Opinion

Why Bratina is on the Right Track (Even if he Can't Explain)

The improved GO connections that Mayor Bratina is pushing are far more likely to transpire in the near term than a downtown tramway and have the potential to provide some major benefits.

By Ray Lawlor
Published August 01, 2011

Around this time last year, I submitted a piece to RTH suggesting that Hamilton might do well to consider alternative ways to invest in its future besides the B-line LRT. One of things I suggested at that time was to focus on improving GO connections in Hamilton instead.

Given that the mayor's office just brought the B-line LRT project to a screeching (if nominally temporary) halt and shifted the focus to all-day GO service expansion, it seemed an appropriate time to follow up.

For the past couple of weeks, Mayor Bob has gotten a lot of flak online and in the Spectator about his change of tack. True, his priority shift could probably have been done with greater tact, and his explanations of his reasoning have left something to be desired. Certain maladroit political moves notwithstanding, the mayor deserves more credit than he's getting right now. 

The improved GO connections that Mr. Bratina is pushing are far more likely to transpire in the near term than a downtown tramway and have the potential to provide some major benefits to the City of Hamilton.

Improved GO service is also a very good fit with Metrolinx's and the Province's plans for the GTHA, and offers considerable improvement in operational efficiencies for regional transit services. Bear in mind that the mayor formerly served on GO Transit's board of directors and is surely aware of the issues outlined below.

Regional Service Model

The expansion of all-day service Mr. Bratina is gunning for must be seen in the context of The Big Move, Metrolinx' 2008 regional transportation plan. The Big Move includes a major change for the three busiest GO lines - Lakeshore East, Lakeshore West and Georgetown - with a shift from a "commuter" to a "regional" service model.

Basically, Metrolinx wants to start running these services more like the Paris RER than Chicago's Metra, with trains in both directions every 15-20 minutes instead of every hour (and even more often at peak times). Unfortunately the Hunter St station in Hamilton cannot accommodate any more trains per day, so additional GO service would be added by routing trains to a new railway station at James St N. 

Since this plan was released three years ago, two very important shifts have occurred in the regional landscape: Metrolinx has adopted a plan to electrify part of the GO network in stages (including the Lakeshore West line to Hamilton), and plans have emerged for Lakeshore West service to continue to St. Catherine's.

These two priorities will guide any future investments in GO connections to Hamilton. There is also growing recognition of the increasing number of "reverse commuters" in the GTHA - people living in urban areas but commuting to jobs outside of traditional dense employment regions like downtown Toronto. These transit users are driving a shift to better two-way regional service.

All of this means that Metrolinx is under pressure to have GO move more people more efficiently in more directions.

Operations Costs

In addition, there is a more practical reason why a Hamilton service expansion has been on Metrolinx' radar for some time: operations costs.

From an individual traveller's perspective, the current QEW express bus from downtown Hamilton to Toronto Union is great. You get on at Hunter St, pick up a few more people on the way to the 403 along King and then are whisked along the QEW for the next hour without having to make any stops along the way. In off peak hours this is often faster than the express GO trains that leave Hunter St every morning. With this bus in place, who needs a train most of the time?

From Metrolinx' perspective, however, it would be much better to have Hamilton GO patrons take the train. The QEW express bus is a very expensive and inefficient service to have to run. There is no passenger turnover on the QEW express other than those who get on at one end and off at the other, so the passengers per kilometre travelled are very low. 

Lakeshore West trains run all day from Burlington/Aldershot whether the QEW express bus exists or not, meaning a large portion of existing train service is duplicated with these buses. By extending Lakeshore West train service and eliminating the express bus, GO saves the expense of running around forty bus trips a day with only incremental increases in operating costs for the Lakeshore West line.

'Bedroom Community' Threat

Strangely, there have been a number of Spec letters to the editor and other public statements of late that somehow view this improved service as a threat. The line of reasoning seems to be that Hamilton will be transformed into a "bedroom community."

I am not sure how exactly this is supposed to transpire, and I do not think it will. If GO train service is extended, some commuters wanting to avoid Toronto/Mississauga/Oakville real estate prices may move to the north end of Hamilton to take advantage of the lower cost of living, but more residents and higher property values mean more tax money to fill depleted city coffers.

