Special Report: Light Rail

A Newcomer's View of the Hamilton LRT Debate

It is to be hoped that a decision on Hamilton's LRT line will be made based on all of the facts, rather than emotion, half-truths, misunderstanding, and political expediency.

By John Thompson
Published December 16, 2014

I moved to Hamilton from Toronto in the summer of 2009, and almost immediately became aware of the proposal to bring Light Rail Transit to the Ambitious City.

Rendering of light rail transit on King Street (Image Credit: City of Hamilton)
Rendering of light rail transit on King Street (Image Credit: City of Hamilton)

Apart from reading everything that was published about the subject in the Hamilton Spectator, I attended the Rapid Transit open houses about this time that were sponsored by the city. I am not familiar with any television news relating to LRT, as I have not been a TV watcher for many years.

In my opinion, a crucial mistake was made by the HSR in almost exclusively promoting LRT as a development tool, rather than as fulfilling a transportation need.

Hamilton seems not to have been familiar with the experience of other new LRT cities, namely that many people will ride rail transit who would never ride a bus, even if the buses are clean, punctual, and serve the rider's destination.

Light Rail Vehicles are smooth, quiet and fast - especially on reserved tracks, which are proposed for Hamilton.

This mistake, regarding promotion, was also made by the recent failed mayoral candidate, Brian McHattie.

The many benefits of LRT have never really been properly stressed to the citizens of Hamilton.

Apart from the advantages stated above, it has a carrying capacity considerably higher than that of even an articulated bus. Thus, one Operator, who by the way makes at least $25 hourly plus benefits, is responsible for a significantly larger passenger load (the new LRVs in Toronto carry 250 passengers).

LRVs will last for over 30 years with proper maintenance, versus 12-15 for buses. There are no licencing fees for them. They do not pollute. They do not waste time pulling in and out of traffic. Their steel wheels last far longer than a bus's rubber tires. They have faster acceleration.

In situations where there is a high amount of patronage, LRT is more cost-effective than buses. This was one of the key points made in the Rapid Ready report for LRT that was approved by Hamilton City Council in February, 2013. This is a public document that presumably is available for anyone who wishes to review it.

Hamiltonians have been rightly "spooked" by the high capital cost of over $800 million for the B-Line LRT, extending from McMaster University to Eastgate Square at Centennial Parkway, close to the Queen Elizabeth Way. The line would be entirely on reserved track, from which cars and trucks would be excluded.

I'm not an engineer, but I question why a line about 15 kilometers long, entirely above ground on city streets with very simple stations, should cost as much.

For example, the city already owns land in the west harbour area, bought for the ill-fated Tiger Cats stadium, that could be used for the storage and maintenance facilities. Or, the existing, under-utilized Wentworth Street garage, opened in 1990, could be modified for LRVs, as suggested to me by former HSR Executive Director Don Hull.

Also, I don't think the project should bear the full cost of relocating and replacing underground electric, telephone and gas lines beneath the track alignment, as the relevant agencies would have had to replace their installations at their own expense at some point in the future anyhow.

The line does have to cross Highway 403, and it becomes a question of whether the existing bridges on Main or King Streets are strong enough to support LRT, or would need to be rebuilt, or replaced by an LRT-only structure.

The proposed B-Line route, as depicted at the Open Houses, is projected to run west on Queenston Road and Main Street, from Eastgate Square to the Delta, where King crosses Main, then follow King all the way to the west side of the Highway 403 crossing; it would then turn down to Main and continue westward to its McMaster terminus.

Part of King, especially east of Gore Park, is only four lanes in width, which would require a total ban on parking or stopping; stringent police enforcement would be necessary to maintain it. This portion of the route drew complaints from merchants whose stores would be affected.

A less controversial and more practical route would be to follow Main Street all the way, due to its greater width.

In summary, I feel that LRT has not been given a fair shake in Hamilton. Although the Rapid Ready Report was approved by a majority of City Council, some of those Councillors have either "bailed" or are wavering, sensing public apathy to the project.

