Two weeks after council voted to kill Hamilton's only bus lane, a new 10-year transit strategy recommends installing more of them.

In a report to councillors during a budget session Friday, David Dixon, Hamilton's new head of transit, will recommend installing an unspecified number of new transit lanes, with signal priority for buses, over the next 10 years. This would cost $6 million.

Dixon's strategy presentation lays out what needs to be done to fix the deficiencies in HSR's transit system over the next two years before moving forward with a plan for transit growth from 2017 to 2024, all of which will cost about $301 million.

'I don’t believe that council can afford the entire plan that’s been presented. We might need a couple more years to try to fund everything on the list.' - Coun. Chad Collins

Transit has been at the forefront of debate in Hamilton lately, particularly after council voted 9-7 council on Jan. 21 to dismantle two kilometres of bus lane along King Street downtown. The decision inspired a new union of transit riders, and about 150 of them crowded into council chambers for the debate.

Ryan McGreal, a Hamilton transit advocate, hopes these new recommendations inspire councillors to take another look at transit lanes, and to support the other transit improvements.

"For all the councillors a couple of weeks ago who were waxing rhetorical about how much they support improving transit and increasing buses, this is wonderful opportunity for them to demonstrate that," he said.

The report doesn't specifically mention light rail transit (LRT) or bus rapid transit (BRT), which council advocated as part of its 2013 Rapid Ready plan. Coun. Chad Collins of Ward 5, who led the charge to scrap the bus lane, says if anything, Dixon's report illustrates that Hamilton is years off from needing or affording rapid transit.

The $301,875,000 10-year cost estimate to fix and improve the existing system is what the city should be pressuring the province for, not money for LRT, Collins said. 

"We need to fix the problems we have within the HSR’s service delivery model first," he said, citing the need to look at under-performing routes and overcrowding. 

'A good first step'

"For me, to see that they’ve highlighted deficiencies as a first priority is a good first step."

'Staff are extremely highly sensitized to what they are hearing from councillors in terms of what they want. I'm guessing councillors don’t want to hear about LRT right now.' - Ryan McGreal

Dixon recommends installing large capacity buses to boost Hamilton's transit ridership and address current overcrowding issues. The city should increase fares from $2.55 to $3 in September 2015, the report says, and again to $3.25 in September 2017.

The system needs $156 million in capital investment overall, and $45 million in short-term operating needs, Dixon's presentation says. Bringing it up to snuff would also require the full-time equivalent of 50 new staff members in 2015.

"I don’t believe that council can afford the entire plan that’s been presented," Collins said. "We might need a couple more years to try to fund everything on the list. There are a lot of improvements in the report and a lot of very big expenditure lines. It’s incumbent for us to prioritize in a list the most important ones."

Dixon recommends a large-scale marketing strategy to boost transit ridership, as well as restructuring routes and increasing bus frequency on the A, B and T lines. That would cost $6 million in operating dollars and $15,625,000 in capital dollars.

He recommends boosting routes on the Mountain and in Ancaster, Waterdown and Stoney Creek.

'Virtually incomprehensible'

Dixon will present the 10-year plan during a general issues committee meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Friday as part of the larger public works tax operating budget.

'I don’t foresee us requiring a transit only lane in the short or medium term.' - Coun. Chad Collins

McGreal wasn't disheartened by the lack of mentions of LRT and BRT.

"Staff are extremely highly sensitized to what they are hearing from councillors in terms of what they want," he said. "I'm guessing councillors don’t want to hear about LRT right now, so they’re focusing here on transit as a comprehensive goal."

McGreal hopes councillors are prepared to invest in the recommendations after the "staggeringly cynical" bus lane decision two weeks ago. That decision "was virtually incomprehensible," he said. "This was provincial money. It didn’t cost us a penny from the local tax base. It was already there."

When it comes to transit, he said, "I hope this becomes the benchmark for the worst that they get."

$16M to market transit in Hamilton

Collins, however, isn't convinced. "I don’t foresee us requiring a transit only lane in the short or medium term."

Some of Dixon's recommendations will be included in council's 2015 budget deliberations, while others are to be applied over a 10-year period.

Other highlights:

  • Spending $4.5 million to brand and market HSR to Hamiltonians. He recommends another $12 million to apply that new brand to buses and other assets.
  • Spending $4.5 million to improve the passenger experience through efforts such as real-time displays, social media and better bus shelters. He also recommends spending $18 million on new and expanded terminals.
  • Spending $6 million in 2015 and 2016 to fix system deficiencies, including the 50 staff and 25 new buses. Spending from 2017 to 2024 would focus on growth.
  • The city is lagging behind in its transit targets, including the number of trips made by transit, walking and cycling.