Increased real estate demand has the potential to turn some of those downtown "greyfield" parking lots into condo in-fill. I cannot understand why for years the exodus of downtown residents to the suburbs has been bemoaned as a cause of urban decay, but when there is a relatively straightforward opportunity to do something to reverse that trend we are suddenly very picky about where the new residents will work.

From where I stand, Hamilton cannot afford to be that choosy.  Maybe some newcomers will take the GO train to Toronto, but maybe some will also have partners who are artists wanting to work on James St N. Maybe some will have children who will fill schools.

Maybe they'll buy groceries from our renovated Farmer's Market or take books out of the renovated library while they're at it. I would much rather see residents flocking to downtown than the "Elfrida Growth Area," even if some of them do not spend their 9-to-5 in Hamilton's borders. 

Attractive to Businesses

Perhaps most importantly, the improved GO service has the ability to make Hamilton much more attractive to businesses. 

Downtown Hamilton has plenty of office vacancy, and there is an opportunity to leverage the improved access offered by regular GO service to sell Hamilton as a cheaper place to set up shop than Bay Street.

A strong selling point would be that with all-day frequent service it would be just as easy for a worker living in Oakville to get to Hamilton as it would be to get to Toronto. 

Hurdles

All of the above being said, there are definitely a number of hurdles to overcome in this process, of which I will address some below and some in a future article to follow.

The first problem is the current Hunter St station. The former TH&B line that runs through the station is used by CP for freight movement and does not have the capacity to handle more commuter trains without substantial upgrades.

For the type of service GO envisions in the next decade, the Hunter St tunnel and TH&B spur would need to be expanded and eventually electrified. Although this is technically feasible, it would be much cheaper to do along the CN Grimsby sub through the north end. 

The second problem is that the TH&B line is a poor choice for future regional rail service. After passing through downtown, it splits into two low speed freight lines around Gage Park, eliminating the possibility of service to Niagara region without a new rail heavy rail corridor and connection to the CN main line being somehow built through an urban area.

Any all-day GO extension to Hamilton (and eventually toward Niagara) would therefore have to go through the north end to avoid political wrangling and high costs. 

Last-Mile Problem

Of course, moving the central GO station away from the core creates a "last-mile" problem. Aside from walking or local HSR buses, how will people traveling to Hamilton on these frequent GO trains reach McMaster University, the city centre or Ivor Wynne stadium?

I'm going to leave my full answer to this question for a future submission, but in a nutshell this will require a three-pronged solution.

In the near term the best options are improved HSR bus service and adoption of alternative modes like a BIXI-style bike share.

In the long run I believe that a light-rail based solution in a segregated right of way rather than following converted traffic lanes is the best answer.

This could be done by replacing underused freight lines, abandoned former railway corridors and the medians of certain grade-separated roads with light rail (as was done with Ottawa's O-train, the Charlotte Lynx and parts of the Portland MAX).

If GO train service is shifted completely to James N, parts of the TH&B line would serve perfectly for this purpose.

There are a number of reasons why focusing on expanded GO services will be a boon for Hamilton and offer an important opportunity to redevelop the lower city.

Expanded GO service to James St N will allow Hamilton to reap the benefits of coming upgrades to regional GO service on the Lakeshore West line such as increased service frequency and speed with line electrification.

Reliable all-day railway service will make Hamilton significantly more attractive to regional commuters and will allow us to cash in on the benefits to the local economy they will bring. If accompanied by local transit improvements, this service expansion has the potential to make the city far more attractive to businesses as well.

Since there are very good operational reasons for implementing all-day service and relatively modest costs (less than $100 million of mostly provincial money), Metrolinx is already on board.

The decision to shift city resources to preparing for imminent all-day GO service expansion will do Hamilton a world of good, and I plan to be on the first train the rolls into James N.

Ray Lawlor is a professional student living in downtown Toronto who follows urban and particularly transit issues in his free time. He is also an avid cyclist, environmentalist, reader and film fan.