First of all, I think Council has to get back to Metrolinx and insist on a detailed breakdown of costs, and an explanation of how the $800 million-plus was arrived at. If necessary, they need to be revised to something more realistic. Then, this needs to be publicized.

Secondly, the projected operating costs need to be calculated, and again, publicized and explained to the general public.

Finally, annual ridership levels on an LRT on Main Street must be forthcoming.

It is to be hoped that a decision on Hamilton's LRT line will be made based on all of the facts, rather than emotion, half-truths, misunderstanding, and political expediency.

John Thompson was born and grew up in Toronto, the city that, in the 1950s, bucked the trend and kept its streetcars. After high school, he took various courses in journalism and writing at the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, and Centennial College. In 1974 he joined a community newspaper in the Collingwood area as a reporter/photographer, subsequently being promoted to News Editor. Returning to Toronto in 1975, he worked for two years for a government agency as a Public Relations Officer. John's goal of working for the Toronto Transit Commission was reached in early 1977, when he joined the staff as Assistant Editor of the Commission's employee magazine, Coupler. Now retired and living in Hamilton, John is pursuing a career as a freelance writer, concentrating on transit subjects for trade publications.

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By wrongway (anonymous) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 11:17:23

Go to Niagara and talk to Jill Stephens.

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By actually (anonymous) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 12:52:52 in reply to Comment 107117

psst...Oakville

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 11:25:12

Good article and thoughts.

The simplest fix regarding the route alignment is to stick with what was originally proposed by the Metrolinx study and convert Main and Wilson to two-way traffic.
This would allow King to function with it's planned 2 WB lanes during rush hour, and 1 WB lane with curb-side parking the rest of the day. Wilson should be 1-lane each way with curb parking on both sides from Sherman to Bay. Main should be 2 lanes each way with curb parking on one-side. At major lights where a left turn lane is necessary, the parking lane ends and is replaced with a turn lane. Using 9.5 foot wide travel lanes and a 7-foot parking bay would leave 5-6 feet of extra space which could be added to each sidewalk to help create sidewalk-height bike lanes in both directions.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 11:37:31

Due diligence is, of course, called for.

But not just about LRT.

Despite the tendency for pro-LRTers to not want to have any other discussion other than getting LRT (witness the vehemence about not wanting to engage re: BRT for fear of even considering 'compromise'), we need to be talking about how we're going to improve transit should the 'promised' monies not be in the Provincial kitty. What's that expression about counting your chickens...?

This is the most important discussion for me, because it's actually part of the requirements for us getting LRT, period: that services be improved.

In the end, transit is primarily about moving people efficiently and humanely. Its primary raison d'etre is not economic development, despite the amount of column space this notion has been granted here and elsewhere. HSR riders are not being serviced properly. This needs to be fixed now, not when/if LRT is built. Enormous damage is being done by the under-resourcing and benign neglect currently at play, but I doubt this concept has been grasped by some, because they're not part of the demographic most affected.

We are indeed a city of haves and have-nots...and I'm not referring only to our poverty situation. It's high time we take some of the energies being spent on visioning a desired project and apply them to making things better for HSR riders now.

Comment edited by ItJustIs on 2014-12-16 11:37:58

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By heystupid (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 10:35:54 in reply to Comment 107124

You know what just is? Your an idiot. Just like that. Just saying.

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By no!heyYOUstupid (anonymous) | Posted December 27, 2014 at 11:44:34 in reply to Comment 107196

dope (_8(|)

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted December 17, 2014 at 17:01:23 in reply to Comment 107124

witness the vehemence about not wanting to engage re: BRT for fear of even considering 'compromise'

Actually the reason we don't want to talk about BRT is because there is not a convincing case for it.

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By Fake Name (anonymous) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 11:37:43

To me, the big thing the city should start on is planning on a B-line *today*. Not just "when we get the metrolinx funding" but just start planning an HOV/Bus lane on the full lengths of both King and Main, and run the B-line *itself* every 5 minutes and then rejigger every route in the system to rendezvous with their nearest B-line stop instead of going downtown to the bus terminal.

