Posted June 17, 2014
Before and during the recent Ontario election campaign, the Liberal Party danced around the question of whether they would keep their commitment to pay 100 percent of the capital costs for Hamilton's planned east-west Light Rail Transit (LRT) system.
In early May, Transport Minister Glen Murray stated repeatedly that the Liberals would fund "100% of the capital costs of the proposed rapid transit line" - but would not specify whether "rapid transit" meant LRT or bus rapid transit (BRT), which some people have proposed as a possible alternative to LRT.
BRT: Higher Operating Costs, Lower Benefits
Two of the people proposing BRT instead of LRT were Ontario Liberal candidates Javid Mirza (Hamilton Mountain) and Ivan Luksic (Hamilton East-Stoney Creek).
They co-authored a confusing opinion piece in the Hamilton Spectator earlier this year which misrepresented the facts and implied that BRT is just express buses.
This is incorrect: BRT vehicles run on dedicated lanes (usually concrete lanes to support the heavy vehicle loads) with proper transit stations, just like LRT. BRT requires the same space on the road and is just as disruptive to automobile traffic as LRT.
BRT costs less upfront to build than LRT, which makes it superficially appealing to the cost-conscious, but not that much less: it would still cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build.
On top of that, BRT has much higher ongoing per-passenger operating costs than LRT. BRT vehicles only last ten years (compare 30 years for an LRT vehicle), and the line requires more operators to carry the same number of people, since an LRT vehicle can carry many more passengers than even an extended bus. Operator costs make up most of the cost of operating a rapid transit system.
Even worse, BRT draws fewer new riders than LRT and attracts a lot less new private investment in transit-oriented development around the line.
In other words, BRT delivers a much smaller overall benefit than LRT but carries a higher ongoing operating cost - the cost that Hamilton will have to pay under the Liberal rapid transit plan.
Yet it is clear from reading the arguments of BRT supporters that they either don't understand what they are talking about or are merely using BRT as a tactic to confuse, undermine and block LRT.
Liberals Refused to be Pinned Down
In the case of Mirza and Luksic, the Liberal Party stated that the candidates' article did not reflect party policy - but at the same time refused to be pinned down on whether they would approve the Rapid Ready LRT Plan that Council approved and submitted to the Province in 2013.
In a lunchtime speech to the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce soon after the op-ed by Mirza and Luksic, Transport Minister Glen Murray stopped just short of telling Hamilton we'd be crazy not to invest in LRT.
But then, during the election campaign, Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne was quoted in the Spectator saying she still needed to hear from Hamilton whether we want LRT or BRT. (This followed an exchange in early February in which Wynne asked whether Hamilton has "decided whether they want BRT or LRT".)
Wynne implied that the dissenting opinions of Mirza and Luksic - her own party's candidates - indicate Hamilton needs to make up its mind, despite the consistent support for LRT from every Council vote between 2007 and 2013.
Wynne was actually the Ontario Minister of Transport in 2010, during the period when Hamilton worked with the Province to develop its LRT plan and Metrolinx released its Benefits Case Analysis.
Now that the election is over, I hope the Liberals will consider it instructive that voters in both Hamilton Mountain and Hamilton East-Stoney Creek elected pro-LRT candidates to represent them: the NDP's Monique Taylor and Paul Miller, respectively.
Mirza and Luksic played up their opposition to LRT repeatedly during their campaigns, hoping it would resonate with the suburban commuters who make up a lot of their electorates.
In contrast, winning candidates Miller and Taylor made the following statement about LRT:
The Ontario NDP has been behind the Hamilton LRT since day one and we remain committed to this essential investment for the people of Hamilton. Our plan includes full provincial funding for an LRT line from McMaster University to Eastgate Square.
If Premier Wynne was still looking for a pro-LRT message in the election - since the Rapid Ready LRT report apparently wasn't enough - I hope she has now heard it loud and clear.
Time to Keep Promise to Hamilton
With a new majority in the Ontario Legislature, the Liberals will be able to pass the budget that triggered the election. That budget includes $15 billion for rapid transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), and specifically mentions "Rapid Transit" in Hamilton.
'Hamilton Rapid Transit' in 2014 Ontario Budget
The Liberals can no longer argue that the opposition parties will block their funding strategy to pay for this investment. Funding for the LRT is included in the budget that will be reintroduced when the Legislature starts its new session.
Not only that, but the project is essentially shovel-ready. All we are waiting for is a provincial commitment and funding to get working on it. There are no un-resolved engineering problems, there are no feasibility isues, and we have multiple studies that all demonstrate the huge social and economic benefits of LRT for Hamilton.
Hamilton began to study LRT in 2008 after the Ontario Liberals promised to build LRT in Hamilton as part of the MoveOntario 2020 regional transportation proposal. The Liberals actually campaigned in 2007 on the threat that a Progressive Conservative government would put "two light rail lines across Hamilton at risk".
LRT was already the preferred technology when the Province gave Hamilton $3 million in funding through Metrolinx to conduct a class environmental assessment on the B-Line.
Council has consistently voted to support, endorse and submit the LRT plan through a series of motions dating back to the creation of the city's Rapid Transit office in the start of 2008.
The City has also conducted complementary land use studies so that when the system goes in, we will be ready to approve a secondary plan that encourages new transit-oriented investment around the line.
There is no question that Hamilton wants and is ready for LRT, its councillors and citizens alike. No other single public investment will do as much to transform Hamilton into an engine of innovation and economic growth as this essential investment in urban vitality.
I sincerely hope we can count on the Liberal Government to keep its commitment to make this happen. If they are worried about the inevitable opposition that any large, ambitious project faces, perhaps they can take heart from Glen Murray's words:
All the big challenges & projects I have been involved in had a group of people saying it could not be done. We succeeded every time.