21 Comments

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By Woody10 (registered) | Posted August 01, 2011 at 23:48:03

And I have no problem with any of that. I would like to see it happen as soon as possible but I would also like to see the LRT plans move ahead as soon as possible as well. Like you pointed out, this would solidify a total transit plan for the city (connections from the GO stations to Ivor Wynne, Mac, Dundas etc.) and show the rest of the province (country) that we aren't a second class city anymore. So why not have the whole plan in place, it just makes sense, it shows vision. Lets not forget that the velodrome (fingers crossed) will be permanent and probably up around Mohawk which would benefit greatly from the A-line LRT, correct?? There is too much on the line for this city to not continue to push HARD for both.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 06:52:52

Nicely written article. I like some of your observations and suggestions. They definitely add to the discussion.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 08:22:10

actually, I'm thinking the 'bedroom community threat' is less and less of a threat if we derail LRT. GO already exists and TO people know that. I chatted with 5 commuters this week who all said they will still take the bus and not the new trains to TO. They lamented losing the hope that one day they could hit an LRT to the GO station instead of driving their cars.

There are probably thousands of potential Hamilton residents who will re-think their plans upon hearing of this lack of leadership taking place:

http://www.thespec.com/opinion/columns/a...

http://www.thespec.com/opinion/letters/a...

I chatted with a local business person the other day with many out of town contacts. He's already seeing the ripple effect in the business community as folks who were beginning to consider development or expansion into Hamilton's core area are now backing right off and 'coming to their senses' about how realistic it is that we ever try to become a real city again.
We probably don't need to worry about becoming a bedroom community without LRT. Just a slow-growth, low-image, investment-unfriendly city.

Comment edited by jason on 2011-08-02 08:22:42

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 11:47:39 in reply to Comment 67164

by the way Ray, I should mention, nicely written piece. You cover a lot of ground here and it is a great submission on the topic.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 08:51:44 in reply to Comment 67164

We probably don't need to worry about becoming a bedroom community without LRT. Just a slow-growth, low-image, investment-unfriendly city.

Very well put.

Despite our longstanding history re: Toronto, in a very ironic way, I think because of our particulars, we've never been at risk for becoming a 'bedroom community'. (Contrasted with other municipalities to the west, north and east of That Giant CIty Wot's Gots Bedrooms.)

Additionally perversely ironic is the fact that perhaps the main bulwark has been our 'legacy malaise'.

The fantastic thing is that we have the opportunity to retain who we are while reinventing ourselves, with both transit elements playing their part.

I've said it before, I'll say it again; if I had money to invest, I'd definitely invest it here, because Hamilton is a gem just waiting to be unearthed, given a good shine, and valued appropriately.

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2011-08-02 08:52:32

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 11:49:11 in reply to Comment 67173

if people from TO want to live in a bedroom community they have ample choice CLOSER to downtown TO than here. If they want another real urban experience in close proximity to TO, but without the high costs, Hamilton is a good option for them. Once Mississuaga and Kitchener have LRT systems and are seeing loads of urban development, we will fall off the radar as an 'urban choice'.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted August 03, 2011 at 00:54:01 in reply to Comment 67198

Yes, but not cheaper options.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted August 03, 2011 at 09:35:54 in reply to Comment 67265

That's a great motto for Hamilton: We may not have much, but it's cheap to live here!

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By Brioski8 (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 08:59:21

Why don't we call this what it is?

The Mayor and City Manager are repositioning the City so that it can fully capitalize on what is widely seen as a sweeping political change happening at the Provincial Level. The Conservatives have made it blindingly clear on their intentions for transportation funding for the next 4 years. The lion's share of handouts will be for contracts related to the "Mid-pen" Highway. Oh wait... don't call it that!!! I mean, the Niagara to GTA transportation corridor. Ah! much better.

Anyways. The Conservatives have given plenty of notice that there will be no funding for mass transit projects at the local level. Any money that does go to public transit will be within the traditional funding scope of the province. ie. Go Transit.

If the City does not pivot they will find themselves scraping at a barrel of funding that is no longer supported at the provincial level.

