day is in the middle of the pack for North American LRT systems, and we would already have that ridership on opening day, with huge potential to grow ridership dramatically from there.
In addition, the area around the B-Line has an intact urban built form capable of accommodating medium- and high-density urban development, but it has been underperforming for decades due to the city's singular focus on suburban sprawl.
Decades of urban neglect and demolition have left huge opportunities for new infill developments along the line, and especially in the downtown area. Despite this, downtown is still the city's single largest employment cluster with 24,000 jobs, most of them paying above the median income.
Because the lower city is underperforming its potential, it has tremendous potential for uplift with a new rapid transit system combined with a favourable land use policy to encourage urban development.
If we are going to invest in rapid transit, we should aim to maximize the potential for development and uplift. BRT makes sense on some corridors, but along the B-Line it is a cheaper, lower-performing alternative that will deliver less of the transformative change that Hamilton needs to become economically sustainable.
In Waterloo Region, planners calculated that if the region continues to grow in the status quo suburban form of land use, it will force the region to spend an extra $1.4 billion in new infrastructure. They determined that even with a municipal contribution to the cost of LRT, it will still cost them less than what it would cost not to build it.
In Hamilton, we remain stuck in the mode of approving status quo suburban sprawl without acknowledging that every new survey actually increases the city's net infrastructure obligations. Council just voted to approve a massive urban boundary expansion to build low-density single family houses for 15,000 people on prime orchard land in rural Stoney Creek.
If Hamilton is to get its infrastructure costs under control, we absolutely need to make much better use of our existing infrastructure than we currently do. In particular, we need to dramatically increase the level and quality of land use through the lower city.
Not only will this reduce our per-resident infrastructure costs, but also it will help unlock the essential urban economies of scale, density, agglomeration, association and extension that are central to the growth of new businesses and new jobs.
Instead of trying to lure companies to consolidate their operations in our suburban business parks by bribing them with the lowest rates - an inherently unsustainable loss-based plan - we should be fostering the conditions in which a diversity of creative entrepreneurs settle in Hamilton and start innovative new high-growth companies.
It's clear that we have lost focus on why the City embraced LRT in the first place. Council has forgotten why they enthusiastically supported LRT through six years of unanimous votes, the Public Works managers who developed the plan have all left, and the senior management team has lost all its enthusiasm.
The City completely stopped communicating with the public in 2011 and has been silent ever since. No wonder people are confused and skeptical.
Transit Director Don Hull was downright inspiring in February 2013 when he extolled the benefits of the Rapid Ready plan to our Councillors, but more recently he has clearly reverted back to thinking of LRT as something we should build toward incrementally over at least a decade or longer.
Much of the blame for this lies at the feet of Mayor Bob Bratina, who ran for election in 2010 on a platform supporting LRT but started to confuse, misinform and undermine the case for LRT in early 2011.
Bratina launched into a seemingly unending stream of nonsense, including: claiming that the city would have to choose between LRT and all-day GO service, claiming that the B-Line doesn't have the ridership to support LRT, claiming that LRT would only make sense if a million people move to Hamilton and, perhaps most bizarrely, claiming against all reason that the Rapid Ready LRT plan is not actually an LRT plan.
Bratina told former Premier Dalton McGuinty that LRT was "not a priority" for Hamilton, a dodge that allowed McGuinty to backpedal from the Province's original promise, back in 2007 and 2008, to fund "two light rail lines across Hamilton" - the promise that got the City exploring LRT in the first place.
The Liberals are still playing games today, saying they will cover 100% of the capital cost of "rapid transit" but refusing to clarify whether this means LRT.
We're stuck in a self-reinforcing circle of failure: Bratina sent the province mixed signals on whether Hamilton wants light rail, leading the Province to send us mixed signals on whether they are willing to pay the capital costs, leading Council to waver on its support for LRT, leading the Province to sit back and wait for us to decide whether we want LRT before telling us whether they will pay for it.
What we need is a strong leader in the mayor's chair to try and undo the terrible damage Bratina has done to this project and get the city back on track. Thankfully, Bratina has already announced he will not run for re-election, so that job will surely fall to someone else.
The problem is not that Council and staff do not know this stuff. The problem is that Council and staff have lost the courage of their convictions. What we need is a champion to take the lead on marshaling support and pressing the Province for a commitment, not another redundant exercise in reviewing what we already know.
Update: Updated to embed Joey Coleman's video of the LRT discussion.
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