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Enthusiasm for proposed transit system gaining momentum

City staff are urgently working on a bid to secure provincial approval and cash for a light-rail system.

By Rob Faulkner

Published in the Hamilton Spectator on July 29, 2008.

How much will it cost? Where will it run? How often will it stop? When could it all be built?

Just a few of the questions about the ambitious Hamilton light rail proposal that arose at a sun-drenched public information session atop Jackson Square yesterday.

City staff are urgently working on a bid to secure provincial approval and cash for what may become a $1.1-billion light-rail system.

Last year's MoveOntario 2020 announcement said $300 million was available for Hamilton rapid transit. Since then, the city did a rapid transit feasibility study.

It hopes that its data, public consultations and reports will result in approval and a lot more funding from Metrolinx, the transportation agency to evaluate such proposals.

Where do things stand?

The city is working closely with Metrolinx, the provincial agency to implement a Greater Toronto and Hamilton transportation plan.

Metrolinx will adjust the preliminary list of projects released with the announcement of Ontario's $17.5-billion MoveOntario 2020 plan. (Hamilton rapid transit was a project mentioned here.)

Hamilton wants light rail in the first five-year Metrolinx budget for 2009-13. A draft Metrolinx budget arrives Sept. 26.

Where will it run?

For now, the city is focusing on a route that would put rail westbound on King and eastbound on Main; it would send rail south on James from the waterfront, up the Claremont Access, then to the airport using Upper James.

How much will it cost?

Initially, the city estimated it will cost $1.1 billion to build light rail east-west from Eastgate Square to University Plaza, and up James via a Mountain tunnel.

This cost wasn't adjusted as the city looks at using the Claremont Access, not tunnelling under steep James Mountain Road. Hamilton hasn't consulted the Niagara Escarpment Commission yet.

What is Hamilton's share?

It's unclear. While the province hopes to fund transit infrastructure that would not otherwise be built, Metrolinx notes cities already collect development charges and other cash to operate transit. This will continue.

Metrolinx expects cities will pay some capital costs, like streetscaping. The city estimates it will cost $160 an hour per vehicle to run a light-rail system, and has raised concerns about how it will afford to run a new system.

When could it start to run?

If part of the 2009-'13 Metrolinx budget, city staff say 2009 to 2010 may see the project begin study, design and approvals. Construction may start in 2011 or later.

Will it be elevated?

No. Hamilton wants street-level rail to mesh with the streetscape, said Jill Stephen, manager of strategic planning.

Would there be dedicated lanes?

Outside of downtown, yes. But from Eastgate Square to the Delta in east Hamilton, and along James Street North, stores are so close to the road that a lane can't be freed. Rail there would move like a streetcar, at the speed of car traffic.

How frequent?

Light rail vehicles are planned for a frequency of every 10 minutes. It led concerned citizen Mark Volterman to call the LRT plan a waste of money. He wants more frequent vehicles and is concerned about the environmental impact of escarpment crossings.

How is Hamilton doing?

Metrolinx CEO Michael Fenn said Hamilton is well along, citing its public consultations, compared with other cities with rapid-transit plans. Fenn said the draft budget will favour projects farther along.

Will LRT really deliver economic investments along the route?

In Portland, Ore., the LRT system had 34 million riders in 2007 and, since it was built, there has been $6 billion in development within walking distance of its stations.

City staff will start conference calls tomorrow with peers in cities such as San Diego, Minneapolis, Buffalo to hear their bus and rail rapid transit experience and find out what LRT can, and cannot, accomplish.