Last week, Hamilton City Council debated for over 12 hours on the future of Hamilton's LRT plan, one of Metrolinx's Big Move transit infrastructure projects to get people moving more easily in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). At the end of it, all that was decided was they would continue talking about it on April 26th. What Council is debating is whether or not to accept (re-accept?) a $1 billion plan—which is fully funded by the Province through Metrolinx—to build an LRT line along King and Main streets from McMaster University to Queenston Circle.

Hamilton's LRT planHamilton's LRT plan, image courtesy of Metrolinx

The plan is being voted on by Council as an update to the 2011 Environmental Assessment, which requires approval from Council before Metrolinx can proceed with the project. The vote is expected to be a tight one, with the vote to defer to April 26th only passing 8-7. If the vote does not go in favour of the LRT plan—which it very well may not—Metrolinx would immediately cease work on the project, and it would be effectively dead. In a recent Forum Research poll, 40% of residents were in favour of the project, 48% opposed, and 12% were undecided. However, the poll has been widely criticized for its over-sampling of those 65+ and extreme under-sampling of those 18-34, calling into question the accuracy of the results.

In this article, we'll look at some of the common arguments for and against the project, and whether or not there is a geographic split amongst the councillors or the citizens.

Reasons For

To start with, let's look at some of the reasons why many are supporting this project. The first is existing ridership. The B-Line, the pre-BRT route that runs along the proposed LRT route, is very near or at capacity during peak periods. It runs in mixed traffic, with Hamilton Council having voted in January 2015 to remove a buses-only lane in Downtown Hamilton which was used by the B-Line, amongst other bus routes. This operational environment means the B-Line is subject to traffic-related delays, and simply adding more buses to the route will only make those delays worse, not better.

The second is spurring development. While Toronto has been seeing unprecedented densification in its downtown and the shoulder areas of downtown (ex: Liberty Village), Hamilton's densification has been far more muted. That isn't to say it's not happening, but rather that it just isn't happening on nearly the same scale as Toronto and other parts of the GTA. Much of the densification and gentrification in Hamilton has been occurring along the King-Main corridor, with some developers even specifically citing the proposed LRT as a reason why they chose those locations. It is the hope that once the LRT is actually built, that that type of redevelopment and gentrification will only accelerate. Critics say that this development would be occurring anyway, even without the LRT project.

The Royal Connaught in Downtown Hamilton, being renewed as a condoThe Royal Connaught in Downtown Hamilton, being renewed as a condo, image courtesy of RoyalConnaught.com

The third is the fact that the capital costs of this LRT are being completely covered by the Province via Metrolinx. For decades, cities across the Province have been practically begging for support from higher levels of government in order to build infrastructure, claiming that the municipal tax base and the methods used to generate that revenue were ill-suited to building such large and expensive projects. Compared to the 1/3rd funding formulas put in place for the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension and Waterloo Region's Ion LRT project, having no municipal funds required to build a $1 billion LRT project is a dream come true for municipal politicians. This is especially true for Hamilton, which has a very working-class tax base, and lacks much of the economic diversity seen in other parts of the GTHA. The funding from Metrolinx also means that repairs and replacement of old and potentially at-risk infrastructure along the route will be covered by Metrolinx, and not the City.

Reasons Against

While the 'No LRT' has a wide range of arguments, let's focus on the ones which actually have some reason and rational thought behind them. I won't even attempt to try and rationalize arguments like comparing LRT to SARS and AIDS, as such an argument does not belong in discourse amongst rational human beings (let alone in a major newspaper).

A main argument of the no side is that that $1 billion could be better spent on other transit priorities. They point to an underfunding of HSR, the city's transit provider, for decades, and how an infusion of $1 billion could be transformational for the service. This argument of course ignores the fact that this $1 billion is in the Province's capital budget, not operating budget, and that the Provincial government hasn't been in the business of funding transit systems' operational budgets since 1995.

B-Line buses in Downtown HamiltonB-Line buses in Downtown Hamilton, image courtesy the Globe and Mail

Opponents also propose building the line as a BRT instead, which would reduce the capital cost and allow the difference to go towards other projects. This argument doesn't hold much weight either however, as many of the councillors floating this idea voted in favour of removing the closest thing Hamilton had to BRT, being the downtown bus lanes, back in 2015. While councillors flip-flopping on transit issues wouldn't be a new thing in the GTHA (see: the Scarborough RT replacement), this apparent change of heart seems less than sincere. BRT would also only be a moderate improvement over the existing service, which already runs a BRT-like service pattern, and sees buses that are frequently near or at capacity.

