​Hamilton city councillors are gearing up for a crucial light rail transit (LRT) vote March 28 to approve the project design and environmental impact.

Councillors will vote on an environmental project report (EPR) for the $1 billion project, which will run from McMaster University to the Queenston traffic circle. It doesn't include a bus rapid transit (BRT) plan from the waterfront to the airport.

The current report is an update to a 2011 environmental assessment, with changes that address issues of safety, traffic management, operations and access. Many impact directly on how citizens will experience the system. If council doesn't vote for it, "we would need some direction" on how to proceed with the EA process, said Paul Johnson, Hamilton's LRT project head.

As for whether this vote is a potential deal breaker for LRT, "my understanding is no," Johnson said. "This is simply a vote on this portion of it."

Metrolinx is building the system, which would be operated via a public-private partnership. The province has committed $1 billion to build it.

Metrolinx and the city have had a joint office since 2015. City council voted to establish it, and has voted for numerous other steps in the LRT process.

A line

The proposed bus rapid transit line will likely be a mixture of dedicated lanes and shared traffic with other vehicles, but Metrolinx is still designing it. (Ministry of Transportation Ontario)

The unknown now is whether the city would be on the hook for any costs if it backed out of the project. Metrolinx has already spent about $70 million on the project. In Toronto, the city had to repay about $75 million when it backed out of an LRT project.

Sam Merulla, Ward 4 councillor in favour of LRT, will move at the March 28 for the city to look into the cost implications if Hamilton backed out.

The next major step in the process will be for Metrolinx and the city to sign a master agreement, which will happen sometime this year.

Here are some of the major changes in the current design, which will be submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change:

The route

The 2011 plan assumed LRT would run alternately down Main and King streets from McMaster University to Eastgate Square. The new plan runs from McMaster University to the Queenston traffic circle.

Two-way traffic on King Street

The new EA provides for two-way traffic on King Street West (except between Queen and Hess), and King Street East (except in the International Village between James and John). It also allows for it, if necessary, on Main Street West and Main Street East.

On the centre of the street

The design has changed so some sections that were running along the street side are now running down the centre. This impacts areas between Dundurn Street and the Queenston traffic circle. It also changes the area from Dalewood Avenue to Cootes Drive from centre to side running. The McMaster stop wil move to the north (McMaster) side of the Main Street West.

A Gage Park stop

Residents said they wanted a Gage Park stop, and planners added one late last year. There wasn't a stop at Gage Park in the 2011 plan.

More bus terminals

The design adds bus terminals at the western terminus (McMaster University) and eastern terminus (Queenston traffic circle).

Overhead wires

The report makes clear there will be overhead power lines to power the system.

The storage facility

The new plan includes an operations maintenance and storage facility on Longwood Road.

Limiting the number of left turns

The new design limits the number of places where vehicles can cross the LRT tracks. That means most local road intersections allow right turns in and out. Crossings will be allowed via signalized intersections at nearby arterial roads. Motorists can also make U-turns there.

Key dates in the project so far:

  • October 2008: Council votes to "continue discussions" with Metrolinx regarding a B-line rapid transit corridor.
  • February 2013: Council approves the Rapid Ready – Expanding Mobility Choices in Hamilton report which outlines infrastructure investments and changes required to prepare Hamilton for LRT.
  • May 2015: The province announces $1 billion to build LRT.
  • August 2015: Council votes to retain Steer Davies Gleave for conceptual design and EA work.
  • May 2016: The city signs a real estate service protocol with Metrolinx. LRT will require acquiring part of as many as 270 properties. About 75 are major acquisitions, but "the vast majority are small shavings," Johnson says.
  • September 2016: Metrolinx and the city hold the first of two rounds of public information centres.
  • February 2017: The province announces BRT for the A line. Initially, it announced an LRT spur line from King Street to the waterfront. It also says the procurement process is starting for LRT.