When Ontario Transportation Minister Stephen Del Duca travelled to the Hamilton GO Centre this morning, he arrived, figuratively, at least, aboard a light rail transit train—but he left on an express bus.

What Del Duca did, literally, however, is to announce that the Province of Ontario would fund a bus rapid transit line from Hamilton's waterfront to the John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport in the south-end of the city. The 16-kilometre BRT would also connect passengers to downtown Hamilton, the east-west LRT, West Harbour GO Station, the Hamilton GO Centre and Mohawk College's Fennell campus.

Minister Del Duca, Mayor Eisenberger, John Jensen and Councillor Green in the Hamilton GO Centre, image, Metrolinx

Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger and local councillor Matt Green joined Del Duca and Metrolinx chief capital officer John Jensen at the podium, which event organizers strategically set up in front of a Hamilton Street Railway bus in the station's bus terminal. That meant, however, that speakers struggled to drown out the sound of buses moving through the terminal and, at one point, sirens from emergency vehicles on neighbouring streets.

By announcing the bus line, the minister effectively killed an earlier proposal to build a spur LRT line along James Street North. The spur line, linking the main east-west LRT line to the West Harbour GO Station, would likely have operated in mixed traffic, similar to how streetcars serve downtown Toronto.

This rendering shows the LRT on James Street North at Cannon Street, image, City of Hamilton

Premier Kathleen Wynne and Minister Del Duca surprised Hamilton transit observers in May 2015 by adding the spur line to City's long-standing LRT plans, when they announced that province would cover as much as $1 billion in the capital costs to build the line.

The minister also confirmed that Infrastructure Ontario and Metrolinx have issued a Request For Qualifications (RFQ) to private-sector proponents for designing, building, financing, operating and maintaining the main east-west Hamilton LRT project. He also reiterated the province's intent to operate GO Transit train service from the West Harbour GO Station to Grimsby by 2021 and Niagara Falls by 2023.

The Hamilton LRT route, after today's announcement, image, City of Hamilton

The City of Hamilton has been planning an LRT line for many years. It intended for the line to extend from Eastgate Square mall in east-end Hamilton to McMaster University in the west. When the Premier and minister announced funding for the line, they effectively lopped off the three easternmost stations until some future date. Instead, they supported funding a spur line to the West Harbour GO Station to improve service between that station and the LRT.

At the media event today, Del Duca confirmed that funds that the province would have applied to the spur line would now support the express bus service. "I would expect some of the money in that $1 billion will go into the delivery for the BRT," he said, although he also expected to use some of those dollars for studies and consultations to determine the final route.

Metrolinx and the City will work together to plan the route of bus rapid transit line and expect to consult with the public over the next few months to help determine that route. They'll also determine whether the line will operate in its own right of way, similar to York Region Transit's Viva rapidways, or in mixed traffic.

Event organizers provided a map of the line, showing a route from Hamilton Harbour along James Street, James Mountain Road and West Fifth Street to the college, then along Fennell Avenue and south to the airport along Upper James Street.

The likely route for the bus rapid transit line, image Metrolinx

Several challenges face this route, including the narrow width of James Street North and the 100-metre (300-foot) climb up the Niagara Escarpment to reach the college and airport. Upper James Street, although a four-lane thoroughfare, is also one of the most congested streets in Hamilton.

By funding a north-south rapid transit project, Ontario is likely trying to appease critics in suburban Hamilton—especially on The Mountain, the area above the escarpment—who complained that the LRT project did nothing to benefit them.

The BRT line also solves one of the main problems with the James Street LRT spur--which was lack of information. Since this was a seemingly last-minute Provincial addition to City plans, few people understood what Metrolinx had in mind for the James Street spur. The news release for today's announcement event concedes that the Province and City have abandoned the spur scheme "based on analysis and feedback received through public consultations in the fall."

The Province has not indicated a time-line for the BRT project.

Rendering of the future LRT on Main Street West at McMaster University, image City of Hamilton, Metrolinx

The RFQ is a major milestone for the Hamilton LRT and helps move the project closer to reality. It outlines the scope of work required for the Hamilton LRT B-Line, which includes:

  • building 11 kilometres of new dedicated rapid transit between McMaster University and Queenston Road
  • installing 14 stops along Main and King Streets, with connections to the Hamilton bus network and close to the Hamilton GO Centre station;
  • building an operations, maintenance and storage facility for the light rail vehicles;
  • procuring a fleet of light rail vehicles; and
  • operating the system.

The future James Street LRT stop at Gore Park in downtown Hamilton, image, City of Hamilton and Metrolin

The RFQ is similar to what the province has issued for the Finch West and Hurontario LRT projects. It uses the same alternate financing process (or AFP) that Metrolinx followed to choose the consortium that's working on Toronto's Crosstown LRT. The RFQ pre-qualifies project teams with the appropriate design and construction experience. Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario will then invite teams that qualify to respond to a request for proposals this summer.

According to Infrastructure Ontario, the "AFP model is an innovative way of financing and procuring large public infrastructure projects". AFP uses private-sector resources and expertise, and transfers project risks to those private-sector teams, which are accountable for delivering the project on time and on budget. Similar to the Hurontario RFQ, Metrolinx is also inviting project teams to procure the LRT cars for the line, again underscoring the agency's lack of confidence in Bombardier—which it already has a contract with—to deliver the vehicles within the project's timeline.

Future LRT Scott Park stop near Tim Hortons Field, image, City of Hamilton and Metrolinx

Metrolinx has scheduled major construction of the LRT for 2019 to 2024. The construction consortium will be in place and some early work could begin as early as mid-2018.

The City of Hamilton often refers to the east-west LRT as the B-Line, because it would replace an express bus route with the same name. (As an historical note, the B-Line was originally the Beeline, because it went directly between its terminals with few stops – and, at the time, HSR buses bore yellow-and-black colour schemes.)

The City later added a north-south express bus route, naturally dubbing it the A-Line. The bus-rapid transit proposal would replace or enhance this service.

Under the City's ten-year local transit strategy, it would add three more lines – the "L", "S" and "T" lines -- creating the BLAST rapid transit network.

Hamilton's future BLAST rapid transit network, image, City of Hamilton

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