BRT deserved more study in Hamilton: Ontario’s auditor general

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BRT deserved more study in Hamilton: Ontario’s auditor general

A critical auditor general’s report on Metrolinx LRT projects suggests the agency should have spent more time studying bus rapid transit (BRT) as an alternative in Hamilton.

But Mayor Fred Eisenberger said the city’s long-debated $1-billion light rail transit project “won the larger benefits argument long ago” compared to cheaper BRT.

The wide-ranging annual report by Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk criticizes both the transit agency and its government partners for poor planning, political interference and contractual loopholes that contributed to $436 million in what she considered wasted or extra spending since 2009.

But Lysyk’s report also says Metrolinx “did not fully assess” whether LRT was the most “cost-effective” option for projects in both Toronto and Hamilton.

The report says 2014 business case updates for those proposed projects “clearly showed the need to further review whether it (was) appropriate to proceed” with LRT over cheaper bus rapid transit. In Hamilton, the updated analysis suggested either rapid transit option could provide the “highest performing investment option” depending on varying land use intensification scenarios.

As a result, Lysyk said in late 2014 Metrolinx recommended an “intermediate” business case — but instead, then-premier Kathleen Wynne came to Hamilton months later to announce 100 per cent capital funding for LRT.

Don’t feel bad if the report findings give you a sense of déjà vu.

Two municipal elections ago, then-mayoral candidates Fred Eisenberger and Brad Clark publicly sparred over memos dating back to 2010 that suggested Metrolinx judged BRT a higher-performing transit option if you exclude the city-building benefits of fixed rail transit.

“That argument has been a part of the dialogue around this project since the very beginning,” said Eisenberger, who recently won re-election with more than 50 per cent of the vote over anti-LRT candidate Vito Sgro.

Brad Clark was also elected Ward 9 councillor in October and continues to publicly oppose the LRT project. He said the auditor general’s report “lends credence” to his belief politics trumped planning in the LRT decision.

Bus rapid transit is typically defined as express bus service in dedicated, often physically separated lanes. Metrolinx estimated the 2008 cost of building BRT on the B-line at around $218 million.

LRT on an electric, fixed-rail system is expected to cost around $1 billion, but advocates argue light rail is more reliable for transit riders, better for the environment and more attractive for developers.

Eisenberger, who sat on the pre-2009 Metrolinx board and said he recalls a “thorough” study of various rapid transit options for Hamilton, said he wasn’t familiar with the 2014 business case updates cited in the auditor general’s report.

But he emphasized the city pursued LRT based on “a wide array of benefits” including more reliable transit, planned intensification and renewal along the corridor, improved infrastructure and employment. “The province didn’t approve the project simply based on cost,” he said.

Lysyk’s report says the 2014 Metrolinx updated analysis suggested LRT would be Hamilton’s best bet in a “higher-intensity” land use scenario, while BRT would win in a “medium” intensification context. But she added BRT was not tested in other land-use scenarios, unlike LRT.

Hamilton has already created special “transit-oriented development” zoning along the proposed Main-King-Queenston LRT corridor to encourage intensification, said city LRT project co-ordinator Kris Jacobson.

That focus on adding new density and taller buildings on designated corridors or at particular nodes dates back a decade under provincial and city growth plans, he noted. “The LRT corridor continues to be one of the main corridors identified and supported by the city for future growth and intensification,” he said.

Lysyk recommends in the report that in future Metrolinx should: “objectively evaluate evidence to recommend … transit projects and options that most cost effectively address the identified transit needs.”

In a written response within the report, Metrolinx said its accepts the recommendation and notes it started using a more rigorous project approval process, including progressive business case updates, in early 2018.

Lysyk also looked at infamous train car delivery problems that have plagued LRT projects in Toronto and Waterloo, as well as costly contract disputes under the alternative financing and procurement model Metrolinx prefers to use in project delivery.

That model, also proposed for Hamilton, is meant to transfer responsibility for project delays and cost overruns to the private sector design-build consortium.

Metrolinx said it is incorporating those “lessons learned” into planned project procurement rules for Hamilton’s LRT.

If the new PC provincial government allows Hamilton’s project to go ahead, major construction on the 14-kilometre LRT from McMaster University to Eastgate Square is supposed to start by 2020.

mvandongen@thespec.com

905-526-3241 | @Mattatthespec

mvandongen@thespec.com

905-526-3241 | @Mattatthespec

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