1. After a significant dollar commitment from the Ontario government, and after years of study and debate, the notion of a “put up or shut up” vote as described by Mayor Eisenberger, will be put to council to take a measurement of the support for LRT. In light of the aforementioned debate and commitment, does the call for a vote surprise you and what do you take away from this development?
Councillor Merulla's motion surprised me because Council has already consistently voted for LRT in an unbroken chain of motions dating back to 2008, when Council first
established a Rapid Transit Office and directed staff to undertake a Rapid Transit Feasibility Study.
After several months of research and extensive community engagement, staff came back with a strong recommendation: build light rail, integrate with community and economic development policies, start with the east-west line, and move quickly and decisively to get priority funding from the Province. Council agreed and staff began work on detailed design for the east-west B-Line and preliminary design on the north-south A-Line. The Province provided $3 million in funding for the
City to complete a required Class Environmental Assessment for the project.
Staff completed the Rapid Ready LRT Plan in early 2013 and Council unanimously approved it, submitting the plan to the Province for full capital funding of LRT. In response to politicking and interference from former mayor Bob Bratina - who had been elected on a pro-LRT platform but subsequently tried to undermine the city's program - Council voted again in mid-2013 to reaffirm its commitment to the Rapid Ready LRT plan and reiterate its request for full capital funding.
In 2014, Council voted again to reaffirm its support for the LRT plan and to start implementing the local investments needed to prepare for LRT. In early 2015, Council yet again reaffirmed its request for full capital funding for LRT, while amending its capital funding request to include an additional $300 million in capital funding for local transit, mainly a new bus storage facility.
In May 2016, the Province confirmed full capital funding for the LRT request but not for the local transit request, noting that local transit should be funded from local revenues, plus the federal and provincial gas tax transfers.
Immediately after the Provincial announcement, Council voted to establish a new municipal LRT Office to coordinate with Metrolinx on implementing LRT and a new Light Rail Transit Sub-Committee to manage the LRT process and report to Council on its progress. Council has, in turn, received a number of reports from the LRT Sub-Committee, with the next report due at the May 18 General Issues Committee meeting.
In early 2016, Council approved a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Metrolinx laying out each party's respective accountabilities in their collaboration on the LRT design and implementation. Metrolinx is responsible to finance, design, procure and build the line, while the City is responsible to support Metrolinx in implementing the project in a streamlined manner and to implement transit-supportive land-use policies that will ensure LRT success.
So it definitely came as a surprise that Councillor Merulla perceived a need to introduce yet another motion calling on Council to reaffirm the acceptance of full capital LRT funding that it had repeatedly requested of the Province!
It comes as an even bigger surprise that City Council, which has consistently voted in favour of LRT again and again over the past eight years, suddenly isn't sure whether they support the LRT plan they have been shepherding all these years.
There is absolutely nothing new - no new information, no new developments, no change in the underlying context - that would cause a reasonable person to revisit their support for an investment in rapid transit that made excellent sense in 2008 and still makes excellent sense today.
To put it quite bluntly, Hamilton cannot achieve its long-term growth, economic development, land use and transportation objectives without this LRT investment. It would be staggeringly irresponsible for Council to reject full capital funding for LRT in the face of the overwhelming weight of evidence.
2. Some such as Clr. Chad Collins had suggested that a referendum would be a good next step, prior to proceeding with LRT. In the face of roughly a 34% turn out in the last municipal election, and given that LRT will have a major impact to our city and its residents, do you support Clr. Collins' suggestion? Why or why not, and would it not be a definitive way to ascertain the will of the people?
This is nothing more than an attempt to sow confusion and uncertainty about the LRT project.
For me, the defining moment in Councillor Collins' recent about-face on LRT is when he claimed, presumably with a straight face, that the 2003 municipal election was effectively a referendum on the Red Hill Valley Parkway but the 2014 municipal election was not a referendum on LRT.
In both cases, a large capital investment in transportation infrastructure was the main election issue, in both cases the major candidates for mayor took clearly defined positions on the issue, and in both cases voters clearly chose a leader who favoured moving ahead with the project.
It is disingenuous in the extreme to claim that this particular project suddenly needs a referendum when Council has been exercising its duty to oversee the project since 2008. We have not needed a referendum for any other major infrastructure projects in Hamilton's past or other contemporary transportation projects across Ontario.
Canada is a parliamentary democracy. We elect political leaders to engage with their constituents and with each other, to review the evidence, to consider likely outcomes against strategic goals, and to
implement responsible policies that make good sense and enjoy public support.
Representative democracy is meant to be careful and deliberative and to take a long-term view of success. Councillors are elected to make important policy decisions, not to strike divisive populist notes or lurch in knee-jerk fashion from crisis to crisis when it serves their parochial interests.
3. Undeniably, the leadership you, Raise the Hammer and others demonstrated and the degree of determination and persistence, has influenced the implementation decision for LRT in Hamilton. What do you say to those who might suggest that it is an astute and engaged lobby who made this happen, while not necessarily capturing the will of the people. Is there any truth in that?