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By Crispy (registered) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 11:43:05

"First of all, I think Council has to get back to Metrolinx and insist on a detailed breakdown of costs, and an explanation of how the $800 million-plus was arrived at. If necessary, they need to be revised to something more realistic. Then, this needs to be publicized."

Appendix A of the Rapid Ready report outlines the $811M figure.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 12:43:17 in reply to Comment 107126

I have always questioned the costs being suggested for our LRT system. No tunnels, no hills and any underground sewer/water works that need to be replaced are because they need to be replaced anyhow. That has nothing to do with LRT.

An example from France:

http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/...

And the finished product: http://s-www.lalsace.fr/images/B2E21605-...

LRT could never work here though because our streets are too narrow.....

Comment edited by jason on 2014-12-16 12:46:57

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 10:49:30 in reply to Comment 107133

Unlikely that Metrolinx would scrap Bombardier in favour of Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles at this stage, but GTHA cities can always contract their metros out to Veolia-Transdev. Or Keolis. Or Connex/Vivendi. Le marché overt, hein?

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 11:09:08 in reply to Comment 107197

*Incidentally, Keolis is part of K-W’s GrandLinq consortium and will be operating/maintaining the Ion LRT through 2050.

rapidtransit.regionofwaterloo.ca/en/resourcesGeneral/PreferredTeamforION_CouncilReport.pdf

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By Steve (registered) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 13:12:08 in reply to Comment 107133

Costs on these large products are notorious for escalating, I can see no reason why this one should be any different.

You can start with the fact the $811M is in 2010 dollars, so it's already out of date by 4 years.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 12:52:44

The cost does seem very high to me: in France (not known for cheap labour but, admittedly, very experienced in large engineering projects like the TGV, Airbus, Ariane, network of toll autoroutes etc.) the costs for recent projects vary between 16 and 39 million euros per km with an average cost of 26 million euros (about $22 to $54 million per km, with an average cost of $36.4 million).

http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_des_t...

And French cities (at least in the historic centres) clearly have more engineering challenges than Hamilton's flat straight route through a pretty straightforward grid system. (Note, also, that most of the cities on the list are far smaller than Hamilton!)

At the 2010 estimate of $811 million, they're estimating Hamilton's project at about $62 million per km, over 70% higher than the French average. I assume that part of the excess cost is just risk: Canada has built almost no modern LRT lines (apart from Calgary and Edmonton which are older technology) while France has built 26 lines since the 1980s.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-12-16 12:55:00

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By higgicd (registered) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 20:20:22 in reply to Comment 107135

I can't comment on if this was the case for the examples you list, but part of the LRT cost estimate has always been a deep track bed of several metres, which requires moving and replacing utilities along the line. So it is transportation plus utilities work. I won't pretend to have the expertise to comment on if the stated costs for this work are reasonable though.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 13:07:48 in reply to Comment 107135

I don't see why we should have to put up with such wasteful cost estimates when firms who work on LRT projects around the world are available for hire in Canada as in any country.

We simply throw away millions and millions of dollars in this country anytime we build anything. Likely into a precious few bank accounts.

Our stadium was the same thing. Other cities were building gorgeous stadiums for the cost we built two sets of bleachers. Someone has to call out our officials in Ontario on their constant pocket-lining every time they see an opportunity.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted December 17, 2014 at 13:05:03 in reply to Comment 107140

Jason, have you even been to THF? The stadium is not two sets of bleachers.

Were you born with your foot permanently in your mouth?

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By bvbborussia (registered) | Posted December 23, 2014 at 10:53:02 in reply to Comment 107185

I've been. It's bad. It's two sets of bleachers.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted December 16, 2014 at 13:08:42

$811M isn't nearly enough for this proposed project.

If they say the number is $811M before approval then the number is likely more like $1.1B and I fear I'm still underestimating the number.

Ask the TTC how easily it is to go over budget & behind schedule on large projects - St. Clair Line, Leslie Barns, York University Extension, etc. You can also ask Mississauga Transit how over budget and and behind schedule their BRT ended up before its partial opening last month.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted December 17, 2014 at 13:13:20 in reply to Comment 107141

Steve, be careful, you are spewing facts and reason on a blog where such talk has no place.

