A Little Farther Down the Line
After a busy summer, light rail is getting closer to reality for Hamilton.
By Ryan McGreal
With little fanfare, the city has quietly moved forward this summer on its rapid transit initiative and is poised for inclusion in the first five year rolling provincial budget for rapid transit construction.
Rendering of a possible light rail line in Hamilton (Image Credit: Trey Shaughnessy)
Rapid Transit Study: Phase 2
Earlier this summer, Council authorized staff to prepare phase two of the city's rapid transit feasibility study with a focus on light rail transit (LRT).
Around 150 people had attended the city's two public information centres (in addition to the 120 who attended the Hamilton Light Rail public lecture and panel discussion).
The city received 116 written responses to their request for public input, of which the overwhelming majority supported LRT (71 percent) or rapid transit in general (91 percent) with only 4 percent preferring Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and 9 percent opposing rapid transit.
Some councillors expressed concern that this feedback, while extraordinary for a positive initiative, may not be representative of the majority opinion. In response, staff disseminated a survey through a variety of media to try and get a larger sample of public opinions.
The phase two report is still in development, but Lisa Zinkewich from the public works department reported that the city received an unprecedented 1,300+ responses.
In a report published today, staff note that the total to date is actually over 1,600 responses!
The results are consistent with the comments from the earlier public input: 66 percent supported LRT, 8 percent supported BRT, 20 percent supported either BRT or LRT, and only 6 percent supported neither.
The phase two report will include this feedback, plus more detailed studies into economic development, the possibility of using the Claremont Access rather than James Mountain Rd., traffic impacts of lane reductions, and options for building the rapid transit system in stages.
Staff and some members of council also traveled to Calgary, Portland OR and Charlotte NC to meet with their transit officials and experience their LRT systems firsthand.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger said of the trip, "Light Rail is transformational - it's about rejuvenating a city, promoting growth and intensification."
Four- and five-story condo buildings were being constructed all along the LRT lines and office uptake in the core was substantial.
One thing that stood our is how proud each of these cities were: of their LRT systems, but also of their communities in general. There was a real sense of optimism, ownership, and pride in the systems they had built.
Metrolinx Regional Transportation Plan
The rapid transit team will not present the completed phase two report to the public works committee until after Metrolinx publishes its Regional Transportation Plan, expected at the end of September.
Staff have been in regular contact with Metrolinx through the summer, so they have a general idea of what to expect in the Plan.
An early draft was recently leaked to the news media. While most of the coverage concerned its total cost of $55 billion and the conflict between Metrolinx and the Toronto Transit Commission over a proposed subway-like RT on Eglinton, it does include the rapid transit lines in Hamilton.
Transit Map from the leaked RTP draft shows three rapid transit lines in Hamilton (Image Credit: Toronto Star)
While Metrolinx officials caution that the plan is still in development and the leaked version is still evolving, the following seems clear:
- Not every listed project will get built; and
- Priority will depend in part on which projects are ready to go ahead and have strong political support.
That means Hamilton city council needs to move quickly on approving its proposal for LRT in Hamilton so this project can move closer to the top of the heap.
Another major issue is the upcoming federal election. The Regional Transportation Plan cannot go ahead without matching capital funds from the federal government, and that can't happen until after the election.
One positive outcome of this timing is that the federal candidates will be under some pressure to express support for, and commitment to, the transportation plan.
So far, all three major parties - the Conservatives, the Liberals and the NDP - have expressed support for improving transit. Earlier this year, Conservative MP David Sweet was very supportive of light rail in Hamilton.
Here's one potential timeline to completion of a light rail system, assuming all goes well. Note: this is purely speculative, hopeful thinking on my part.
Late September, 2008 - Metrolinx presents the Regional Transportation Plan, which includes two light rail lines in Hamilton.
Early October, 2008 - City staff present phase two of the rapid transit feasibility study to the public works committee. The committee approves it and refers it to Council.
Late October, 2008 - Council receives the study and votes to pursue light rail.
December, 2008 - Metrolinx releases its first rolling five-year budget, which includes provincial capital money for Hamilton's light rail plans.
March, 2009 - Hamilton starts a class environmental assessment (EA) on its two light rail lines.
June, 2009 - the federal government agrees to increase the gas tax transfer earmarked for transit operating costs. The province announces matching operating funds as well.
September 2009 - the EA is completed with a staged construction plan.
December 2009 - the federal government commits to matching capital funds with the province for building Hamilton's light rail system.
April 2010 - Hamilton starts construction of the first phase of its light rail system.
July 2012 - The mayor of Hamilton and director of Metrolinx cut the ribbon on Hamilton's new light rail line!
Within the first few months, even the doubters start to come around, as ridership exceeds projections and new investments start to flow into the transit corridor.
The line becomes a spur for new development, urban revitalization and economic recovery. Hamiltonians feel swelling pride and optimism at having mustered the political will to see such an important, ambitious project through to completion.