The Provincial decision on which rapid transit projects will get funded is a political decision, and the level of support and enthusiasm - from Hamilton's citizens and politicians alike - will be a significant factor in what the Province decides.
By Ryan McGreal
Published July 08, 2011
Last week, Mayor Bob Bratina worried light rail transit (LRT) supporters by saying that he is "not hearing any kind of clamour from the public" and that he has reservations about LRT. This was surprising, given Bratina's own past enthusiastic support for LRT and the unprecedented level of public engagement and enthusiasm about LRT - engagement and enthusiasm that preceded the City's own interest in the proposal.
In a follow-up email to Nicholas Kevlahan, the Mayor noted that Council is "committed to a four year plan of zero tax increases" and does not know how much money the City would have to contribute to the program.
Bratina also raised the issue of project mismanagement in Edinburgh, Scotland's LRT plan in saying his "personal enthusiasm for LRT is tempered by certain realities involving risk."
Then Councillors Brad Clark and Chad Collins stirred more uncertainty by pushing back on a staff intensification study [PDF] that focuses on the B-Line rapid transit corridor - even though staff are focusing on the B-Line on Council's own (prior) direction:
As part of the City's Nodes and Corridors Planning and Rapid Transit initiative, a number of reports for Council's consideration have been brought forward for endorsement and information. This Information Report and accompanying presentation provide an update on the planning work underway for the B-Line Nodes and Corridors Land Use Planning Study, specifically as it relates to proposed mid-rise development along the corridor.
Councillors Clark and Collins would prefer to see staff focus in the near term on the proposed GO Train stations in anticipation of all-day GO service and along Centennial Parkway and Rymal Road.
In response, RTH encouraged Hamiltonians to contact City Council and express support for light rail to remind Council about why they unanimously voted in October 2008 on a motion to instruct staff to work with Metrolinx in order to plan and implement LRT on the B-Line.
RTH sent emails to the Mayor and all the Councillors asking for clarification on how each member of Council feels about LRT. As of this writing, only three members of council have replied: Mayor Bratina, Councillor Bernie Morelli and Councillor Brian McHattie.
Bratina simply wrote, "Council is continuing to participate in the process of evaluating the LRT proposal."
Morelli wrote, "I have supported the concept to date but we need more answers." He expressed hope that Council will get "a better handle on more detail, such as: capital/operating costs, neighbourhood/traffic impacts, how will this project be financed, how much will the other levels of government contribute, etc."
He also noted that he has attended a Rapid Transit public meeting at Delta United Church and an all-day Council workshop and that he "continue[s] to meet on a regular basis with senior City staff who are heading up the Rapid Transit initiative."
McHattie stated, "I continue to support LRT on the B-Line route." Before LRT can go ahead, "Council needs a clear explanation of all costs and benefits, with which we can consider a funding strategy." He added that he expects Council will have that information by late this year.
McHattie also praised the job staff are doing planning for LRT and added that Metrolinx are impressed with the city's work. He also noted the value of local LRT advocates Richard Koroscil, who sits on the Metrolinx board, Metrolinx Chair Rob MacIsaac.
Clark did not respond to RTH, but he did post an entry on his blog to explain why he "kicked the hornet's nest". (Aside: every councillor should consider starting a blog - it's a great way to communicate directly with citizens.)
He argued that staff are only prioritizing the B-Line corridor in their intensification study because "they could use money from the LRT project."
He believes the James Street and Lower Centennial Parkway GO Train nodes should take priority, saying they have "a sense of urgency since Go Transit has indicated their preference for access points at those locations." In addition, the city should also hurry to put corridor planning in place for Upper James and Rymal "because of the imminent employment lands, commercial and residential developments."
Clark also raised the following procedural questions:
Why isn't council setting the corridor planning priorities?
Why have we not had a status update on LRT since the beginning of the year?
Why have we not had an update on the status the $3 million LRT fund?
Why are our planning priorities being sidelined by the LRT that may or may not become a reality?
What is the status on the capital and operating funding requests to pay for LRT?
Since we now know that HSR service must be maintained along the LRT line, what is the additional cost?
How much will Hamilton have to contribute to capital and operating?
Clark made a point of clarifying that Council voted in October 2008 to designate LRT as the city's preferred option for the B-Line, not to approve LRT.
Nobody on council has stated that they oppose LRT or that we are reconsidering. We are acting with all due diligence, waiting for a decision from the province on funding at which point we must make a final decision.
I would argue that staff are focusing on the B-Line because that is the direction they received from Council in the first place. Nevertheless, Clark has a sharp eye for process and his questions certainly have merit. Rapid Transit staff are doing a solid job of engaging Hamiltonians throughout the planning process, but it's important for Council to receive updates on a regular basis.
The big problem with Council's approach is that it punts instead of charging, by ceding the political ground of advocacy with the Province.
The demand from cities for high quality rapid transit is tremendous and the resources are scarce, and only those cities that do the best job of advocating for funding will receive it. It's not enough to sit back and say, 'We'll go along with LRT but only if the Province coughs up the money.'
The Provincial decision on which projects will get funded is a political decision, and the level of support and enthusiasm - from Hamilton's citizens and politicians alike - will be a significant factor in what the Province decides.
In the absence of any obvious champions for LRT among Hamilton's political leaders - particularly the mayor - it looks like we're not really that committed to it. Council needs to send a clear message: Hamilton needs LRT, and we're going to keep pushing until the Province comes through with a commitment that delivers the goods.
At the same time, Council needs to acknowledge that there is no realistic scenario in which Hamilton does not have to contribute any capital - and they cannot allow that to be a deal-breaker.
Given Council's target of a zero percent tax increase, it will be difficult to make a compelling case for the Province to pour its scarce capital into our LRT plan if we're not prepared to invest any of our own. At the very least, Council must be open to creative local funding mechanisms.