The LRT project in Hamilton began with the Province promising "two light rail lines in Hamilton" in 2007. A group of Hamiltonians convened and began to work on a voluntary basis to study the evidence around rapid transit and LRT and to work toward ensuring that the City carefully consider the opportunity being presented to it.
Through its community engagement, Hamilton Light Rail met with a large number of individuals and organizations of various kinds - business groups, neighbourhood associations, service clubs, and so on. In every case, the organizations were persuaded of the benefits of LRT, adopted formal positions in support of LRT and sent formal statements to the City to state their support.
In addition, the City itself undertook very broad community engagement between 2008 and 2011 and found consistent, strong support for LRT across the city. Further, the 2015 Citizens' Jury on Transit, a group formed out of representatives selected at random from every part of the city, reviewed the case for LRT and concluded that it provides "great potential for city-building" and should be planned carefully and communicated effectively to provide the maximum overall benefit.
LRT is not some narrow interest. It is supported by as broad and diverse a set of community organizations as Environment Hamilton, the Chamber of Commerce, the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington, the Hamilton-Halton Home Builders Association, various BIAs, and all the
neighbourhood associations along the length of the LRT corridor.
But there are narrow interests at play in this debate. There has been a divisive, disruptive whisper campaign by two or three councillors to confuse people about LRT, pose already-answered questions concerns as if they were new problems, suggest alternatives that have already been carefully considered, try to pit different parts of the city against each other, and disseminate misleading and even outright false information in an attempt to undermine public support for LRT.
4. What do you say to those who suggest that the money would be better spent on enhancing and improving our present modes of public transit, which, according to some, offers greater flexibility and penetration to all areas of Hamilton?
The Province has made it very clear that the $1 billion is to be spent on LRT, not on local transit or roads or sidewalks or anything else. If we turn the money down, some other municipality will be happy to take it.
It is the City's job to maintain and grow our local transit system. The Province made that clear when it rejected Council's request for $300 million in capital for local transit improvements, at the same time that it approved Council's request for $1 billion in capital for LRT.
I would also point out that when LRT service begins, the many buses and service hours currently serving the LRT route will be freed up to be redeployed to other under-served areas.
Unfortunately, many of the same councillors who are now unsure whether they support LRT have also been the most strongly opposed to investing more in our local transit system. Unlike most of its competitor cities across Canada, Hamilton spends its federal gas tax transfer on road maintenance instead of the transit service it is supposed to be for. And our share of the provincial gas tax transfer keeps shrinking because Hamilton's transit service levels remain stagnant while other cities keep increasing theirs.
Hamilton is also the only city in Ontario to maintain area rating for transit, a system in which different parts of the city pay different tax rates toward transit and receive service levels consistent with what they pay. Under this arrangement, for service to be increased in an area-rated community, the entire cost of the increase must be paid by local ratepayers instead of being spread across the city.
Area rating defeats the purpose of an integrated, city-wide transportation system that recognizes residents do not just move around within their own wards but move around the entire city. Area rating also makes it extremely difficult, politically, to increase service in under-served areas since the relative cost increase for local ratepayers is so disproportionately high.
The result is a balkanized transit system in which the politicians whose areas need improved transit the most are most deterred politically from approving those necessary improvements.
If the councillors who suddenly think we should be spending LRT money on transit service were serious about wanting to improve transit service, they would already be using the tools available to them to achieve that vital goal - including supporting LRT, which will ease their efforts to improve transit across the city.
5. Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about this issue?
There is a lot of information already available on why LRT makes sense for Hamilton, and that information must be shared more widely and effectively. Every objection I see an LRT skeptic bring up is an objection that has already been answered and addressed over and over again since 2008.
Unfortunately, Hamilton Light Rail is a volunteer organization and we have very limited resources. The City has the resources to communicate the LRT program much more effectively, but City staff stopped communicating publicly after the Rapid Transit Office was suspended in summer 2011 (I hope this will change under the new LRT Office, which recently outlined its communications strategy).
Most people, given a chance to learn about why Council adopted the goal of LRT funding back in 2008 and has pursued it ever since, will come to the obvious conclusion: that there is absolutely no sensible reason to turn down a billion dollars in capital funding from the Province for a rapid transit investment that will shape land use, develop the economy, improve how Hamiltonians move around and increase the city's competitiveness for decades to come.
Finally, remember that the approved route - B-Line from McMaster to Queenston Traffic Circle with an A-Line spur up James to West Harbour GO or the Waterfront - is just the first phase of a long-term rapid transit strategy that will serve the entire city directly through rapid transit service as well as indirectly through economic uplift and other benefits.
The line is starting here because a high level of transit ridership is already established and that is an important condition for success. From there, success builds on success and we can expect that the rapid transit network will be expanded in future - east to Eastgate Square, south to the escarpment and beyond.