Traffic, noise, dust, politics: the city's LRT issues are just starting

The provincial announcement Tuesday to put $1 billion into building a light rail transit line answered a lot of questions for Hamilton. But in many ways, the work has just begun.

Hamilton will establish a special office to deal with LRT

Premier Kathleen Wynne poses with Jake, Coun. Jason Farr's son, during an LRT announcement on Tuesday. Now that the province has committed $1 billion for LRT, the work has just begun for Farr and other councillors. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The provincial announcement Tuesday to put $1 billion into building a light rail transit line answered a lot of questions for Hamilton. But in many ways, the work has just begun.

The city will have a lot to decide as it finishes the design process of the line that will run from McMaster University to the Queenston traffic circle, and from King Street to the James North GO station.

It's not a train. It's a cultural shift.- Coun. Sam Merulla

The city is three years at least away from the start of construction, and eight from project completion.

There are many pitfalls to be navigated between now and then. Many are practical but many will be political, as the project comes up against opposition at council and a citizens panel opens the door to many viewpoints and questions. 

The most significant practical details will go into a master agreement between the city and the province. Work will start on that right away, said Metrolinx head Bruce McCuaig.

"There's a lot of work we'll be doing with the city over the coming weeks and months," he said.

The city is establishing a special office to deal with LRT. It will likely also set up a subcommittee of councillors who will meet regularly to talk about LRT. On Wednesday, Coun. Sam Merulla of Ward 4 will introduce a motion to establish both of those.

Here are some of the biggest issues the city and province will need to tackle in the coming months:

Council politics and community support

Support for LRT is far from unanimous in Hamilton. In fact, Coun. Chad Collins of Ward 5 says the majority of people in his ward don't want it. "When I went door to door (during the election), people were largely opposed to the project," he said.

Still, the city has to get buy in for a project that will block lanes, divert traffic and cause five years of noise and dust. It needs a communication plan, says Coun. Aidan Johnson.

"There are many people in Ward 1 who do not want LRT," he said. So "you have the conversation. You make the case."

Coun. Terry Whitehead said many of his Ward 8 residents don't want LRT either, but the city can't turn down $1 billion either. He hopes LRT leads to better transit across Hamilton, including his ward.

"I'm hoping this is a start of a significant renaissance of the transit system that will see a more robust vibrant transit system on the Mountain."

The citizen's panel

Mayor Fred Eisenberger campaigned in the fall on establishing a citizen's panel to look at LRT. The city plans to establish that this year.

Eisenberger says there will still be a citizen's panel. The panel will look at city-wide transit, he said. It will look at whether transit remains area rated. The panel will not be able to turn down $1 billion in transit funding.

"We're past that," Eisenberger said. "We're now onto getting their advice. This is really about a whole system approach."

Two-way streets

Several LRT-related documents have proposed converting Main and King to two-way streets. The city will determine during the design process whether that's necessary.

Resident aversion to two-way street conversion shows that there's reason to be concerned about LRT, said Coun. Maria Pearson of Ward 10. "We can't even decide on that."

The design process will also determine how many lanes LRT occupies, and where. Current designs show LRT taking up two lanes along the King Street route. The James North route, however, is less certain. Some LRT systems only take up one lane, Metrolinx says.

Outstanding problems with the transit system

The current HSR system is untenable, says David Dixon, Hamilton's transit head. The city asked the province for $300 million over the next 10 years for improvements to the existing system, including $200 million for a storage facility.

Tuesday's announcement included no mention of those required upgrades. That's "the elephant in the room," Collins said.

"We're in a scenario where LRT's going to come and our current system will be inadequate," the Ward 5 councillor said.

Improving that system would have to come from fare increases or property taxes, he said. And "there isn't room for another $300-million pressure."

The impact on business

Some businesses have been concerned about LRT, particularly those through the International Village, where King Street is only two lanes.

The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce is in favour of LRT. But president Keanin Loomis says there will be impact on business, and the city needs to address those issues.

"We have to do something to mitigate the impact for those businesses," he said.

Merulla agrees. He's in favour of LRT, calling it a boon to property values and the city in general. But there will be growing pains.

"This is going to be one of the most difficult transition periods in the history of this city in trying to mitigate the impact on residents in the corridor," he said.

He cited timing, odour, dust, noise and traffic issues as potential landmines the city will have to navigate. That's why he wants to establish a subcommittee now.

"It's not a train," he said. "It's a cultural shift."

"For those that own properties, it's like winning the lottery," he said. "For those that don't, this will make it difficult to sustain themselves, and that's something we'll have to look at too."