Special Report: Light Rail

Light Rail Transit, Leadership and Democracy

Our Mayor and Council should make the case, forcefully and convincingly, for what they have been officially supporting for almost six years: a B-line LRT with full funding of direct costs from the Province.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published March 03, 2014

Hamilton's east-west B-Line light rail transit (LRT) project - and the associated long-term "B-L-A-S-T" plan for a network of rapid transit lines spanning the city - is in a curious state, and it is worth going through a bit of recent history to understand how we got here.

Hamilton's Long Term Rapid Transit B-L-A-S-T System
Hamilton's Long Term Rapid Transit B-L-A-S-T System

Although some form of rail-based transit has been planned for Hamilton since the late 1960s and an elevated Skytrain-style LRT was almost built here 30 years ago, the impetus for Hamilton's current plan goes back to the summer of 2007 when the Ontario Liberals announced that they would build "two rapid transit lines" in Hamilton as part of their election campaign.

Soon afterwards, on September 12, 2007, a Liberal press release made it clear that these rapid transit lines were in fact LRT lines, when they warned that electing the Conservatives "would put rapid transit projects through MoveOntario 2020 - including two light rail lines across Hamilton - at risk".

In 2008, Metrolinx released its Regional Transportation Plan, identifying downtown Hamilton as an area of high social need and including two rapid transit lines - the east-west B-Line and the north-south A-Line - in the first 15-year plan with the B-Line in the top 15 priority projects.

The Liberals renewed their promise to build two LRT lines in Hamilton in the 2011 provincial election and, as recently as last October, Transport Minister Glen Murray again warned Hamiltonians that the Conservatives would kill Hamilton's long-promised LRT lines.

At the Renew Hamilton meeting in the same month, Mary Proc (GO Transit Vice-President for Customer Service) blithely assumed that our LRT lines would be built as part of the next round of Metrolinx projects.

Rendering of proposed LRT in Hamilton
Rendering of proposed LRT in Hamilton

Massive Planning and Engagement Exercise

As a result of the original promise by the Provincial government, the City started a massive planning and public engagement exercise to decide on and then design a successful A-line BRT and B-line LRT.

This exercise involved forming a Rapid Transit office, hiring engineering consultants Steer Davies Gleave, and working closely with Metrolinx to carefully analyze the economic, social, planning and engineering implications of plan.

The city also completed the Environmental Assessment and the 30 percent engineering design (which is sufficient to tender the project).

The Rapid Transit office operated from 2008 to 2013. Its final report, the Rapid Ready Plan making the business case for Hamilton's LRT project, was eventually supported unanimously by City Council and forwarded to the Province in February 2013.

The total cost of this planning, from both provincial and city sources, was estimated to be in excess of $10 million.

In addition, Metrolinx completed a Benefits Case Analysis in February 2010 which concluded that LRT would have a significant net economic and social benefit to the City of Hamilton. This followed the 2008 City feasibility study that recommended LRT.

An independent McMaster Institute for Transportation and Logistics (MITL) study a few years later reached similar conclusions about the net benefits of LRT.

During its time in operation, Hamilton's Rapid Transit team engaged in the largest public engagement exercise for an infrastructure project in living memory.

They organized meetings throughout the city with thousands of participants, met with community groups and launched a publicity campaign to raise awareness of the issue. When presented with the alternatives of LRT, BRT or status quo, the public massively preferred LRT, by a margin of over 80 percent.

Meanwhile, at the municipal level, Bob Bratina's 2010 election campaign website included a pledge to "Work with all levels of government to bring light rail transit to Hamilton".

This platform was clearly based on the strong level of support demonstrated by the Rapid Transit office, and by the fact that the Mayor and Council had repeatedly voted unanimously to pursue LRT as a top priority with full provincial funding of direct costs, as was the case for other Metrolinx projects.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

If someone from another country (or even, one imagines, an intelligent life form from another galaxy) knew only this much, they would assume that Hamilton's B-line LRT is in excellent shape.