With that being said. The City still has to include LRT in their planning horizon, and probably much sooner than Bratina and Murray is letting on. 10 years fly by quickly and at the moment they seem to be setting us for failure when Provincial funding once again changes direction.

Comment edited by Brioski8 on 2011-08-02 08:59:43

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 09:06:53

Thoughtful piece, but again, this "focus" dates back years (and is possibly coloured by the fact that Bratina has been a member of GO Transit’s BOD for years):

http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showpost.php?p=3775159&postcount=1

The city obviously has anecdotal grounds to justify a pilot project, but all-day service will ultimately rise or fall on ridership. StatsCan figures suggest that half of Hamilton's commuters go no further than Burlington, and that Burlington is close enough that it is both well-serviced by existing transit connections hardly an onerous commute.

To my mind, it is unclear exactly how many commuters are happily served by existing transit service (GO bus, GO Train, Burlington Transit), how many are waiting for more convenient scheduling, and how many would never willingly abandon their cars (or work in locations that make doing so impractical -- eg. even within Hamilton, Councillor Johnson's commute would be about an hour by HSR). And although RTH is core-centric more often than not, it should be said that the survival odds of James North station will hinge on the arrival of the additional expansion stops recommended for Fruitland Road and Fifty Road, "as ridership warrants."

http://www.raisethehammer.org/comment/64037

http://raisethehammer.org/comment/63990

http://www.raisethehammer.org/comment/66397

In order to optimize James North in a way that will get drivers out of their cars and activate the greatest po, there will be the need for a parking lot of considerable size – at least identical to LIUNA station, possibly larger: For the six stops at the west end of the Lakeshore line, station capacity is around 2,400 parking spots. For the six stops at the east end, it's around 1,900. Our enthusiasm for all-day GO will potentially be embodied in the form of additional surface parking on adjacent lands.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 09:27:13 in reply to Comment 67177

And although RTH is core-centric more often than not, it should be said that the survival odds of James North station will hinge on the arrival of the additional expansion stops recommended for Fruitland Road and Fifty Road, "as ridership warrants."

These stations are years away. Seriously. (And by 'years', I mean 'a good decade, anyway'.)

I had to laugh at the umbrage taken when Centennial was chosen as the primary 'east end' stop. The suburbanite/peripheral-location mindset never ceases to amaze me.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted August 03, 2011 at 13:43:56 in reply to Comment 67180

That timeline is a reliable sticking point when it comes to the public's ability to comprehend and weigh the value of proposed improvements to transit infrastructure. As Mr. Crawford once pointed out, “Most strategic visions have a three- to five-year horizon. Shorter than that makes achieving them almost impossible. Longer than that makes achieving them unlikely, as people tend to lose interest or focus if you have a 10- or 20-year vision."

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Related to the 50-year picture, an interesting POV popped up in Sunday’s New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/opinion/sunday/the-dutch-way-bicycles-and-fresh-bread.html

EXCERPT: "For American cities to think outside the car would seem to require a mental sea change. Then again, Americans, too, are practical, no-nonsense people. And Zef Hemel, the chief planner for the city of Amsterdam, reminded me that sea changes do happen. “Back in the 1960s, we were doing the same thing as America, making cities car-friendly,” he said. Funnily enough, it was an American, Jane Jacobs, who changed the minds of European urban designers. Her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” got European planners to shift their focus from car-friendliness to overall livability."

+

Success on long-term, city-altering projects (Shorto’s precis: "recrafting of the city in order to lessen — or eliminate — the need for cars to be not just grudgingly acceptable, but, yes, an expansion of my individual freedom") requires a massive shift in mindset, and doubtless benefits from "public policy [that] reinforces the egalitarianism."

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 09:51:39

This is a very good read.

Whether all-day GO trains will result in more workers coming into Hamilton every day, or more going out, is for others to help forecast and to measure. Obviously, if it means more coming in, you have to ask, why? What would have to happen for more people to come into Hamilton everyday to go to work? Jobs is a good first answer.

