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Getting on track

Hamilton's LRT is steadily grinding through the political process, but waiting for its eventual arrival may be the biggest challenge of all

By Wendy Peters

  • Hamilton's LRT is a critical link to all-day go service. says the city's Director of Transportation Don Hull
  • Be low, a render - ing of the B-Line, a stretch along the Main/King corridor and from McMaster to Eastgate Square.

While it would be a boon to Hamilton businesses, the Light Rail Transit (LRT) proposal isn't exactly on the fast track.

When ultimately approved, the LRT plan would modernize the city and provide a significant injection into the local economy, a direction proponents have been advocating for years.

Five rapid transit corridors were identified as part of the initial plan, but it was the B-Line—an 18-stop, 14-km stretch along the Main/King corridor and from McMaster University to Eastgate Square—that was pegged as a priority project. Nevertheless, the A-Line—the James/Upper James corridor and downtown to Hamilton Airport—is also under serious review.

Several key players say it's not a question of if, but rather when an LRT line will be built. According to Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina, the Province is waiting for the City to present it with its best-case scenario for a light rail route.

"We need to determine where best an LRT should be placed," says Bratina. "It seems to me there is more attention now being given to the so-called A-Line, which is a connector between the waterfront and the airport, going up the Escarpment. Whatever is ultimately presented to council, we must make sure that the province will agree that it is viable and can be supported by $1 billion in funding. They (the province) don't want to throw away money on something that may or may not work. That's been the mandate all along."

To date, the LRT has been a slow process, though not disproportionately slow. The most recent deliberations began back in 2007, when the Ontario government announced the creation of MoveOntario 2020, now known as Metrolinx—an arm's-length provincial organization dedicated to building an integrated rapid transit system throughout the GTA and Hamilton (GTHA). The multi-modal regional transportation plan it produced, now known as "The Big Move," aims to restructure Toronto's and Hamilton's transportation system over the next 25 years.

Metrolinx's plan, which includes GO Transit expansions, is to provide residents and businesses in the GTHA with a transportation system that is modern, efficient and integrated. This will also promote economic growth, as the GO Transit Services of Ontario already accommodates over 57 million passengers per year with a service that spans over 10,000 square kilometres. The expanded service is also expected to relieve some of the gridlock on highways within the GTHA.

To the relief of many in Steeltown, a round-the-clock GO transit service from Hamilton to Toronto has already been approved. "The new transportation portfolio will be Hamilton's connection to the province's initiative for all-day GO service," says Don Hull, Director of Transportation for the City of Hamilton, who recently took over the newly expanded portfolio that covers all things transit in Hamilton, including its relationship to adjacent municipalities. "We expect two stations to be in place prior to the opening of the Pan American Games in 2015."

The improved service will be a boon for transporting people in and out of Hamilton and to towns and cities in between. Locals have complained for years about the lack of all-day GO in Hamilton, noting that they have often avoided trips to Toronto and elsewhere due to limited service.

As for the light rail project, the Province granted Hamilton $3 million to undertake an environmental assessment as part of its LRT planning in 2010. The capital costs of the Hamilton LRT were gauged at between $800-850 million, to be paid by Metrolinx. It would be the responsibility of the City to pay the ongoing operational costs, hence the careful prioritizing of city initiatives. Hull said the funding strategy for the LRT needs fine-tuning since the capital costs were initially identified in 2008. In a staff report dated Oct. 13, 2011, City of Hamilton staff responded to Council's request for updated financial impact information on the expenses associated with an LRT system for Hamilton. Operating cost were estimated at $13.5 million annually, based upon 22 LRT vehicles. However, depending on Council's decision on final service levels, the city's existing 18 buses could be either removed from service or redeployed elsewhere as LRT B-Line feeder service enhancements, reducing LRT operating costs. In this case, operating impact could range from $7.8 million to $13.5 million. These estimates, however, were written at the time the report and will continue to be refined, says Hull, who advises that the City will be working with Metrolinx on revising the figures and then report to Council on its findings this fall. Metrolinx will consider funding for Hamilton's portion of The Big Move in context with all other transit projects across the GTHA, according to Hull, who notes that a number of other initiatives must be completed in coordination with Metrolinx before year's end. "We have completed the design and feasibility study for the B-Line and the feasibility study for the A-Line. We have to complete the environmental assessment and identify a location for storage of the LRT fleet. We also have to complete an electromagnetic field and vibration study at McMaster University and complete the B-Line LRT phasing and funding strategy, which is a pretty significant requirement and undertaking." A phasing plan for construction must also be determined, adds Hull.

