Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Thursday April 16, 2020
LRT versus BRT showdown coming to Hamilton
Thanks to the provincially appointed transportation task force, it appears we’re heading into a final showdown over whether LRT or BRT is the best rapid transit system for Hamilton.
The task force, formed after the Doug Ford government killed the planned LRT project, says the province and its transportation agency Metrolinx should now consider both systems equally and analyze which best deserves the $1 billion in capital funding that was originally earmarked for light rail.
If neither are feasible, the task force suggests plowing the money into two-way, all-day GO rail service to Hamilton.
If nothing else, there’s a kind of poetic if rough justice in all this.
There’s always been a strong sense among light rail opponents that the bus rapid transit option was previously given short shrift by both Metrolinx and city staff.
Certainly the city’s 2008 rapid transit feasibility study discussed both systems. But Metrolinx’s 2010 case-benefit analysis basically sidelined the BRT option by concluding LRT delivered the highest economic development bang for the buck.
The problem was that a lot of Hamiltonians felt — and still feel — that the pros and cons of both systems were never fairly compared and publicly debated.
That was supposed to happen after the 2014 municipal election. It didn’t. You may recall that back then Fred Eisenberger ran for mayor on a platform that included a promise to create a citizens’ panel to study all rapid transit options and make a recommendation to council.
Instead, brief months after he was elected, Eisenberger hotfooted it to Queen’s Park for private meetings with then-premier Kathleen Wynne and transport minister Steven Del Duca, at which he successfully secured provincial dollars for LRT.
In May of 2015, Wynne came to town to announce the province was providing $1 billion in capital funding. Eisenberger’s proposed citizens’ panel was reduced to window dressing. BRT supporters were suddenly marooned.
It’s been anything but smooth sailing for LRT supporters since then, of course. But no matter how controversial the issue, no matter how many stops, starts and delays the project has experienced, LRT has been the only option on the table.
Until Ford came along, that is.
During the 2018 provincial election, Ford threw things into a tizzy by offering to let Hamilton council spend the $1 billion on other transit and infrastructure projects. It’s often forgotten, but in the heat of that election New Democrat leader and Hamilton MPP Andrea Horwath said an NDP government would also give council the option to spend the money on other transit projects.
Neither the mayor nor council seriously pursued the offer after Ford was elected. A few months later, it was taken out of their hands. The province cancelled the project because of projected cost overruns and then created the task force.
So now BRT is back on the menu as a main course not just a rejected entree.
Briefly, the task force suggests the BRT option could follow both the B-Line corridor from McMaster to Eastgate and the north-south A-Line corridor from the waterfront to the airport. Recommendations include fully dedicated bus lanes and platform boarding.
For LRT, the task force suggests if there is insufficient funding for the Mac to Eastgate route, phasing should be explored, and the province should look to Ottawa and city council for extra funding.
It’s not clear, of course, how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the recommendation that, regardless which system wins out, the contract should be awarded or construction begin within two years.
It’s also not clear if or how COVID-19 will impact the social patterns and policy assumptions that sustain rapid transit systems.
Frankly, it’s an open question whether urban intensification, highrise living and the growth of public transit will be as appealing in a post-COVID world leery of future virus lockdowns, compared to the lure of backyards and the self-isolation of cars. (Hamilton Spectator)