An alternative perspective on the future of rapid transit in Hamilton.
By Ray Lawlor
Published August 31, 2010
If you are one of the many Hamiltonians who cannot wait to see light rail vehicles swooshing down Main Street in Hamilton like Dublin's Luas, Calgary's C-train or Portland's MAX, I hope you'll bear with me for the duration of this article. I'm going to play devil's advocate and suggest that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the light rail system currently envisioned might not be the best investment we could make.
If you're on the fence on the issue of LRT, I hope to be able to provide you with an alternative perspective to the increasingly pro-LRT political discourse in Hamilton.
If you're a strong proponent of an LRT system (as I know some RTH readers and contributors are), I hope that you will look at this piece as an opportunity for you to reflect on and refine your vision, and not an attack (because that's not what its intended to be).
The prospect of significant federal and provincial government investments in mass transit in Hamilton has been a source of great excitement of late. Given that a large majority of Hamiltonians supported the idea of LRT versus BRT in a number of recent polls, it's safe to say most RTH readers probably come down in favour of a rail option over a tired option, as I initially did.
It's clear that the idea of an LRT system is gaining a lot of traction and in some ways, that's great. Mass transit in Hamilton has certainly seen better days and the level of civic engagement around this issue is very promising.
Unfortunately, in other ways it's not so great, because the idea of an LRT network seems to be also generating a lot of hype. Despite the fact that there have been no funding commitments from any level of government aside from $3 million for a feasibility study on the B-line, all sorts of predictions and visions are being tossed around in public forums.
Predictions are being made about appreciations in real estate values in proximity to the LRT lines, and the phrase "urban renewal" is being used more and more. The possibility of the A & B LRT lines has been used as justification for the West Harbour site of the Pan Am Games stadium, even though according to current schedules the A line would not be built until long after the games were complete.
With a price tag of almost $800 million for the first phase of the B-line alone, there is no way the city of Hamilton could finance the cost of the system by itself - meaning that without very substantial commitments from Queen's Park and Ottawa our system will remain a set of lines drawn on a map.
All of this calls into question the wisdom of the current buzz around LRT, and I cannot help but feel that we are rushing into something without fully vetting it out.
$800 million is a lot of money. If you were handed that much money and told that your mandate was to do as much as you could with it to improve the city of Hamilton, would you use every penny to build the B-line LRT?
I'm sure there are some people who would say yes, but I would not. Consider that the BCA case presented by Metrolinx states quite clearly that the cost-benefit ratio of a BRT system is 27% higher than for an LRT system (1.4 versus 1.1) as it costs only $220 million dollars to implement. Put another way, we could buy three and a half lines of BRT for the cost of one LRT line!
Does this mean I think we should definitely be building a BRT and not an LRT network? No. Toronto transit advocate Steve Munro's blog has a very detailed analysis of why Metrolinx's BCA analyses can be deceiving and I do not believe our decision should be based largely on their numbers.
There are also qualitative concerns not directly addressed by the BCA analysis that are relevant to this debate. I raise this point to emphasize that the important choice we are facing deserves careful consideration, including all alternative options, before we commit to an expensive LRT network.
My fear is that by committing to a network that will need major investment by other levels of government, Hamilton will be hamstrung for a generation by political machinations over which we have little control. I submit the case of Toronto's Network 2011 plan as evidence of what can go wrong.
In brief, Toronto committed to a massive rapid transit infrastructure program that was contingent on the Provincial government for support, and saw the entire program collapse (even though the shovels were already in the ground!) when Mike Harris' Tories pulled their funding in the mid 1990s.
Even if the commitment from a Provincial level was a guaranteed reality, there are still good reasons to be skeptical. Some transit projects involving LRT lines have been large successes, but others have been abject failures. Some projects held up as examples of successes are not universally regarded as such (i.e. Portland's MAX).
For example, several comments have been made recently in various media outlets about Hamilton's decision to pass up an ALRT system in the 1980s. The decision is usually painted as a failure given the success of Vancouver's ALRT SkyTrain. Rarely mentioned is the disastrous and under-used Scarborough RT right down the road in Toronto, using the same ALRT technology.