The A-Line corridor, which has a 10- to 15-year funding timeline, has desirable destinations for an LRT, including the airport, downtown, the James North GO station and the waterfront. But Metrolinx's preference has been given to the B-Line for funding within five years, since 50 percent of the existing transit ridership lies along the B-Line corridor, Hull explains. "Essentially, we would be converting the existing transit ridership from bus to light rail," says Hull. "The construction schedule start date cannot be forecast until after the 2012 work plan is completed and submitted to the Province. Subsequently, it is anticipated that the Province will consider the timing for Hamilton in context with their overall plan for the GTA-Hamilton." Although an actual construction start date cannot be predicted, according to the Environmental Project Report (October 2011), it is expected to take just under two years to complete the process to finalization of project procurement documents and several years to full system operation. However, these timelines could be impacted by the Phasing study currently underway and, like the costs, will continue to be refined. The actual construction will not be even considered before 2015, after the Pan American Games, says Hull.

Mayor Bratina, however, sees the A-Line, "or some sort of connector between the waterfront and the airport," as Hamilton's first priority. Bratina says that to date, no rationale has been put forward to make a business case for the B-Line. Developers are not calling for progress updates on the LRT as they did for an all-day GO service, he notes. While he confirms that "Council is totally in support of the whole project," the mayor doesn't believe it's necessary for someone to jump on the LRT bandwagon. "Championing brings in an emotional element and this has to be a solid business plan," Bratina explains.

Some community players, however, have been demanding what they believe should be more leadership on the LRT project. Entrepreneur Mark Chamberlain is one of those voices. The President of Trivaris served as Chair of an advisory board for Metrolinx when it introduced The Big Move.

"I've been educated with a lot of understanding about transportation and where transport and transport modes fit into a broader context of economic development, community development, health, wellness—basically an integration of everything we have to build in cities and communities to provide a vibrant place to live," says Chamberlain.

When costs are used to argue against LRT, Chamberlain counters that in certain scenarios alternative routes can be more expensive with far less desirable results. "We need to build more density," he says. "We need more taxpayers—both business and residents—living in the same infrastructure we currently call the City of Hamilton." City staff has confirmed they are indeed working on this very form of intensification.

Chamberlain asserts that most major cities are much higher in density than Hamilton. "Unless the City is absolutely committed to the healthy urban form of higher density, then we should not be investing in LRT, as it will be a failure," he warns. Chamberlain believes Hamilton must continue to be developed to attract people who want to live, work and play in it and be willing to pay taxes for a quality environment. "LRT is indicative of that high quality," he notes.

Metrolinx appears enthusiastic about the progress thus far. "We have been working with the City all the way through this and will continue to work with the City to complete the planning, design and engineering and seek environmental approval, ultimately leading to a decision on what the next step will be," says Metrolinx President and CEO Bruce McCuaig, who cites The Big Move as the guidepost for how it progresses with various transportation projects. "Metrolinx has been tasked with an investment strategy, which is intended to identify how we fund the next round and future transit projects. The decisions around the investment strategy will help us determine the timing for moving ahead with the City of Hamilton and their project," McCuaig confirms.

Compared to other transit systems, the Hamilton LRT process and debate have been reasonably brief so far. For example, the rapid transit bus service in Winnipeg took roughly 25 years from beginning to end, including delays due to changes in the political landscape, according to Michael W. Roschlau, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association. Phase One was finally launched finally in April, with construction of the corridor costing about $138 million.

