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Mountain residents ride light transit system idea

An overwhelming majority of attendees to the May 6 city's rapid transit meeting applauded the city's efforts to improve Hamilton's transit system. By far they favoured light rail.

By Kevin Werner

Published in the Hamilton Mountain News on May 09, 2008.

For most Hamilton Mountain residents, the city should put the pedal to the metal when it comes to constructing a new rapid transit system for the city.

And if the estimated 45 residents who attended a public meeting this week are any indication, they would support the city constructing a light rail transit system even though it is over double the cost of building a bus rapid transit system.

"This is forward thinking," said Robin McKee, during the first of two public meetings the city organized to gauge public opinion on choosing a rapid transit system for the city.

"I just hope that councillors agree to it and are not put off by the price. But they should do it piece meal so people get used to it."

Joe Rymal Woolley, a Mountain resident for most of his 75-plus years, said there are positives and negatives to constructing a light rail transit system.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is the cost, including the unknown price tag to tunnel into the escarpment for a light rail system to move along James and Upper James streets from the downtown area to Rymal Road.

"Tunneling is almost out of the question," he said. "The question becomes the cost."

About 45 people turned out for the public meeting May 6 at the Sackville Hill Senior Centre for the city's presentation on whether light rail or bus rapid transportation system is better for the community.

One option is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that uses stations, a flexible operating plan, and improved technology to move people around the city. Hamilton has pointed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Bogota, Colombia as successful examples of BRT systems.

The other option is the Light Rail Transit System or LRT, a street-level rail system that uses electricity with overhead wires for energy. Cities that have adopted the system include Edmonton, Alberta, San Jose, California, and Portland, Oregon.

Both systems would be integrated into two proposed rapid transit routes: an A-line along James and Upper James from the Hamilton Airport to the waterfront, and a B-line along Main and King streets from McMaster University starting at University Plaza in Dundas to Eastgate Square on Centennial Parkway.

Some mountain residents did grumble the city should consider alternative routes rather than just concentrating on Upper James and Lime Ridge Mall.

Some of the differences between the two systems include the BRT system would restrict the James Street-Mountain Road routes to only transit and emergency vehicles, with the general vehicles diverted to the Claremont Access or the Jolley Cut.

With an a LRT, electricity is limited for the system; the bridges over James and King streets are too low to accommodate the vehicles, and for the LRT to cross the Niagara Escarpment, two 6.5 diameter tunnels would have to be constructed from St. Joseph's Hospital to Mohawk College.

But the biggest difference between the two systems is cost.

The BRT is identified by transportation staff as the least expensive, with the capital cost set at $6.5 million per km for one-way streets, and $9 million for two-way streets.

The capital cost for an LRT system is $15 million per km for a one-way street and $25 million per km for two-way streets.

The cost of a BRT hybrid bus is about $900,000, while it's $4 million for each LRT vehicle.

The provincial government through Metrolinx, has established a $17.5 billion fund to start paying for innovative transportation systems. Hamilton has already received $17.4 million for 12 new hybrid buses, and $6.9 million for passenger amenities for the A-line.

Grant Ranalli, a member of the recently formed city group Hamilton Light Rail, said building a light rail system will provide needed economic stimulus to the city, and showcase Hamilton as a progressive community.

"We are on the cusp of something great," he said. "The ambitious city can be the ambitious city again."

An overwhelming majority of people applauded the city's efforts to improve Hamilton's transit system. And by far they favoured a light rail system for the city.

One resident said he spent time in Switzerland and was shocked to discover their cities are car-free with people walking about the towns.

The residents' attitude about implement LRT mirrors Mayor Fred Eisenberger's, who has encourage the city to adopt a LRT system.

"I'm keen on LRTs," he said.

Jillian Stephen, manager of strategic planning, said besides holding two public meetings - the other session took place at the public school board office - city staff have been monitoring blogs and websites that have been talking about the issue.

"There seems to be general support for LRT," she said.

Michael Horwath, a Mountain resident and a bus driver for Hamilton's Street Railway Service for 34 years, said the city needs to do something to improve its current transportation system, but he remains skeptical about LRTs. He can remember the time when Hamilton had trolleys travelling throughout the city. The problem with them, he found, is whenever they had a mechanical problem and stalled on their rails, they caused traffic congestion.

"The downtown streets are so narrow," he said. "But we need to do something."

He suggested the city consider an elevated LRT. Ms. Stephen said her research team has not looked at the model.

Bernice Price, of the mountain, though, was one of the few people opposed to building a new transportation system.

"Leave well enough alone," said Ms. Price, who has attended a number of transportation meetings. "People are getting around."

She said introducing LRT into the downtown is a throwback to what Hamilton had 30 years ago with its trolleys.

"Hamilton is not conducive to rail traffic systems or bike trails on Main or King streets. This has already been tried and removed," she said.

City staff are expected to collect the results of residents' comments and present them to councillors in June. Transit staff will also make a recommendation to council about their transit choice, said Ms. Stephen.

"This is the first step in the city's transportation masterplan," said Ms. Stephen.

One of the plan's goals is to reduce single vehicle occupancy use by 20 per cent by 2020.