The Province has also stated that the money allocated for Hamilton's LRT is for LRT. Should City Council vote against the project, in the words of Ted McMeekin, Liberal MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, the funding would be reallocated to another municipality "in about 30 seconds". Just ask Brampton's City Council how well voting down a fully Provincially-funded LRT worked out for them. This assertion is disputed by some City Councillors, who claim that the funding can be redistributed to other projects if the City re-applies to the Province for that funding.

Another point of opposition to the project is that it doesn't go far enough east. The original LRT plan called for the line to terminate at Eastgate Square, an existing transit hub and mall in Stoney Creek. However, due to the funding envelope set out by Metrolinx, in 2015 the line was shortened to Queenston Circle, 3 km to the west, with the remainder being labelled as "Future Phase II", as can be seen on the graphic at the beginning of this article.

Queenston Circle and the surrounding area in East HamiltonQueenston Circle and the surrounding area in East Hamilton, image courtesy of Apple Maps

While it is true that Queenston Circle is far from an ideal place for a terminus, rejecting the LRT on this basis is foolish. The west end of Phase I of Ottawa's Confederation Line terminates at Tunney's Pasture, only a few kilometres west of downtown. This terminus point was often cited by west end residents as a reason why the project should be cancelled. Despite these objections, the project went forward, and now Ottawa's Phase II plan has received funding from all three levels of government, and includes a western extension to two logical terminus points significantly further west. Phase II will begin construction immediately after Phase I is completed in 2018, and the extension will be open by 2023. This means that after only 5 years, this 'inconvenient terminus' will no longer even be a terminus.

There is also the potential for the City itself to fund the 3 km of LRT required to bring the line to its 'natural' terminus point. While many on the 'no' side have used Queenston as a reason for rejecting the LRT project, I could find no evidence that any of these councillors have suggested using City funds to make up the difference between the Metrolinx funding and the funding required to extend the line to Eastgate Square.

The final opposition point that we'll address is the issue of operating costs. Many on the no side are worried about the City being saddled with the 'enormous' operating costs of operating the LRT line. The reality however is quite different. Currently, it costs the City of Hamilton about $5.00 for every bus passenger they carry, while Calgary's C-Train (an LRT) costs $0.27 per passenger. While this is an important factor, it should be noted that the Operations and Maintenance Agreement between the City and Metrolinx has yet to be finalized, so details about revenue splitting, operating costs, and other factors are still to be determined.

The Geographic Split

Support for the LRT project varies greatly depending on where people live in the City. While councillor votes are not always a perfect bellwether for the attitudes of their residents, in the case of LRT the contrast is pretty striking. Councillors representing the Lower City are nearly universally in favour, while those on the Mountain and in the rural areas of Hamilton are either opposed or are unsure. The graphic below, compiled based on this CBC article, illustrates the divide. Green represents those in favour, red represents those opposed, and yellow represents those who are unsure or who have not made their decision known. The most vocal councillors against the LRT, Terry Whitehead (Ward 8) and Donna Skelly (Ward 7) represent Mountain wards.

Councillor positions on the Hamilton LRTCouncillor positions on the Hamilton LRT, base image courtesy of the City of Hamilton, data via the CBC

The geographic divide can potentially be explained by residents who will see a direct benefit from the LRT, versus those who won't. Many Mountain residents would like to see the A-Line LRT (along Upper James St on the Mountain) built along with the B-Line LRT. However, the plan at this point calls for a BRT along the A-Line route, and planning for this is much further behind than the B-Line LRT.

This phenomenon is not unique to Hamilton. During the final approval of Waterloo Region's Ion LRT, the most vocal opposition to the project came from Cambridge, the only city in Waterloo Region not served by Phase I of the LRT. Planning is now underway for the extension of the line to Cambridge. This phenomenon has also been seen in Scarborough, where support for the Scarborough Subway Extension remains higher there than elsewhere in Toronto.

Hamilton City Council will reconvene on April 26th, and the fate of the Hamilton LRT will likely be decided. If they vote to continue with the project, it will be full steam ahead towards a 2018 construction start date. If they vote no, then the same type of uncertainty and head-scratching that gripped Brampton City Council after their vote to turn down an LRT will be replayed in Hamilton.

You can get involved in the discussion surrounding the Hamilton LRT by visiting our forum thread, or by leaving a comment below.