Rapid transit study misses big picture

The Rapid Transit Feasibility Study is an important contribution to the public discussion, but we need to move beyond its limited criteria to appreciate the full benefits of a modern transit system.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted April 16, 2008 in Essays (Last Updated April 16, 2008)

Published in the _Hamilton Spectator_ on April 16, 2008

Last year, Hamilton's Transportation Master Plan recommended bus rapid transit (BRT) along three "higher order" transit routes: McMaster-Eastgate, James- Upper James, and east-west across the Mountain.

Then in June, the Ontario government announced $17 billion in capital funding for transit projects across the GTA, including $300 million for two rapid-transit lines in Hamilton.

Suddenly light-rail transit (LRT) became a viable option. The Liberals even campaigned here on a promise of "two light rail lines across Hamilton."

This January, Hamilton's public works department hired a consultant to prepare a Rapid Transit Feasibility Study comparing BRT and LRT to sketch out the respective opportunities and challenges.

Unfortunately, the study suffers from glaring information gaps that obscure the advantages of LRT.

First, the study is biased against LRT by forcing it onto routes that were chosen for buses.

Consider the A-Line, which would run from the waterfront along James Street, up James Mountain Road to West 5th at Mohawk College, then over to Upper James and out to the airport.

Due to the steep grade on James Mountain Road, the only way to run an LRT here would be to construct two 1.5-kilometre tunnels up the escarpment, boosting the cost by hundreds of millions of dollars.

That's ridiculous. Why shoehorn LRT up James Mountain Road when it could travel on the Claremont Access instead? The "tunnel" is nothing but a red herring.

Next, the study compares operating costs per revenue-hour per vehicle, claiming $80 for BRT and $175 for LRT.

Comparing costs per vehicle just doesn't make sense. Since each LRT vehicle can carry three times as many people as a bus, the operating cost per passenger would actually be about 27 per cent cheaper.

Most disturbing, however, is the total absence of any economic development analysis.

The study acknowledges that rapid transit systems are "drivers of economic development, revitalization and assessment growth," but provides no comparative data.

Instead it makes the wishy-washy claim, "LRT is often thought of as ... being able to provide greater economic spinoffs than BRT."

The absence of actual results in the report is not due to a lack of quantitative data. Transit-oriented development is a hot subject among planners and economists, and the evidence is clear: LRT attracts far more economic development than BRT. There's really no contest.

It's important to understand just what attracts developers to LRT. First, it's fast, comfortable, convenient and "sexy." People who would never ride a bus will happily choose to ride a sleek, modern tram.

Overall, LRT is much better at attracting new riders. New lines regularly exceed ridership growth projections.

Last year, the United States experienced its highest transit ridership in 50 years, and the highest growth rate was in LRT.

Because it attracts more -- and more affluent -- riders, LRT also attracts more interest from developers, particularly in higher- density, mixed-use projects that combine residential, commercial and office space.

LRT commits the city to a permanent, long-term capital investment based on access to the line. Coupled with strong ridership growth, this permanence lowers the risk for developers.

A review of 22 major studies in 11 cities over the past two decades found, "commercial and residential property values generally rise the closer they are to light rail stations."

Portland, Ore., is the gold standard in LRT return on investment. The 7.7-kilometre Portland Streetcar, completed in 2001 (and increased to 9.7 kilometres in 2005), single-handedly attracted $2.3 billion US in new development to an area of disused brownfields around the line.

But with all the focus on Portland, it's easy to forget the many other cities also enjoying LRT's benefits.

Last November, Charlotte, N.C., opened the LYNX Blue Line, a 15.4-kilometre LRT that has already brought the Charlotte Area Transit System its highest ridership in decades. Ridership on the Blue Line was projected at 9,100 passengers per week, but actual weekly ridership last month was more than 14,000.

With the success of the Blue Line, Charlotte is already planning several additions, including a 17.7-kilometre line due to open in 2013, and a 16-kilometre line proposed for completion in 2018.

The Blue Line has also attracted $400 million in new investments, with another $1.4 billion planned between now and 2011.

LRT in Norfolk, Va., has generated more than $220 million in planned office, retail, apartment and hotel development downtown -- and they haven't started building it yet. Developers are calling the 12-kilometre LRT line a "key part" in their decision to invest.

This pattern is the rule, not the exception.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, every dollar of public money invested in LRT attracts $6 in new private investment.

For Hamilton, $300 million in LRT could mean $1.8 billion in new development and about $50 million in new tax revenue. With 0 per cent assessment growth projected for 2008, Hamilton needs this kind of economic development.

At a stroke, LRT can help us reach our economic development goals, intensify our land use around our major corridors, meet our goal of doubling transit ridership, improve our quality of life and boost our image as a progressive city.

The Rapid Transit Feasibility Study is an important contribution to the public discussion, but we need to move beyond its limited criteria to appreciate the full benefits of a modern transit system.