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$50b transit plan targets Hamilton

The Big Move could be transformational, but it leaves unanswered whether Hamilton will have light rail transit or merely rapid buses.

By Rob Faulkner

Published in the Hamilton Spectator on Wednesday, September 24, 2008.

GO trains every five minutes during rush hour. Train rides from Hamilton to Union Station in Toronto that take 44, not 66 minutes like today. Two rapid transit lines by 2023, and a third in the years just after that.

It's the kind of work that Burlington-mayor-turned-transportation-architect Rob MacIsaac calls "transformational."

And it's a glimpse of the local future envisioned in The Big Move, a $50-billion, 25-year draft plan unveiled yesterday by provincial Crown agency Metrolinx aiming to ease gridlock and pollution in the Toronto-Hamilton region.

It contained dozens of blockbuster projects across the region.

Metrolinx board chair MacIsaac called the plan -- a mix of cycling, transit, integrated fares, mobility hubs and more -- the most significant transportation investment in a generation.

But it leaves a few unanswered questions: such as will Hamilton get the light rail it has been hoping for or will it make do with bus rapid transit?

The 84-page plan commits to building three rapid transit lines in Hamilton within 25 years, and two of these by 2023. One line will run east-west from McMaster University to Centennial Parkway -- what Hamilton has been calling its B line.

A north-south line is planned to run along James Street up the Mountain.

The east-west line is one of the top 15 priorities among the 40 projects Metrolinx wants completed in the next 15 years.

A 2009 benefits analysis study will determine if that line will run with bus or rail, said John Howe, Metrolinx general manager for investment strategy and projects.

"We are definitely very excited to see them include the (east-west) B line as one of the top 15 priorities," said Jill Stephen, city manager of strategic planning.

"We could have it running in the next eight years. We are going to press forward with our studies, our consultation and make sure that Metrolinx knows we are ready."

Howe said construction may start in 2010 and take four or five years.

Capital costs will be covered, it appears, but operating costs will likely be paid by municipalities.

Metrolinx plans more thorough financial details in the years ahead.

MacIsaac said that each project in the draft plan's long list will be evaluated for ridership and environmental, social and economic benefits. A final plan is expected in November.

He describes some work, like GO train electrification, as "transformational." Within 15 years, Lakeshore GO trains will run every 15 minutes at off-peak and every five minutes at peak times, he said.

"They won't have to worry about a schedule, they can just show up at a station and have confidence that a train will be along relatively shortly," MacIsaac said.

Howe said electrification will cost $4 billion and may be complete by 2016, if it starts in 2011.

Metrolinx said two Hamilton stations will be used for the increased number of GO trains, the Hunter Street GO station and LIUNA Station.

GO spokesperson Jessica Kosmack said details are not yet hammered out.

"This regional transportation plan is the first step in a long journey for all of the transportation groups. The next step is establishing what the priorities are and looking at the logistics and the funding," she said.

The Draft Regional Transportation Plan and Draft Investment Strategy will go to the Metrolinx board for discussion and approval Friday.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger urges Hamilton residents to participate in the public consultations Metrolinx is planning for October. He said that, as Hamilton's voice on the agency's board, he will strive to make the plan a reality.

"It's a good news day for Hamilton," Eisenberger said. "We believe in Hamilton that light rail transit is the right way to go. We're pushing for that. Light rail is the next generation of transit systems. We've already made our case and I'll continue to do that."

Last year's $17.5-billion MoveOntario 2020 announcement -- which Metrolinx is implementing -- said $300 million was available for Hamilton rapid transit. More exact timing for capital projects will come in October's five-year rolling budget, MacIsaac said.

Metrolinx said it will use the $11.5 billion in committed provincial money to fund the plan from 2009 to 2015, to accomplish quick wins and its 15 top priorities. It hopes for $6 billion from the federal government, to fund the plan to 2018.

Metrolinx plans to report back to the Ontario government in 2013 on how to fund the rest of the plan, post-2015. Possible sources include tolls.

But MacIsaac said the strategic thinking was to build a system that Ontario likes first, then find ways to generate new money.

Hamilton estimates an east-west line and a north-south line of light rail will cost $1.1 billion, and $160 an hour per vehicle to run. Bus rapid transit would cost $480 million.

"It's a major step along the way because Metrolinx has said that Hamilton will be in the first round of projects to get funded," said Nicholas Kevlahan, a McMaster University math professor and co-founder of Hamilton Light Rail, a citizens group formed to advocate for local light rail transit.

"On the choice between light rail and bus rapid transit, we are very well positioned because the city is already answering the questions that Metrolinx will be asking."