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Task force reviewing Hamilton LRT alternatives recommends... LRT

The Government of Ontario has released the report from a task force it established to review alternatives to the Hamilton light rail transit project. The task force has recommended that “a higher-order transit project” in Hamilton — either LRT or bus rapid transit — proceed.

The provincial government created the task force to determine how it should spend $1 billion that it had previously set aside for Hamilton’s LRT. Ontario cancelled the project late last year, saying there were cost overruns that made LRT unaffordable and claiming that the costs for the project had ballooned to as much as $ 5.5 billion.

The task force’s preference is for a project that addresses Hamilton’s transportation needs such as current and future demand and congestion.


Plan for Hamilton LRT. Image, Metrolinx.

In its report, the task force explains that, according to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, “higher-order transit generally operates in its own dedicated right-of-way, outside of mixed traffic, which allows it to achieve a frequency of service greater than mixed-traffic transit. Examples of higher-order transit include heavy rail (such as subways), light rail and buses in dedicated rights-of-way. Investments in higher order transit are associated with increased population densities over time and especially along major transit corridors, significant reductions in greenhouse gases and potential increases to active transportation.”

Both City of Hamilton and provincial plans have identified east-west and north-south corridors in Hamilton for future rapid-transit projects. The east-west corridor - mostly along Queenston Road, King and Main Streets - was where the proposed LRT would have operated. The City has dubbed this corridor the “B-Line”. The north-south corridor, mostly on James and Upper James Streets, is the “A-Line.”

Both plans also indicate long-term plans for other rapid bus lines across Hamilton — the L-, S- and T- lines. Together with the A- and B-lines, they formed the BLAST network of rapid-transit services for Hamilton.

The task force told Ontario Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney that its preference is for either an LRT on the B-Line or BRT on the B- and A-Lines (with other connecting “priority bus” projects, as part of the BLAST network). The LRT option on the B-Line could include the original project scope (if the province and city identify more funding), or a shorter version of the original project as a first phase, “if the benefits meet or exceed the benefits of the original project and exceed the benefits of projects on the preliminary list of recommendations”. The task force recommends that the province and its regional transit agency Metrolinx consider both of these projects equally and further analyze both concurrently to determine which project best meets Hamilton’s transportation needs.

If the analysis determines higher-order transit “intra-city” projects are not feasible, then the task force further recommends intercity higher-order transit in the form of 15-minute two-way all-day GO rail service to and from the Hamilton GO Centre.


The task force’s initial preference among the three projects can be categorized into two tiers. Image, Hamilton Transportation Task Force.

The task force says it’s recommending higher-order transit projects not only because they would substantially benefit the residents and businesses of Hamilton, but because they can reach contract award or start construction within two years. The task force is recommending that Metrolinx further analyze these three projects because they each have their own unique challenges.

In a letter transmitting the report to Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, the task force stated:

“Throughout this process, we were guided by the mandate to identify projects that provide substantial benefits to the residents and economy of Hamilton. To help us further focus this mandate, we looked at the province and the city’s current priorities to define three key problems that any recommended project would need to address. That is, any transportation project needs to improve access and inter- and intra-city connectivity of the transportation network, address current and future demand and congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Based on industry best practice and expert advice, we developed an assessment framework which allowed us to evaluate a long list of projects in [as] objective and consistent manner as possible and ensure our recommended list of projects addresses our identified problems.


The proposed BLAST rapid-transit network in Hamilton. Image: City of Hamilton.

“The long list of projects that we evaluated came from existing sources like the City of Hamilton’s Transportation Master Plan (2018) and Metrolinx’s 2041 Regional Transportation Plan and from ongoing work in the province and the city.

“The [task force] would like to re-iterate that this is just a preliminary list of recommendations based on our initial findings. We trust the Ministry of Transportation will continue to undertake its regular due diligence to ensure the $1 billion in capital funding for transportation in Hamilton is spent effectively.”

Hamilton has been working on a plan to build an LRT since 2008. A Metrolinx study recommended light rail transit over BRT in Hamilton as far back as 2011. But Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk later criticized the transit agency for not re-evaluating the pros and cons of BRT due to new information it gathered in 2014. Metrolinx had been working more formally on a Hamilton LRT project since 2015, when the previous Kathleen Wynne government announced $1 billion for the capital cost of building the system.

The task force recommends the city and province reach out to the Government of Canada and the private sector for help in funding the project. According to the Hamilton Spectator, Federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna has previously said the Liberal government would consider an LRT-related funding request. Her office earlier told The Spectator McKenna wants to review the task force report — but it’s not clear when that might happen given the ongoing COVID-19 emergency.

