Debunking the Promises of Bus Rapid Transit
From the Nest, Issue 5
by Sean Hurley
Whenever the on-again, off-again Hamilton LRT debate is on-again, invariably a suburban politician will counter with “BRT!” The idea is that rather than the planned, ready, and funded Light Rail Transit (LRT) from Centennial to McMaster, there would be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) traversing all of Hamilton.
What these politicians say is that they don’t want a fancy new LRT that “only serves the downtown” but instead want “a system for the entire city”. In fact, BRT was a commitment that City Council, including 8 sitting City Councillors, made to Hamilton with the adoption of the 2007 Transportation Master Plan –
“Establishment of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network consisting of three primary spines and other interconnecting routes: A Lower City east-west corridor between McMaster University and Eastgate Square; a Central North-South Corridor on James Street and Upper James via Mohawk College; and, a Mountain East-West Corridor on the LINC or parallel facility. The staged implementation of BRT could begin with updating and enhancing the existing B-Line, located on the lower City east-west corridor.”
Despite that commitment, in a city of 580,000 people, our City Council hasn’t maintained a single bus lane along the city’s busiest transit corridor — a corridor that carried more riders pre-pandemic, daily, than there are cars in Waterdown.
The B-Line Express bus was given no stations, no traffic signal priority, and not even a bit of a lane to signify some progress toward the planned for and much celebrated BRT.
Council hasn’t delivered much beyond the drawing board on a commitment they made 14 years ago. What’s stopping them?
Two words – area rating.
Area rating is a tax scheme. Pre-amalgamation Hamilton pays as much as three times more in taxes for the same transit system as suburban taxpayers. For example, a home tax assessed at $297,000 on Gray Road, has an HSR levy of $84. A little further west a home tax assessed at $250,000 has a HSR levy of $247 (just about three times higher).
The reason? Prior to amalgamation in 2001, suburban communities paid for transit as a fee for service. This was mostly retained after amalgamation where transit became “area rated based on route mileage within a former municipal (transit) boundary”.
Transit area rating was supposed to be a temporary measure but has become a permanent fixture. Every effort to review area rating for transit has failed to move forward. The Transit Area Rating Review Sub-Committee, struck to “evaluate options for rebalancing area rating for transit for the 2021 budget process”, has only met twice (the last time was in February 2020).
To put this all into context, what it means is that “a system for the entire city” would necessarily mean raising the taxes on individual suburban households by hundreds of dollars. The only way to make growing transit economically and politically feasible would be to eliminate this area rating but not one suburban Councillor is prepared to do so. That means no BRT, not ever.
Politicians who push for BRT understand this well. Their calls for its implementation are disingenuous, perhaps even dishonest, in my view.
The area rating argument also ought to shine a light on the absurdity of any claims of threats to suburban taxpayers from LRT operating costs. Taxpayers in Wards 1 to 5 already pay for the lion’s share of the operating costs of B-Line routes (route numbers 1, 5, 10 and 51 at a cost of $33.5 million offset by fare box revenues of $15.3 million).
Given that the proposed LRT will operate solely along the B-Line, all within the boundaries of Wards 1-5, and given that City Council is not even discussing area ratings much less repealing them, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the wards that will pay for the tax portion of operating LRT are the wards in which it runs.
How much will that be?
According to a summary of costs and benefits presented to Council in 2012, the cost of operating LRT will run about $15 million. That is consistent with operating the B-Line 1 and 10 buses, today, and before fares are factored into cost recovery. It is worth noting the cost of operating Kitchener-Waterloo’s LRT, which is longer and supports more stops, is only $8.5 million. LRT may, in fact, result in an overall lower cost of operations.
As well, the LRT is expected to boost redevelopment along the corridor including 100s of million of dollars worth of new commercial development, all of which amounts to assessment growth.
There is little risk to suburban taxpayers from LRT under the current area rated funding model. Suburban Councillors aren’t prepared to give up the area rating regime that shields their constituents from higher taxes, even though it commits them to auto dependency.
The Federal and Provincial governments are looking to invest $3.4 billion directly into Hamilton in the form of hard infrastructure. Those dollars will put people to work building the city in the wake of the pandemic that has left many jobless and small businesses on edge. Any politician not wanting that money flowing through Hamilton ought to resign as a public service.
As well, any Councillor advocating for an unplanned and unfunded BRT “everywhere” should put up — by showing how the costs of extending frequent and reliable bus service into suburban wards will be funded under the area rating regime — or shut up.
Sean Hurley lives in the Crown Point neighbourhood, is interested in urban transportation issues, and has previously volunteered with #yesLRT