Whatever numbers that Jason and Ryan put forward are always correct. I'm sure these guys have extensive experience in engineering and financing of such large projects..oh wait...

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted December 17, 2014 at 14:01:02

I see from the Metrolinx backgrounder on transportation technologies that typical surface LRT costs are $35-40 million per km for the track with another $3-5 million per 30M articulated vehicle. There are also costs for maintenance facilities. If one wants to have stations or even simple shelters this costs money as well.

This may be compared with $5-10 million per km for the conventional streetcar tracks that we used to have and $2.5-3 million for conventional streetcars.

The extra track costs for LRT are not just for the higher speed of the vehicle but also for such things as signalling to ensure transit priority, protective measures to keep unauthorized vehicles off the tracks, etc.

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By Urbinetrix (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 08:51:32

I watched the Council debate on Bus Only Lane yesterday and I didn't want to believe it before, but LRT is dead in this city. It is and won't be revived for a generation or more. I am sad about this, but it seems to be the reality and no amount of hand-wringing, debates, arguments, discussions, logic, entreaties, shouting-matches will change that reality.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 09:36:43 in reply to Comment 107192

and the amazing thing is, for a bunch of anti-leaders who usually try to pander to the slim majority, they aren't even doing that in this case:

http://poll.forumresearch.com/post/152/e...

Everyone sad at the time these polls are deadly accurate, and sure enough, the mayoral race ended up exactly as the poll predicted. So we know a slim majority of Hamilton residents support rapid transit EVEN after 4 years of being lied to by the mayor in a campaign to kill the project.

Any decent leadership and vision articulation from the new council could see this number rise to 50-60% within a year one would think. Lot of people have no clue about rapid transit thx to the last council term. Sadly, we look to have replaced the non-vision, non-leadership of the mayor with some of our councillors. Career politicians who start their re-election campaign the day after the election. No vision, no 30 year big picture (aside from their pension).
Same old.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 13:43:39 in reply to Comment 107194

Not quite sure what you read out of that poll? I don't interpret the numbers as being pro-LRT.

  • the broad majority agree it requires light rail (60%) rather than a rapid bus solution (28%). One tenth think both are needed (11%).

Clearly there was no option provided for status quo, only LRT, BRT or Both.

  • When asked, only the minority agree rapid transit will benefit their families (36%), compared to more then half who think it will not (54%).

The majority see no benefit to their family.

  • When asked if they agreed with a dedicated tax to pay for improved transit, two thirds disagree (64%) and fewer than one quarter agree (23%).

The majority don't want to pay for improved transit.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 16:30:18 in reply to Comment 107201

Re: Dedicated tax to pay for improved transit

"The Metrolinx poll of 2,500 residents drawn from across the GTA and Hamilton was conducted by Environics in August and September of 2011. , well before the subway-vs-LRT battle at council earlier this year . The results have a 1.9 per cent margin of error, and are considered to be accurate 19 times out of 20. The results show, geographically, there was more support in Toronto for general taxes compared to the 905 and Hamilton, where residents preferred user fees."

theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/residents-remain-skeptical-on-metrolinx-funding/article4633703/

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 14:18:52 in reply to Comment 107201

the very first number is key to me: 46% want rapid transit. 42% don't. And that's after 4 years of being lied to by the mayor in his attempt to kill the project.

Imagine how fast the 'pro' number could climb with good information, data, stats and leadership from city council? Some of these councillors act like 80% of the population is against rapid transit. If there was ever going to be a rapid transit poll indicating the majority don't want RT, it would have been at the end of the last 4 year term.

That we came out of that term with a slim majority still wanting RT is astounding.
As always, council is way behind the rest of the world.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 16:15:16 in reply to Comment 107202

But it's all soft support that carries only until a question about how to pay for it is posed. Once payment comes into play a large number that support RT disappear.