It was promised by both the Provincial government and current Mayor as part of their respective successful election campaigns (repeatedly in the case of the Province!), its benefits have been confirmed by multiple independent studies, and it was found to enjoy widespread community support in the biggest public engagement exercise in Hamilton's history.

In addition, the LRT project benefitted from excellent best-practice planning which built on the experience of the many other cities that have built LRT by integrating land use planning with the engineering and transit design to maximize its economic uplift.

To top it all off, Hamilton's is not a "go it alone" project like Kitchener-Waterloo's line, it is integrated as an essential part of a regional transportation plan for the GTHA.

And yet...

Despite the longstanding promises to the residents of Hamilton, the millions spent on planning to ensure a successful project, and the demonstrated public support, we discover that our Councillors are getting cold feet and seem to have forgotten why they repeatedly voted unanimously to support LRT with full provincial funding of direct costs.

The Province is making it clear that they would be quite content to use Council's nervousness as a reason not to follow through on their seven-year-old promise to the residents of Hamilton.

What is Going On?

The lion's share of the blame for this confusion and squandering of the money and time of Hamiltonians can be laid squarely at Council's door, with the Province playing a supporting role by constantly pushing off a clear decision on how our LRT project would actually be funded and when it would be built (originally, it was supposed to be built in time for the 2015 Pan Am games).

The lack of leadership from Council is quite impressive, in a depressing sort of way. What exactly do they want?

According to their official votes, the plans they have submitted to the Province, and to the millions of dollars they have spent on LRT studies, they believe LRT would be a huge benefit for the City, but that the City cannot afford to build it on its own.

Therefore, they support the B-line LRT, but want the Province to pay 100 percent of the direct capital costs. This is already a pretty brazen request, but it is at least justified by the Province's independent promise to build two LRT lines in Hamilton.

However, the Mayor and Council have done precisely nothing politically to actually achieve this publicly stated goal. They are keeping silent about why they think LRT is such a great thing for Hamilton, and have taken to complaining sullenly that the Province may not pony up enough money, and they nervously worry that public support might be weakening.

Broken Mayoral Promise

Since Bob Bratina was elected Mayor in 2010, he has refused to honour his campaign promise, one that no doubt helped to get him elected in the first place, and in fact has gone out of his way to discredit the LRT plan with a years-long campaign of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

In the summer of 2011, while the Mayor was making a string of public comments questioning and undermining the case for LRT, City Manager Chris Murray suddenly suspended the Rapid Transit office while Jill Stephens, its director, was on vacation. Soon after, Stephens resigned from the City.

After that the office was reorganized and its work eventually completed, but the Mayor's negative comments continued to undermine the case for LRT.

The rest of council has been largely passive, reluctant to show the leadership guts necessary to explain precisely why they thought LRT would be such a boon to Hamilton under an appropriate funding arrangement.

It's difficult to understand why Council voted to support LRT, and spend millions planning for it, and yet have done nothing to ensure they reach their longstanding goal of building LRT with full provincial funding.

This is all the more mystifying as the Province has made it clear that Hamilton's property taxes will not be tapped for direct costs, which was the only concern I heard at the first unanimous Council vote in favour of LRT back in 2008. And the Province is still open to raising the money for the direct costs.

Why did Council Support LRT?

Why, exactly, did Council support LRT? At the time they appeared to accept that LRT would have enormous benefits for the city, but their current attitude makes it seem like they supported LRT without really making an effort to understand why they supported it.

After making the decision they have made no effort to communicate to the public why LRT makes sense for Hamilton. It almost seems like they felt they couldn't refuse "free stuff" from the province, or perhaps they thought insisting on full funding of direct costs from the province was so obviously unreasonable that they would never have to carry through and actually build the line.

Well, the province has called their bluff, and Council are now nervously looking around for an "exit ramp".

Their most recent tactic has been to shift their demand from this won't be paid out of property taxes to no Hamiltonian should pay any tax increases, user fee, toll, levy or other charge to fund our LRT.

This bait-and-switch is all the more egregious as it has been clear since at least early 2008 that the province would need to find new revenue tools to fund the Big Move and that these revenue tools would apply regionally and provincially.

It really is unprecedented for a city council to try to dictate to the province how they can raise their own revenue!

