Despite many of Hamilton’s city councillors saying how much they want to get rid of the downtown transit-only lane, city staff are recommending they keep it.

In a report aimed for debate at next week’s general issues committee, staff say the city should keep the lane — which runs along King Street from Mary to Dundurn Streets — with some modifications. The lane carries as many passengers as two or three general vehicle lanes, the report says, and improves travel time for bus riders.

'I think the perception around the bus lane is quite different from the reality.' -Mayor Fred Eisenberger

The lane does slow down car traffic through the corridor by as much as five minutes during the afternoon rush hour, staff say.

“While the TOL pilot project has proven to be controversial, the TOL is an important and strategic step in developing the city’s long term transportation network and accommodating growth and development,” says the report, which was authored by Christina Lee-Morrison, a manager in the city's public works department.

The report is "a positive one, clearly," said Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who will support keeping the lane next week. "I think the perception around the bus lane is quite different from the reality."

"It was a pretty impressive pilot project. I’m hopeful, personally, that with some adjustments, council will consider continuing on. But hopefulness doesn’t mean it’s going to happen."

The report hasn't changed the mind of Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins, who tried to kill the lane in December. He plans on reintroducing a motion to kill it, citing increased accidents, no transit benefits and unhappy merchants.

The project was meant to be a one-year pilot, running from October 2013 to October 2014. It's end was delayed by the Oct. 27 election. 

"The sooner we can resolve (and shelve) the bus lane and LRT issue, the better," he said at the time.

Suggested improvements

Eisenberger tried, also unsuccessfully, to have the staff report include options such as opening the lane to high-occupancy vehicles too, and restricting its hours to weekday morning and afternoon rush hours. His motion was deferred to the general issues committee meeting. The report ended up including two of his three ideas anyway, he said, so he's pleased.

In the report, staff recommend refining the transit lane by changing signals to put priority on transit, which would improve traffic flow. Staff would also report back in 2016 on extending the lane, the report says.

Staff also support modifying the design west of Bay Street so the transit lane would be the second lane from the north curb, so parking would be reinstated on the north side of the street. Those modifications would happen in the spring.

The report says the three general purpose lanes carried 1,190 vehicles during morning rush hours. By comparison, about 1,104 passengers were in the transit-only lane. 

'If I can’t drive through downtown to go to work, what’s that say to business owners and their patrons?' - Coun. Maria Pearson

The transit lane was been unpopular with businesses, the report says, and decreased parking by 69 per cent.

The lane is meant to be the precursor to light rail (LRT) or bus rapid transit, as recommended in the city's February 2013 Rapid Ready report outlining the future of transit in Hamilton.

Alternatives, the report says, include extending the pilot period or getting rid of the transit lane, which staff don't recommend. It would cost another $100,000 to get rid of the lane, the report says, and that couldn't happen until the spring because of the weather.

Lane would benefit Pan Am Games

Organizers of the 2015 Pan Am Games want the lane to continue, the report says. McMaster University will be an athlete's satellite village and it will be easier to travel the route with the lane in place.  

The Pan Am Games support is "a pretty compelling argument," Eisenberger said.

Councillors are reluctant to continue with the lane, the mayor said. But he hopes the report changes that.

'We’re in a position now where by killing this particular pilot project, we’re in essence saying we’re not interested in LRT.' - Coun. Sam Merulla

"Now they have the report, and staff is indicating some positive aspects of the exercise, maybe some folks are prepared to reassess."

Wednesday's vote is no less than a vote on the future of LRT, said Coun. Sam Merulla of Ward 4. Because he wants LRT with full provincial funding, he'll vote in favour of keeping the lane.

"We’re in a position now where by killing this particular pilot project, we’re in essence saying we’re not interested in LRT," he said. "It’s really that simple."

He urges people to look beyond the five-minute traffic delay and look at the broader issue, which is a long-term increase in property values.

"We need to have courage, we need to have vision, and we need to make decisions not only in the best interest of 10 minutes extra we have to drive in the morning, but how it will benefit us in the next 10 to 15 years."

Coun. Maria Pearson of Ward 10 hasn't read the report yet, but is keeping an open mind.

She questions the analysis that traffic is only delayed five minutes though.

"I’ve sat through three red lights because I couldn’t go further ahead to get to my exit to get to city hall," she said.

"If I can’t drive through downtown to go to work, what’s that say to business owners and their patrons?"

The meeting is Jan. 14 at 9:30 a.m. at city hall council chambers.

Other highlights from the report:

  • The city budgeted $300,000 from a Metrolinx "Quick Wins" grant for the lane. So far, it has spent about $184,000. Removing the lane would cost $100,000.
  • Transit ridership along the Main-King-Queenston corridor has increased by about 20 per cent in five years.
  • Many businesses are unhappy with the transit only lane, saying it's had a negative impact on them. There's limited data to determine if the lane impacted on-street parking. Data does show that parking from Caroline to Queen is down 69 per cent from the year before. Staff aren't sure if this is from the lane or new pay-and-display kiosks.
  • Twenty-nine cyclists asked the city why cyclists couldn't use the lane. One included a petition.
  • The city got 79 comments saying traffic was congested, particularly during the first weeks of the project.
  • The King Street BIA submitted comments and petitions to get rid of the lane. Of the 38 businesses who responded from the International Village BIA, nine like the bus lane, eight are unaffected and 21 don't support it.
  • As of May 2014, Hamilton Police Services said there were 21 violations issued.