Fear of the unknown is a useful evolutionary tactic to avoid getting eaten. But it needs to be tempered with reason, experience and imagination, or else we remain stuck in place and miss opportunities to thrive.
The City of Hamilton has been stuck in place for a long time. We struggle with big structural challenges, like persistent bad air quality, weak growth in employment, a housing market with limited options and high prices, and an unfunded infrastructure maintenance backlog that grows by $200 million a year.
We can't break out of this rut unless we try something new. But we don't have to stumble blindly into the unknown. We can learn from cities that are already thriving – cities that are solving the same problems facing us.
Today, Hamilton has an extraordinary opportunity to receive a fully-funded modern light rail transit (LRT) system along the city's busiest corridor between McMaster University and Eastgate Square.
LRT directly tackles some of our biggest challenges. It creates thousands of skilled jobs, inspires employers to locate and expand here, attracts a diversity of new housing formats at various price points, and reduces air pollution at its main source - vehicle tailpipes.
LRT shapes new developments along a busy, already-serviced corridor so that they generate tax revenue for the city, instead of draining our budget with low-density sprawl that costs more to service than it generates in property tax.
Of course, any large project comes with risks, and risk management is an essential part of responsible leadership. But when we are governed by fear, the risks are all we can see. We play up every danger, no matter how preposterous, while discounting or flat-out ignoring every benefit.
The LRT project is decades in the making and is based on consistent real-world evidence. Indeed, it’s no surprise that people who have experienced LRT firsthand in other cities are the most likely to support Hamilton's plan.
Previous Hamilton City Councils deserve credit for their dedication to this transformative strategic vision over a long time. They understood the role of public transit in creating a wealthier, more sustainable city.
In 1982, the B-line Express was introduced to serve transit demand across the city. Better service led to increased ridership along this busy corridor.
Recognizing the growing need for a transit upgrade, in 2008 City Council established a Rapid Transit Office to conduct a feasibility study comparing LRT and bus rapid transit (BRT) along the B-Line corridor.
Staff researched the two rapid transit options and engaged widely with the public. They returned to Council that October with a final report that strongly recommended developing an LRT plan and submitting it to the Province for funding.
The report highlighted the many overall benefits of LRT over BRT: stronger potential for ridership growth and new transit-oriented development, better per-passenger operation costs, and widespread public support. Council agreed and the Province supported the initiative with a grant from Metrolinx to develop a detailed funding request.
Council also directed staff to undertake a nodes and corridors study along the B-line to identify infill growth opportunities and modernize the zoning rules to encourage high-quality intensification.
The LRT plan quickly became the backbone of the city’s overall strategic land use and transportation plans. As a June 2008 update from the Rapid Transit Office noted, “The idea of status quo is in contravention of the City’s Transportation Master Plan.”
Many dramatic twists and turns later, staff presented the final Rapid Ready LRT plan to Council in February 2013 and Council voted to submit it to the Province. On May 26, 2015, the stars aligned and the Province reciprocated with full capital funding.
It was an historic moment for the city and a validation of Council’s commitment to this project. Most people recognized that this investment was too important to give up on.
The federal and provincial governments have now come together to revive the project with a $3.4 billion investment in Hamilton.
There’s a reason the federal government came aboard: they were looking for big, shovel-ready projects that would create thousands of jobs while providing skills development opportunities for younger employees.
Hamilton’s LRT eases pressure on our agricultural and rural lands by directing housing development along the LRT corridor. It reduces greenhouse gases, improves air quality, and grows our tax base by attracting billions of dollars in new transit-oriented development.
The federal and provincial governments have told us BRT is not on the table because it is neither shovel-ready nor transformational. BRT would provide a much smaller overall benefit than LRT, while costing the city more to operate.
It’s time to finish the project City Council started decades ago. We have done the legwork – years of it, in fact – to get this project to the point where it is ready to build. It’s time to take yes for an answer.
Maureen Wilson, OpEd, The Hamilton Spectator June 18, 2021