Referendum Dodge

Lately, seven years into detailed planning for our LRT, some people - including members of Council - have begun musing that maybe the issue should be put to a referendum during the next municipal election "so the people can decide." This is the ultimate example of how not to plan a major infrastructure project.

It is quite bizarre, given that Hamilton has never put other expensive strategic infrastructure projects, such as freeways or the airport employment growth district, to a referendum. Is transit and intensification somehow more controversial than automobile infrastructure and servicing greenfield sprawl to build warehouses?

In addition, there is a very good case to be made that LRT already has longstanding democratic support: the Liberals formed a government (twice) with this promise as part of their platform, and our current Mayor won his campaign at least partly on the basis of his declared support for LRT.

What's more, the huge well-organized public engagement process by city staff demonstrated overwhelming public support - when the public were actually informed about the issues.

Even the Spectator's recent unscientific web poll showed majority support for LRT under an appropriate funding arrangement. This is all the more remarkable given the lukewarm support from council, the aggressive anti-LRT efforts of the Mayor, and the fact city planning staff have been completely silent on LRT for the past two years!

Since it is well-known that the most referendums fail, this LRT referendum suggestion seems just like another attempt on behalf of our elected officials to avoid taking responsibility for past and future decisions.

Even though referendums are not part of our democratic tradition, one might have made sense just after the Rapid Transit team completed its public engagement process if the full funding details were known. The referendum could have been announced a full year in advance to ensure adequate time for all sides to properly prepare their arguments, communicate with the public and rally support.

Indeed, one of the first cities to build a modern LRT system, Grenoble, had just such a referendum in 1983 and it passed narrowly by a margin of 52 percent (coincidentally, more or less the margin of support shown in the Spec web poll). The Grenoble mayor did not publicly support LRT, although he did not actively campaign against it.

The first line opened in 1987, less than four years later. Despite its initial limited support, LRT in Grenoble has been a great economic and transit success and the city has gone on to complete a total of four LRT lines spanning 35 kilometres, with 74 stations across the city in 1990, 2006 and 2007. A fifth line will open on June 28 of this year.

The system now carries over 200,000 passengers a day in a city similar in size to Hamilton.

Waste of Money and Time

For some councillors and journalists to propose a referendum now, years after the preliminary planning and public engagement has been completed, and despite LRT being parts of the successful election campaigns of both the Provincial government and Mayor, is not just evidence of an appalling failing of leadership and democratic process. It is also a huge waste of money and time.

Even if we held a referendum, and it failed, our elected representatives would still owe us all an explanation for why they wasted seven years of planning and millions of taxpayer dollars promising and planning a piece of major infrastructure they didn't really believe in.

It would be much better for our Mayor and Council to make the case, forcefully and convincingly, for what they have been officially supporting for almost six years: a B-line LRT with full funding of direct costs from the Province.

They need to make that case to both Hamiltonians and to the Provincial government. Just whining about the cost and disruption during construction, without explaining why they believe in the benefits, is not going to convince anyone.

And if they no longer think LRT is a good idea under any circumstances, they need to tell us what's changed, since the economic development and transit case for LRT in Hamilton is even stronger now than when they first voted to pursue it back in 2008.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.

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By YHMDesigns (registered) - website | Posted March 03, 2014 at 13:36:33

If 2004 John Kerry were on city council and asked during the election campaign about his position on the issue, then perhaps he'd answer, "I'm officially for LRT, but unofficially against it" ... :)

The Provincial funding piece is a hot potato ... particularly with provincial and municipal elections on the horizon ... but it would be nice if someone could resolve it once and for all and actually carry through on commitments.

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 14:08:20

Who knew that an unfunded campaign promise would prove such an elusive thing, or that council would be fractious and witless on a big-picture issue?

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By Rotate (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 23:18:39

Why don't we just spend spend nine figures to rotate the current routes by ninety degrees? It worked with the stadium.

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By prostosi (anonymous) | Posted March 04, 2014 at 17:20:06

The a little above multivariate techniques are each and all pretty linear as with well a true model is calculated using linear combinations

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