"To get something built is a real challenge in this country and is a testament to the complicated nature of infrastructure, construction and investment in a country like ours where divergent interests have to come together to make it happen," says Roschlau. "There is a reluctance by local governments to make a commitment to something if they don't know how it will be paid for. Then, when the money arrives, the plans aren't in place to get the project built because the foresight wasn't there to do that initial work."

Roschlau believes that a national framework strategy should be identified that allows municipalities to plan ahead for transportation properly and provide equity in terms of national support across the country. "Then the decision-making would be a lot more rational and not nearly as impulsive as we're seeing today," says Roschlau, who believes municipalities should have a holistic approach to transportation — looking at all the interconnected parts as a whole—rather than merely reacting to traffic congestion.

With the creation of Don Hull's position as Director of Transportation, Hamilton is developing such an approach, according to Mayor Bratina. Working in tandem with Hull on the planning side is Bill Janssen, Hamilton's Director of Strategic Services. Janssen says the City has developed an approach for intensification—both in terms of higher residential and business density— along its corridors and nodes in major activity areas. "Certainly, where the LRT runs is one of these primary corridors that we've identified in the Official Plan," Janssen notes.

According to Janssen, there has been a provincial ruling that requires a number of municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe Area to provide at least 40% of their growth through intensification by 2015. The LRT will fit effectively into this provincial edict, says Janssen, particularly since the city has also identified a great opportunity for growth along its major corridors.

There are some encouraging signs. The Main/King/Queenston Corridor Strategy Study, which identified areas of increased density along the corridor, particularly where the future transit stops will be, is complete and received approval from Council on April 25. The next step, says Janssen, is to actually develop a planning regulatory framework that encourages more development to occur. This involves new zoning by-laws that would allow the density to increase in a way that fits in with the surrounding neighbourhoods.

"The higher level of transit we have, the greater opportunity we have for reducing parking requirements in the zoning by-law," Janssen notes. Densification and redevelopment will happen with or without an LRT, he maintains, but an LRT "would speed it up. We see opportunities for redevelopment happening. But when we look at existing infrastructure, we want to make sure that the population is there that will continue to use it."

The City of Hamilton has not been working on the LRT and GO Transit proposals in a vacuum. There has been continuous input from shareholders with both business and community interests. David Adames, president and CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, says the Chamber is pleased to see the all-day, two-way GO Transit confirmed for 2015 and fully supports the proposed Hamilton LRT.

"It's a complex and long-term planning issue, so we need to study it comprehensively," indicates Adames, who indicates that the next scope of work—return on investment—will look at the other side of the ledger. The Chamber has set up an LRT task force to get all interested parties up to speed and to look at key considerations from a Chamber perspective, says Adames.

On the community side, a staunch LRT advocate is the volunteer-based Hamilton Light Rail Initiative. "In the 2008 election, the provincial Liberals campaigned on the promise of two LRT lines in Hamilton," notes spokesperson Ryan Mc- Creal, who cites a city-conducted feasibility study where LRT was firmly endorsed over bus service. From the study, conducted between June and September of 2008, staff received more than 1,600 survey responses with 94% support for Rapid Transit (66% for Light Rail, 20% for Light Rail or Bus Rapid Transit and 8% for Bus Rapid Transit).

McCreal says that before Metrolinx commits to funding, "they want a clear message from the community, citizens, City staff and politicians that we support the project. So Hamilton must convey that consistent message." Council needs to make sure LRT planning remains a priority to complete on time, adds McCreal. "And the Province needs to indicate that they will keep their promise to fund its construction."

With the all-day GO Transit service approved, LRT plans should now see a greater focus from local government. The City, however, still has a large number of processes and procedures to undertake in order to seal a funding deal with Metrolinx. Don Hull says he expects to report to Council in the latter part of 2012 or early 2013. Hamilton City Council ultimately must approve the business plans put forward by City staff, as well as protect and monitor taxpayer dollars.

Given Winnipeg's quarter-century ordeal for a rapid transit bus service, the one predictable aspect of Hamilton's LRT will be the long wait before its arrival.