For that to happen, and for it to have been fostered by enhanced GO train service, you'd have to ask, "What kind of jobs would have to exist to cause someone to buy a more expensive house in a more expensive community (Oakville, MIssissauga) and commute into Hamilton, when he or she could afford a better/more interesting residence (living larger for the same money) or the same/cheaper residence (pocket the difference or lower your mortgage payments accordingly)?

Having people move here and work here is an ideal outcome. But, like I said, what kind of jobs would need to be on offer for that to happen? Currently, our top 2 employers are healthcare and the COH itself.

Will all-day GO bring jobs, or mostly more residents? Both? Over what time horizon? Etc. I simply don't have the expertise to know the answers to these questions. But I know enough that we should be asking these questions and many more right now. The train service is nearly a fact. The implications that service are to be determined.

I'm really not a fan of the false (in fact non-existent) debate about the immediacy of all-day GO versus the longer term LRT, it's a meaningless premise. It's like saying to people at 10:00 p.m. that the sun will rise well before it sets again. It's a fact, but the point is.....?

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By z jones (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 11:10:38

Very interesting read. But I'm gonna go meta for a moment and notice that even though this article goes against the 'RTH consensus' on LRT the comments are respectful and even complimentary. So much for RTH being intolerant. Mostly what we don't tolerate are anonymous trolls and random haters who drop in long enough to throw around some feces.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 11:16:12 in reply to Comment 67191

Mostly what we don't tolerate are anonymous trolls and random haters who drop in long enough to throw around some feces.

And light 'em before they toss 'em. Don't forget that detail...

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By littleLRTmouse (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 12:58:23

Your article is certainly thought-provoking and well-balanced. It is too often,that general public may be afraid of old/abandoned rail structures,but evolution in the world shows, that these structures are still useful. One reason is, that the soil under the gravel has been pressed to withstand much greater pressure, than whatever LRT may ever have. Hamilton LRT may not even be fully electrified - Zwickau (Germany) is using diesels-on-wheels going right into the city. Kassel (Germany) has used only section in the city and when outside the city core,their "LRT" runs as diesel. The main thing is, that once abandoned rail R.O.W. will be detached from rest of network, it will not have to abide by FRA regulations. However one task should be made by Mr.Bratina - develop proper land use plan together with "behind-the-scenes" stakeholders (Metrolinx/GO) and stick to it.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 13:33:56

As far as the "bedroom community" issue goes, as well as parking, that's where I see LRT coming in. All-day-GO is coming, it's been planned for years, and that's gonna have impacts on the area. But what kind of area?

Without LRT, the area will be far more concentrated. Within a walking distance of the new station there may be a boom of development, but much of the rest will still take place elsewhere, in "nice" neighbourhoods (urban or suburban) where colossal homes can be bought for a fraction of the cost of their Toronto cousins. This will create a demand for parking. The combined effect will likely be pretty tumultuous for the James North area, but I don't know how much impact we'll see east of Victoria or Wentworth, at least north of King.

With LRT, the new GO line becomes accessible across the lower city and possibly the central mountain as well. This offers the possibility of spreading the benefits (and costs) of this sort of development much more widely, and create a much better mix of incomes and professions throughout the city.

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By Jtraf (anonymous) | Posted August 06, 2011 at 16:11:18

Just who is going to pay for the LRT..the province or the overtaxed property owners of all of Hamilton? RTH is always pushing for the LRT.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 06, 2011 at 17:23:55

The city is working on the assumption that Metrolinx (i.e. the province) will pay 100% of the direct costs and are working now (or were working) on calculating exactly what should be included in the direct costs. This cost-sharing is based on Metrolinx's funding of other transit projects, and discussions with Metrolinx.

Indirect costs would include upgrades not directly related to the LRT line construction (rebuilding sidewalks, planting street trees, improvements to adjacent streets), or infrastructure replacement that would have been done anyway (e.g. a sewer line that would have needed to be replaced in the next ten years, or a road that already needed resurfacing). Exactly what is included in direct costs will be the subject of negotiation with Metrolinx.

Remember that a major justification of LRT is that it will boost tax revenues and make the city more financially sustainable by encouraging densification, meaning more residents paying for a given piece of infrastructure.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2011-08-06 18:00:17

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