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Council support softens for LRT in Hamilton

More than a year after Hamilton city council unanimously approved a transit report that included light rail transit (LRT), support for an electrified B-line appears to be softening.

B-line is also questioned as best route, as north-south A-line put forward as an option

The city should look into if bus rapid transit is just as good as LRT, a local transportation expert says. (Illustration Courtesy City of Hamilton)

More than a year after Hamilton city council unanimously approved a transit report that included an east-west light rail transit (LRT) line, some councillors are questioning both the light rail option and the route.

Several councillors who voted in favour of the report last February told CBC Hamilton Wednesday that they’re having second thoughts about a proposed $800-million LRT system running from Eastgate Square to McMaster University. And one wants to explore whether a north-south route for rapid transit wouldn't make more sense.

“For me, it’s about 50/50,” said Coun. Maria Pearson, who represents Ward 10 in Stoney Creek, on her support for LRT.

While she was on board with the idea in early 2013, “I have more questions than solid confidence," she said.

We had countless staff reports, and the Rapid Ready reports, and it’s very clear what it said. It was B-line.- Coun. Lloyd Ferguson

Coun. Robert Pasuta of Flamborough says he wishes he’d voted against LRT sooner. Coun. Scott Duvall says he’s more unsure since the province hasn’t given a firm funding commitment yet.

And Coun. Terry Whitehead of Ward 8 has second thoughts about whether the B-line should be the focus. 

At Wednesday’s general issues committee, Whitehead nearly introduced a notice of motion to investigate the north-south A-line versus B-line. He withdrew it because of the upcoming provincial election on June 12, he said, but will bring it back if the Liberals win.

Back in February 2013, LRT made more sense, he said. But looking at congestion on the QEW and 400 series highways, as well as demand for more transit on the Mountain, A-line makes more sense, he said.

“If you can do both, great,” he said. “The question is if we’re setting priorities, where should our priorities be?”

Talk like that worries Coun. Lloyd Ferguson of Ancaster, who says the city is too far along to present a fractured front to the province. The majority of council, he said, “still wants to stay the course.”

The city spent $10 million in Metrolinx money on partial designs, he said.

“We’re not going to waste that money,” he said.

“We’re going to stay the course on what we spent three years studying. We had countless staff reports, and the Rapid Ready reports, and it’s very clear what it said. It was B-line.”

Impact of BRT

Ted Gill, a former Hamilton-Wentworth senior regional transportation manager, encouraged councillors to take a harder look at bus rapid transit (BRT).

BRT will be faster to implement and cheaper, Gill said, and might have equal economic spinoff. And its shelters and infrastructure could be used for LRT in the future.

Mayor Bob Bratina said that’s similar to his thoughts on it. Going with BRT first is "a smart idea," he said.

Gill's analysis conflicts with a 2010 Metrolinx study, which shows that LRT will cost more, but provide the greatest economic benefit.

"LRT demonstrates a greater ability to attract investment and redevelopment than the BRT alternative and consequently provides higher property value uplift," stated Metrolinx's 2010 cost-benefit analysis of rapid transit for Hamilton. It also had the greatest transportation user benefit of the options studied.

'Voodoo economics'

Whitehead doubts that analysis though, calling it “voodoo economics” that doesn’t take all variables into account.

“I want to know that we’ve got empirical data.”

Coun. Brian McHattie of Ward 1, an LRT advocate and mayoral candidate, nearly introduced a motion asking for a cost-benefit analysis of LRT and BRT. 

"If you continue hearing questions about something, you want to put it bed," he said. "I believe strongly that LRT has much stronger economic benefits, but let’s address that head on."

If council support is softening, he said, it’s likely because of the province’s apparent reluctance to announce full funding for LRT.

Hard to make long-term decisions

While last week’s rejected Liberal provincial budget included $15 billion in transit money for the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA), and specified “Hamilton rapid transit,” it didn’t include a dollar amount or specify LRT or BRT.

In fact, the closest recent indications council has that the province will fully fund rapid transit is a tweet from Transportation Minister Glen Murray on Thursday and comments from Premier Kathleen Wynne at a Burlington campaign stop.

“A Liberal gov’t will fund 100% of the capital costs of the #HamOnt proposed rapid transit line,” tweeted Murray.

But Coun. Jason Farr of Ward 2 is still an LRT fan. And he still believes in the benefits to Hamilton.

“It’s hard for some to make long-term decisions when you know there are going to be short-term costs,” he said. 

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