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Light Rail Should Live On

A peek inside Hamilton's biggest transit choice and its ripple effect.

By Sarah Veale

Published in View Magazine on August 21-27, 2008.

By now you've probably heard Hamilton is considering light rail transit — a network of high-speed streetcar lines powered by electricity -- that's said to be good for the economy, the environment, and carries a mental cachet of other words that start with "e", like efficiency and excitement.

Light rail transit, or LRT, could usher in more than just new transit options; some believe it could bring a wave of prosperity Hamilton hasn't seen since, well, a very long time — perhaps as far back to when Hamilton last had street cars. That would be 1951, when the HSR, or Hamilton Street Railway, was more than just a euphemism.

Hamilton is looking to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicle trips by 20 per cent, and a rapid transit line, such as LRT, is expected to be the charm that gets people out of their cars and onto the network. Touted as a modern transit system that combines speedy service and improved frequency, it has the potential to double HSR trips in the city over the next 20 years.

"I think knowing that the service is going to be quick and it's going to get you where you're going comfortably are going to be key points in getting new riders onto the rapid transit system," says Jill Stephen, strategic planning manager with Hamilton public works. "Rapid transit would go a long way to attracting people," she says. "It can provide a service that's…comparable to all the convenience that the private automobile provides."

The city is considering two rapid transit lines. The first would stretch along Hamilton's north-south corridor, shuttling riders between the lakeshore and the airport (with stops at Lime Ridge Mall and Mohawk College). The other would be similar to the existing B-Line Express, which runs between Eastgate Square, in the city's east end, to McMaster University, on the lower city's western limits. Some areas will have dedicated lines, greatly improving travel times; whereas others, such as the James Street North corridor, will operate as is, providing little improvement over existing bus routes.

The price tag for such a light rail project is estimated at $1.2 billion. It is hoped Metrolinx, which expects the GTA and Hamilton region to grow by 3.5 million persons over the next 25 years, will pick up some of the tab. Though taxpayers, thus far, are willing to chip in, according to the city.

It's not a done deal for LRT. Hamilton is also looking at Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT. BRT is cheap and easy to implement, but long-term operating costs can cancel out any initial savings — all those busses, bus drivers, and gasoline fill-ups quickly add up. Light rail, while more costly in the short term, has the ability to re-coup expenses over time, due to higher capacity rates (less cars are needed, and they tend to last longer) and steady-priced electrical power.

"We see both modes as being able to provide the fast, comfortable, convenient service that we're looking to provide," Stephen says, but adds LRT has the edge on enticing new riders. "There are some people, we have found, who just will not get on a bus. It doesn't matter how fast it goes or how convenient it is, or how comfortable the seats are, it's a bus to them and they won't make the switch." Stephen observes a decision either way will have its trade-offs. "We're trying to just gather all the data so we can make the right decision for Hamilton," she says.

Public Works is currently undertaking an LRT-only feasibility study to improve upon problems uncovered in a previous report, such as the steep grade on Hamilton mountain and a couple of low bridge impediments to LRT. The city is seeking public input on its rapid transit plans, and council is expected to make a decision on rapid transit in the fall, ideally in time to get in on the first round of Metrolinx funding.

Amer Shalaby, a public transit expert and associate civil engineering professor at the University of Toronto, says it's about time Hamilton examines rapid transit. "It's long overdue to really overhaul our public transit systems in various cities," he says. Choosing either LRT or BRT would go a long way towards upgrading Hamilton's existing bus system, he says. "Definitely, that is upping performance in terms of speed and reliability."

Edmonton has a light rail system, as does Calgary. Ottawa has tried, with mixed results (there is currently one LRT line in operation, with BRT picking up the slack in service). Getting light rail up and running isn't easy. Budget overruns and poor planning, such as situating lines in low-use areas or bungling transfer points, is common — and often unnoticeable until after the fact.

Shalaby has seen the pitfalls and advises Hamilton to plan carefully. "It's very important from the beginning that we view the system as a network," he says. "It's very important that we do this right from the beginning and not to be surprised later."

The other key point is ensuring rapid transit is unencumbered by regular traffic. "If we are actually serious…then we have to provide the exclusive right-of-way or dedicated right-of-way to such service," Shalaby says, pointing to Toronto's King Street Streetcar, which carries 53,000 passengers a day, often in excruciating stop-and-go traffic, as an example of what not to do. "It's a matter of equity. You have one vehicle carrying and serving a very large number of people, it has to have some priority."

Over the years, Shalaby has found common themes that make public transit appealing to new riders. A fast, reliable service that's close to workplaces bumps up ridership. As does considering what automobile users need to make the transition, such as drop-off depots and on-site parking.

Above all, the city must consider its current situation in light of not just where it is, but also where it wants to go, Shalaby says. "I think whether to use BRT or LRT, each one has its pros and cons. Each one has its own context within which it is most cost effective and most appropriate. So Hamilton has to do its homework."

Light rail has one big advantage over a comparable bus system: it spurs economic development wherever it goes. Case in point: Portland, Oregon, whose once-ailing downtown core — now an upscale urban haven— is hailed as an example of what happens when you plunk down rails. By using what's called "Transit Oriented Design," the American city was able to combine transit routes and development with a combination of financial incentives and long-term growth planning. It's not only led to a surge in streetcar trips, but also in residency, jobs, and leisure activities.

Supporters of light rail say this economic argument needs to be acknowledged; that the mode of RT Hamilton ultimately chooses is intimately tied to the city's revival.

"I think choosing BRT would be a big mistake," says Nicholas Kevlahan, spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail, a local LRT advocacy group. "A new bus line just doesn't attract any development, and that's been shown over and over." He sees light rail as a long-term investment in Hamilton's future with dividends a bus line just can't generate. "Hamilton needs tax assessment growth. It needs new development. It needs people living and working downtown, and only LRT will do that."

The key word is stability. Light rail installations typically last a minimum of 40 years. For investors, this smacks of a guaranteed, often city-sanctioned, audience over a significant period of time.

"Once you put those rails in, the developers knows that's where the city wants the development, the new population to go, and that's not going to change," Kevlahan says. He sees this as a chance for Hamilton, long known for its ailing manufacturing sector, to get a much-needed makeover. "Hamilton, if it did this — if it adopted light rail — it would not only attract a lot of new development, but it would also change the image of the city into a city that's willing to take risks and also a city that's willing to adopt new, clean, environmentally sustainable technology."

For a city that's still struggling with amalgamation (and, to an extent, The Red Hill Valley), light rail is proving to be one issue most agree on.

"Unlike a lot of projects in Hamilton you can probably think of, this one has really widespread community support," Kevlahan says, adding that the project is backed by both the pro-business lobby as well as Hamilton's more grassroots contingent. "Hamilton's had a lot of divisive debates about big projects and here you have one that really has support across the whole spectrum."

Light Rail: Bringer of wealth and uniter of foes. It seems like a big ticket for a fare-based system, but many in the city are ready to crown it the new transit king.