The 17-stop, 14-kilometre project was estimated to cost $1 billion when the previous Liberal government committed to funding it in 2014. The current Progressive Conservative government promised during the 2018 election to move ahead with it, then recommitted to it in their 2019 budget last March.

On releasing the task force report to the public, Minister Mulroney stated,

“I am pleased that we are one step closer to ensuring that the province’s commitment of $1 billion in capital funding is invested in realistic and affordable transportation projects in Hamilton.

“The task force has recommended a list of proposed projects that will improve access to the transportation network, reduce congestion, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

“In order to determine which of these projects will best serve the needs of Hamilton, the task force has also recommended further analysis. To this end, I am asking Metrolinx… to conduct a technical review of the project options contained in the report.

“In the interest of full transparency, I am also releasing the report to stakeholders and the public…

“Our government remains committed to ensuring that the City of Hamilton gets the transit and transportation infrastructure it needs and deserves in order to connect people to places and jobs and ensure a seamless transit experience.”

Local media offered mixed reactions to the task force recommendations.

In a news article in Hamilton Community News, reporter Kevin Werner writes,

“Light rail train advocates are celebrating a victory after the provincially-appointed Hamilton Transportation task force recommended an “intra-city high-order” transit project for the city.

To their ears, the task force’s recommendations mean LRT is back on the rails and should be effectively be green-lighted by Ontario after the province unceremoniously announced in December 2019, during a chaotic news conference that never happened, that the project was killed because it was bleeding money.

“But in a process that remains head-scratching, the task force’s recommendations may give LRT advocates an immediate, pyrrhic victory. Yet all the task force did was drop the future of transit back into the laps of [City of Hamilton] councillors…

“Even a BRT project, along the 13.5-kilometre B and 8-kilometre A-lines - which, as a few studies have suggested, would have a comparable economic uplift - would at least provide some economic stimulus to an area beyond the city’s downtown.

“The task force, though, also had questions about BRT, since it would require a separate environmental assessment for its infrastructure work - to accommodate wider rights of way and dedicated lanes - that would take at least another year. And the estimated cost for the project remains only a best guess.

“Hamilton could find itself holding a billion dollars with no project to show for it. (The task force’s other higher-order recommendation includes GO transit, an idea that has yet to generate any enthusiasm.)

“Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney has asked Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario to conduct technical reviews on both LRT and BRT. (Something, incidentally, that Ontario’s auditor general Bonny Lysyk requested in December 2018, after admonishing Metrolinx for proposing analyzing “alternative transit options” in 2014 but failing to follow through on the promise.)

“The task force also recommended, in a bit of hopefulness, that any higher-order transit project construction - at least the early work - be awarded and start by March 2022, less than two years away.”

On the other hand, in an editorial, the Spectator writes,

“How’s that for irony? The provincial government cancels the project, it turns out with little data or justification, then it faces a strong enough backlash that it appoints a hand-picked group of five people, no doubt in the hopes that their “independent” finding will support the government’s political decision. But, oops. The panel comes back and tells us what anyone who has been following this story already knows. LRT is viable, and so is bus rapid transit.

“Now, who knows how much more time and money will be spent for two expensive arms-length provincial bodies to study the options and recommend which is better.

“Does all this sound familiar? It should, because the LRT versus BRT question got a thorough airing years ago. The bottom line is that BRT has some demonstrable benefits over the status quo, and is considerably cheaper, especially given BRT requires minimal infrastructure investment. LRT takes much longer to build, the initial investment is much higher and the operating costs are comparable or less.

“The big difference is that LRT offers much greater economic development potential, which can be seen first hand by $3 billion in incremental development taking place along the LRT line in Kitchener-Waterloo. BRT doesn’t have the same impact.

The task force included four representatives from the Hamilton region and a representative of the City of Hamilton:

  • Tony Valeri (Chair) - Vice President, Corporate Affairs at ArcelorMittal Dofasco, former federal Minister of Transport and former Member of Parliament.
  • Richard J. Brennan - Award-winning journalist who reported on politics including Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill for most of his 40-plus-year career.
  • Anthony V. Primerano - Director of Government Relations for the Labourers International Union of North America (LiUNA).
  • Saiedeh Razavi - Director of the McMaster Institute for Transportation and Logistics (MITL), Associate Professor at the Department of Civil Engineering and the Chair in Heavy Construction at McMaster University.
  • Janette Smith - City Manager at the City of Hamilton and former Commissioner of Public Works and Commissioner of Health Services at the Region of Peel.

Between January and March 2020, the group met a total of eleven times in Hamilton and held teleconference calls. Staff from the Ministry of Transportation supported the task force, providing advice, planning, co-ordination and other administrative support. The task force also received technical presentations from external experts, and City, Ministry and provincial agency staff.

It presented its recommendations to the minister March 26. The ministry released the report to the public April 9.

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