Buffalo is another nearby example of an LRT failure, although for many complex reasons beyond the design of the project. Edmonton's LRT, although now undergoing expansion, struggled with low ridership for the early years of its existence.
The point is that LRT in and of itself will not and cannot "rescue" Hamilton. There are many other fundamentals that we must heed if a mass transit system is to succeed, and many of them have not been addressed as of yet.
I'd like to step back for a minute and ask a simple question: why are we considering building a light rail system in Hamilton?
Is it because we like the idea of an LRT system (i.e. all those photos of trams gliding down boulevards in their exclusive rights of way in cities like Calgary, or through a Strasbourg-like pedestrian mall)?
Is it to accomplish goals like increased transit ridership and mobility for Hamiltonians?
Is it to spark "urban renewal" and increase real estate values?
I suspect the answer for many people is "all of the above" and that they believe an LRT system could do so. However, there are other means of accomplishing the same goals, and some of them may be more cost-effective at doing so.
We must ask ourselves what our vision for Hamilton's future is and, to borrow a phrase from Order of Canada recipient and Hamilton resident Dr. Gary Warner, who will benefit from our expenditures.
$800 Million dollars would buy several Pan Am stadiums. It would go a long way to eliminate our backlog of road repairs and sewage infrastructure upgrades (not to mention pay for a level 3 water treatment facility). It would clean up more than a few brownfields.
It would allow us to properly enhance the flood control system of the Red Hill Valley Parkway so that we would not need to compensate east end residents for their flooded basements.
It might allow us to give businesses tax breaks or incentives to occupy the vacant space in our core, and pay for the two-way conversion of Main St. and King St.
If we limit ourselves to the realm of public transit projects, it might allow us to pay for upgraded railway infrastructure to allow better GO connections.
There are many other possible enhancements for our transit that we could initiate to improve mobility and accessibility in the city.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this debate for me is the fact that a lot of discourse is happening without a good background understanding of transit issues. Some commentators and stakeholders have clearly done their homework, while others clearly have not.
Consider the city of Hamilton's public surveys about a potential rapid transit line. It is really no surprise that most Hamiltonians preferred LRT to BRT in the survey - given the choice between a train and a bus that will get you where you want to go at exactly the same time, most people prefer the train's superior aesthetic.
The questions that need to be asked deal with how much more we value an LRT versus other options. If we rolled the capital costs of an LRT or BRT rapid transit line into its fares, would it be economical for us to build?
How much more would you be willing to spend to take a more comfortable but more expensive train versus a bus, if the two would get you to your destination at the same time?
Likewise, if you could take a bus or a train but one would get you there faster, how much more would you be willing to pay for the extra speed? If the bus would get you to your destination slightly faster than a train, which would you take? How much faster would the bus (or train) need to be for you to change your mind?
If we install an LRT line on Main St, what will that do to other bus routes that use the corridor?
You might ask what sparked this change of heart. Why did someone who supported an LRT system for Hamilton at first suddenly become such a skeptic? In part it had to do with watching other transit debates I have been following unfold, and reflecting on what I saw. In part it came from doing a lot of reading and research to understand transit issues better.
Strangely enough, though, the proverbial straw came when I caught a re-run of The Simpsons several weeks ago. In the episode "Marge versus the Monorail," Springfield ignores Marge's advice to use a budget windfall to repair decaying city infrastructure and decides to build a flashy monorail instead, with predictably disastrous consequences.
I could not help but worry we are falling for the same sentiments. Obviously I do not have an entirely pessimistic view of an LRT system, but I found the episode very appropriate because it captured many aspects of the issue here. I encourage readers to watch it (if you can find it), as there is a valuable lesson on top of a generous serving of humour.
Hamilton has a lot of careful thinking to do surrounding a potential rapid transit system. I continue to question whether it is worth the expense and whether there could be better uses for the money and energy we are being asked to invest.
If we choose to invest in an LRT system, it should not simply be because the provincial government has hung a carrot in front of our noses. Neither should it be purely based on the aesthetic of riding a train or tram instead of a bus.
We should be prepared to carry through with the project with full understanding of its financial and social ramifications, and be aware of the weight our decision will carry.
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