Despite provincial definitions otherwise, mayoral candidate Brad Clark says his version of bus rapid transit (BRT) is essentially a beefed-up version of Hamilton’s current transit system.

And he says that will still put the city in the running for a portion of the $15 billion the province has earmarked for rapid transit.

Clark's BRT explanation has his mayoral competitors saying he either misunderstands the whole LRT/BRT debate or is deliberately misleading voters about what the choices are.

In a live interview with CBC Hamilton on Friday, Clark said his version of BRT doesn’t include many of the hallmarks of the technology, such as a dedicated lane, or new infrastructure that separates the buses from other traffic.

Those are characteristics of “high-end” BRT systems, he said. His transit vision for Hamilton is more of the standard bus service that already exists on the B-line. And he says the province will accept that.

'How much money do we want to spend to speed up the ride by three and a half minutes?' - Brad Clark

“You can go to a situation where BRT is a dedicated lane with concrete barriers on the road where nothing gets into it except for the bus,” said Clark, who was Ontario's minister of transportation in 2001. “That would be the higher order end of it.”

Transportation Minister Steve Del Duca has told the city that there will be money for its transit priorities, including beefing up its existing transit system, Clark said. “He’s open to those options.”

Earlier this year, the provincial government allocated $15 billion in its budget for “rapid transit projects” in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area over the next 10 years. This includes “rapid transit” in Hamilton, but whether that should be a $1-billion light rail transit (LRT) system has been a heated election issue.

The city's Rapid Ready plan, which city council approved unanimously last year, recommends making necessary transit improvements to ready the city for an LRT system. Council also voted that the eventual LRT system, which would run 13 kilometres along King Street from McMaster University to Eastgate Square, be contingent on the province paying the full capital costs for the system.

Rapid transit is defined by the province as either LRT or BRT. According to the province, BRT “operates completely, or mostly, in their own right-of-way. It would be separate from mixed traffic,” said Bob Nichol, Ministry of Transportation spokesperson.

Metrolinx has a similar definition for BRT in its Big Move plan.

Where will the money go?

The $15 billion, Nichol said, will first go to beefing up regional GO transit, including more frequent, electrified, all-day, two-way service.

The next priority will be to fund rapid transit projects identified in the next wave of Metrolinx’s Big Move plan. According to Metrolinx's website, this includes “Hamilton light rail transit."

The lion's share of the $15 billion, Clark predicts, will likely be spent on improved GO service.

Clark’s chief opponents in the mayoral race, Fred Eisenberger and Brian McHattie, dispute Clark’s version of BRT. Clark's version also means that the city won't be in the running for any of the $15 billion, McHattie said.

'“In addition, it seems Brad Clark wants to let the entire provincial rapid transit investment go to another city.' - Brian McHattie

“Mr. Clark is telling people BRT is just a matter of adding more buses to the B-line route along King Street,” said McHattie, who wants LRT. “That’s not even nearly accurate. Either he’s completely misunderstood all the information in the Rapid Ready report, a report he’s voted in favour of twice, or he’s consciously misrepresenting what he knows to be true.

“In addition, it seems Brad Clark wants to let the entire provincial rapid transit investment go to another city.”

'Clearly he should know better'

Eisenberger, who is pro-LRT but wants to strike a citizen’s panel to discuss it, said Clark’s version is “clearly not the case.”

“Clearly he should know better, certainly at this point, with all the information that’s been out there,” he said. “I hope we can get to the point where we can give the community at large a good understanding of what the differences are and get community buy-in before the train leaves the station.”

'Clearly he should know better, certainly at this point, with all the information that’s been out there.' - Fred Eisenberger

But Clark says he hasn’t misunderstood the Rapid Ready report at all. The report recommends $155 million in transit improvements to prepare the city for LRT, and under a Metrolinx funding formula, Hamilton is due for $107 million of that.

Those are the transit investments the city should be making right now, he said. Taking away any downtown traffic lanes for a bus system is not feasible.

Such a plan "will only speed up your ride by anywhere from two and a half to three and a half minutes. So how much money do we want to spend to speed up the ride by three and a half minutes?"

“Will we eventually see LRT? Yes. Will we see it in the next 20 to 30 years? No.”