Special Report: Light Rail

Yet Another Anti-LRT Op-Ed Based on False Claims

The proposal to replace Hamilton's transit fleet with electric buses would consume the proposed $1 billion in provincial capital without adding a single route, bus stop or passenger and would cost more to operate.

By Sean Hurley
Published February 02, 2020

On January 25, the St. Catherines Standard saw fit to publish an op-ed by one Lee Fairbanks and Jim Sweetman of Hamilton that was soon spreading on social media uncritically and, in some cases, even approvingly.

False Claim on Bus Replacement Cost

On first read, I was struck by a claim that had already been debunked the previous day at budget deliberations at council. The authors claim, "At a price of approximately $1 million per bus," Hamilton could replace "all 260 [existing buses]", build a bus maintenance garage, and still have a half-billion left over.

The previous day, however, CBC reporter Samantha Craggs had posted from Hamilton City Council's "transit day" on Twitter that two electric buses would be required for every bus currently in use and they would cost more to operate.

Craggs tweeted:

Jason VanderHeide, mgr of transit planning, says even with the latest technology, 60% of existing bus service in Hamilton lasts longer than a battery charge. So EVs would require making some operational changes

The effectiveness of EVs depend on a city's geography & climate too

She continued:

As it stands, we would need 2 electric buses for every 1 conventional bus to continue our service the way it is. Price-wise, VanderHeide says, an electric bus costs about 1.5 times more than conventional buses

Those two tweets effectively double the cost of replacing Hamilton's fleet with electric buses and will require a suitably-sized maintenance and storage facility with appropriate staffing levels.

The op-ed authors will have already spent, or nearly exhausted, the proposed $1 billion in provincial money without adding a single route, bus stop or passenger, and they are operating at a higher cost.

False Claim on Climate Emissions

However, the more I thought about the main premise of the op-ed, the more it troubled me. The authors established two "glaring shortcomings" of Hamilton's now-cancelled LRT project. They identified the first as "the massive climate impact of years of heavy construction, releasing megatons of green houses gases taking decades to offset," and they cited a University of Toronto study that "suggests it would take between 10 and 30 years of increased ridership to offset the carbon footprint of construction."

This is, of course, disturbing as a large part of the justification for LRT is that it is clean, electric, rapid transit. Are they correct? Not at all.

The study the authors cite was reported on by the Toronto Star. It focuses on Toronto's Sheppard Subway, which opened in 2002. The Sheppard Subway is a tunnel which, the Star reports, "required 358,851 cubic metres of concrete and 40,000 tons of rebar to build."

Additionally, the Star tells us the study authors included electricity generation in their calculations. Ontarians will remember smog days from 2002 that have become exceedingly rare as Ontario phased out coal generation between 2003 and 2014.

Most tellingly, though, the study authors recommend at-grade rail transit as an alternative to subways to reduce emissions, coupled with high density development.

From the study itself: "At grade, track and stations require capital GHG investment an order of magnitude smaller than that required for tunnels and underground stations (emphasis mine)."

Hamilton's LRT was at grade. Hamilton's LRT corridor was rezoned to encourage high density development. The op-ed authors, in citing this study, either haven't read it or didn't understand it.

False Claim on Limited Benefit

However, this is not the worst aspect of the op-ed. The second of the "glaring shortcomings" with the LRT plan that form its argument is "the reality that its benefit to the vast majority of transit users, those who don't travel the B-Line, is non-existent."

This is a familiar refrain I have been hearing since the funding for LRT was first approved. "LRT only serves one part of the city," is a phrase repeated by detractors and so-called civic leaders, including members of council.

Why does the most heavily-used transit corridor in Hamilton have to wait for every resident from Waterdown to Glanbrook to have a personal Trans-Cab before we can build modern, frequent public transit along the B-Line?

That some residents of Hamilton and some councillors would deprive our city of a direct investment of $1 billion - including replacing and upgrading two hundred million dollars worth of infrastructure, and creating hundreds of permanent, good jobs - just to spite the lower city is as pathetic a statement about who we are as a city as any I can imagine.

Area Rating Hypocrisy

Transit cannot be expanded to suburban wards because the same councillors who don't want the lower city to derive any benefit from provincial largess have also dragged their heels for almost two decades on phasing out area rating for transit, a tax scheme that sees suburban wards pay a third of the transit tax rate as urban wards pay.

Rather than phase out the area rating over a period of time while expanding transit to serve their constituents, they have stubbornly dug in their heels and refused to budge. The consequence is that transit is stunted for residents who live in suburban wards and all the claims from councillors of wanting transit to serve "all of Hamilton" are nothing but cheap and empty platitudes.

As a resident of the lower city, I am angry that my needs and those of my neighbours are discounted and dismissed by suburban residents and councillors who only view our communities as a series of synchronized traffic signals unworthy of investment.

If I lived in one of those suburbs, however, I would be equally angry to be represented by a councillor who has failed for decades to bring public transit to where I live.

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