I don't know the science behind this survey, but I'm going to guess the agreement on RT came before the payment question. Thus, the evaporation of support when the payment question was asked. Hey, I took Market Research in Uni and know all about how to get results based on the question asked and the order of the questions.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 17:25:07 in reply to Comment 107203

But the question about payment isn't even directly tied to LRT, its asking about transit in general. As it stands the B-Line already pays for itself at the farebox and that likely won't change by building LRT, which has reasonably low operating cost per user and is projected to attract riders. Plus, as we know, the province is offering to cover the capital costs.

In other words, you can spin it either way.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 16:58:48 in reply to Comment 107203

we've had provincial promise of 100% capital funding.

Any decent city hall in any other city would take this poll result and immediately crank the heat up on the province for their funding for Hamilton. But not here. We look for any way out so we can keep on trucking across gross, dangerous, dead streets.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 18:22:12 in reply to Comment 107205

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By Relo (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 21:44:31 in reply to Comment 107209

What's keeping you from moving to where you work?

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 22:26:08 in reply to Comment 107219

I don't like Mississauga - no roots there (our family is all in the Hamilton area). The city is way too expensive. The city shuts down after 6pm. There's no downtown.

I'd love to work in the city, but there's no IT jobs in Hamilton.

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By Q (anonymous) | Posted December 19, 2014 at 09:39:11 in reply to Comment 107220

Do you believe that an improved downtown in Hamilton might attract IT jobs?

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted December 19, 2014 at 20:32:37 in reply to Comment 107222

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By What (anonymous) | Posted December 19, 2014 at 21:23:08 in reply to Comment 107254

The question made no mention of public transit.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted December 21, 2014 at 00:06:03 in reply to Comment 107259

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By RobF (registered) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 12:39:46 in reply to Comment 107194

"... everybody seemed to agree in principle with the various projects we had in mind but the moment you came down to the crux of the whole situation - Who builds it, who pays for it and when does it start? - that was when the difficulties arose."

This was "Big Daddy", Frederick Gardiner testifying about difficulties building needed infrastructure in York County at the OMB hearings into Toronto Amalgamation in 1950.

Yes, the same old.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 10:31:02 in reply to Comment 107194

"Lot of people have no clue about rapid transit thx to the last council term."

Also Metrolinx.

Globe & Mail, Oct 24 2012:

"In an interview, Metrolinx chief executive officer Bruce McCuaig acknowledged the agency has to step up its efforts to communicate its long-range vision to Greater Toronto and Hamilton residents.... A recent Toronto Board of Trade/Globe and Mail/Nanos poll showed that only one in 10 residents had heard of The Big Move."

theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/residents-remain-skeptical-on-metrolinx-funding/article4633703/

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 18:06:56

Campaign promises are nice, but the ones that carry weight are made by a sitting majority government. Parliament is dissolved for the purposes of holding an election, muting if not mooting the value of policy commitments made during the writ period.

This was further underlined by the Ontario Superior Court in January 2005:


An Ontario Superior Court judge has absolved Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty of breaking an elaborately signed contract promising not to raise or create new taxes, saying anyone who believes a campaign promise is naive about the democratic system.

If anyone who voted for a politician based on a particular promise later were to go to court alleging a breached contract, "our system of government would be rendered dysfunctional. This would hinder, if not paralyze, the parliamentary system," Mr. Justice Paul Rouleau said.

The judge was ruling on a request from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to quash the Liberals' new health premium on the grounds that it broke an election promise.

"Imposing a duty of care in the circumstances such as exist in the present case would have a chilling effect and would interfere with the concept of parliamentary sovereignty," he said. "To allow claims for negligent representation to be made based on these would raise the spectre of unlimited liability to an indeterminate class.

theglobeandmail.com/news/national/politicians-promises-not-set-in-stone-court-says/article1114002/


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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 18:08:15 in reply to Comment 107207

And again:

"It is hoped that, if elected, the politicians and their parties will keep their promises and will follow through with the pledges given," Judge Rouleau said in the ruling.

"That said, however, few people would consider that all of the promises made and pledges given constitute legally binding documents between the candidate and the elector or electors to whom those promises or pledges were given."

theglobeandmail.com/news/national/politicians-promises-not-set-in-stone-court-says/article1114002/

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted December 18, 2014 at 18:27:30

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