A rapid transit plan hailed as a potential shot in the arm for the city, a provincial government promising to cover the lion’s share of the capital costs, an ambivalent mayor, and a council divided on the merits of the project.

It’s a made-in-Hamilton story decades older than the city’s current debate over LRT — and one that’s rife with teachable moments for local planners and politicians in the present day. 

On the night of Dec. 15, 1981, Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Council rejected a proposal to build a $111-million elevated train line from Jackson Square in the city’s core to Lime Ridge Mall, the hub for what was then the southern fringe of the Mountain’s blooming suburbs.

1981 Hamilton elevated train line route map

A alignment map from 1981 shows the route the elevated train line would have taken. (Hamilton Public Library Special Archives)

The voted foiled the Progressive Conservative government’s plan to use Hamilton as a staging ground for the new Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS), a technology the province's Urban Transportation Development Corporation had developed during the 1970s.

A different Hamilton?

The option this time is east-west, the technology proven, the option at ground level. So different in the details, so similar in some of the important questions. Now, 33 years later, those involved —​ for and against — still believe in the positions they held back then. Right or wrong, the decision raises the questions: How might Hamilton have been different if it had gone ahead with ICTS and what can be learned from how the decision unfolded?

'It would have destroyed whatever neighbourhood it went through.' —Lorna Kippen, Mountain resident

For Lorna Kippen, the decision against the project represented a huge victory and the culmination of months of circulating petitions, holding meetings, ringing up councillors and writing newspaper op-eds. A Mountain resident since the early ‘60s, she chaired the Coalition on Sane Transit (COST), which was formed to scuttle the elevated rail plan.

“It would have destroyed whatever neighbourhood it went through,” Kippen told CBC Hamilton earlier in May. “In retrospect, the action we took and the results that we achieved… it’s definitely borne out that it was the best thing that could have happened at the time.”

Elevated system

Much of the group’s opposition to the ICTS system stemmed from the particulars of the proposal.

“One of our main objections was that it was an elevated system,” said Kippen. “And there were no other options being explored except for the elevated system.”

According to a December 1981 column in the Toronto Star, the tracks would have run along a 5.5-metre-high platform, itself held up by a concrete pillar every 30 metres.

“The system was totally inaccessible to disabled people and people with children in strollers,” said Kippen.

Mountain residents who lived on the route expressed concerns that riders would be able to peer into second-storey windows of nearby homes. Others charged the elevated waiting areas would be too hidden from the street and thus would attract urban scourges like drug dealing and offensive graffiti.

Coalition on Sane Transit

After the ICTS plan was voted down, COST held a victory party, which featured a cake that had the group's slogan — "Elevated transit is for the birds" — written on top. Kippen, pictured, wore a hat that said the same thing. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

The cost and ridership projections were also sore spots for ICTS opponents. Staff with the Hamilton-Wentworth region said the Mountain-downtown corridor wouldn’t need rapid transit until the 1990s and later conceded that enhanced transit along the route wouldn’t been required until beyond 2001.

Unconvinced the ICTS technology was suitable for Hamilton — and that the operating costs wouldn't soar above the estimated $2 million per year (roughly $5.2 million in 2014 dollars) — many local politicians expressed their own reservations months before regional council voted to axe the plan.

“I have grave doubts about the cost and the usage it might get,” Bill Powell, Hamilton’s mayor at the time, was quoted as saying in a May 2, 1981 Hamilton Spectator story.

'Pathway to the future'

Doug Lychak, who was the region's planning and development manager in 1981, disagreed with the mayor’s assessment.

“We thought — all of us at the regional planning level — that this his would be a great opportunity,” said Lychak, who later worked as a top city staffer in Edmonton, Mississauga and Surrey, B.C., and returned to Hamilton’s to serve as city manager before his retirement in 2002. “We were sure that it would be a pathway to the future.”

Vancouver Skytrain — Expo Line

Featuring the same ICTS technology Hamilton rejected four years earlier, Vancouver's Expo Line opened in 1985. (CBC)

Speaking on the phone from his home in Okanagan Falls, B.C, Lychak said he still believes adopting ICTS — which Vancouver did, building what would become the Expo Line of its SkyTrain rapid transit system — “could have changed many things in what happened to the city.”

For instance, moving ahead on the plan, he said, would have “created synergy” between the Jackson Square and the Lime Ridge Mall hubs and could have attracted valuable investment to Hamilton’s then-declining downtown core.

The rapid transit line would also have served as a helpful symbol in 1980s Hamilton, Lychak said.

“It would have said to people, ‘Hey, this is a city that’s got something going on.’ ”

Similarities and differences

Hamilton’s 1981 transit debate has parallels in the present day, but there are scores of contrasts between the ICTS plan and the light-rain transit (LRT) line that’s currently being discussed. 

If constructed, the $800-million, 13.4-kilometre LRT system would run in the lower city only, from McMaster University in the west to Eastgate Square in east. The technology — sleek, low floor electric trains that are already in a number of cities in North America and Europe — is far from untested.

In addition, the provincial Liberals say have said that, if re-elected, they will pick up the tab even if the city opts for a scaled-back bus rapid transit plan for the route. The city approved the light rail plan in 2013, but council support to implement it appears to be ebbing.

Despite the obvious differences between the two debates, the ICTS tale offers take-home lessons that may be instructive in the city’s 2014 calculus on rapid transit.

In 1981, Lychak said, “council fumbled the ball” because it wasn’t able to develop a strong consensus on the route the ICTS line should take. In the end, councillors settled on the design that had the lowest projected ridership of the options that were presented.

Regional planners and politicians who supported the plan were also unsuccessful at communicating that measures could be taken to mitigate the possible negatives that may have arisen from an elevated transit system, he said.

'If Hamilton has lacked anything in the past, it’s the ability to see strategically and think strategically.' —Doug Lychak, former Hamilton city manager

Ultimately, said Lychak, it is incumbent on council to demonstrate a bold vision when it comes to the future shape of the city.

“If Hamilton has lacked anything in the past, it’s the ability to see strategically and think strategically.”

Acting Ward 3 Coun. Bob Morrow, who was elected mayor of Hamilton in 1982, said the 1981 episode shows the need to take a good look at the LRT proposal.  

“It’s important that we don’t dismiss things out of hand,” said Morrow, who noted he didn’t favour the ICTS plan. “Take a good look at it and measure the consequences and the availability of alternatives.

“But I simply don’t want for us to say, ‘We don’t need that.’ ”