With the imminent announcement of LRT funding, the first order of business for the City is to elevate the level of a public debate mired in fear and misinformation.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 25, 2015
With the imminent announcement of a Provincial light rail transit (LRT) funding commitment for Hamilton, the City quickly needs to re-form its rapid transit office - this time, preferably under the umbrella of the Planning and Economic Development Department.
Light Rail Transit rendering on King Street at Wellington
The first order of business must be to elevate the level of public debate over LRT by providing good information in the face of fear and confusion.
Ever since the City fell silent on communicating with Hamiltonians about its LRT planning process in 2011, the public discourse has gradually slid into a miasma of knee-jerk opposition, misinformation and downright hokum.
Here is a quick review of the letters-to-the-editor that have been published in the Spectator this month.
A May 23, 2015 letter titled "Seize the transit opportunity" cites Hamilton's position as a potential "transit hub for southern Ontario" and then makes a bizarre non-sequitur: "City council cannot waste any more time or energy with the ridiculous idea of connecting McMaster University to Eastgate Mall with the LRT."
It suggests that Hamilton is being "defiant toward the province" without articulating what is "defiant" about a plan that the City developed in close consultation with Metrolinx and on which the Province is just about to make a funding commitment.
Another May 23 letter, this one titled "Everything old is new again", suggests that ride hailing services like UBER are similar to the old jitney cabs, and then adds, "Just like this LRT idea is so similar to that dear old HSR line. With very likely the same problems we had back in the '40s."
Of course, modern LRT is as different from a 1940s streetcar as a modern automobile is from a Chevrolet Fleetmaster. LRT vehicles are smooth, comfortable, accessible, fast and run on dedicated rights-of-way rather than in mixed traffic.
A letter from May 22, titled, "Better ways to spend $1 billion than LRT", claims, "The primary purpose of this new transit system is so that people can get between Eastgate Square and McMaster a little bit faster than they would on the current system that includes the very efficient B-Line buses."
Like so many naive critiques of LRT, it completely ignores the role of rapid transit in attracting and shaping new developments that make more efficient use of public infrastructure, boost property tax revenues, reduce the need for automobile lane capacity and attract young, creative professionals to live in the city.
A May 21 letter, titled "Use Queen's Park money for buses," continues in the vein of comparing modern LRT to traditional streetcars. It suggests, "Perhaps the newly-appointed citizen's panel might research council meeting minutes of the day as to why the LRT was destroyed."
We know why the streetcars were destroyed: Canada Coach Lines, a bus company, bought the Hamilton Street Railway and converted the streetcar lines to bus and trolleybus lines rather than invest in catching up on delayed streetcar maintenance. (The last trolleybus was decommissioned in the 1990s.)
Again, modern LRT is very different from World War II era streetcars - but even the streetcars of the time did not fail because they didn't work.
Those few cities that bucked the streetcar-abandonment trend across North America and Europe love their streetcars, and many of the cities that did remove their streetcars have since reversed course and invested in new streetcar and/or LRT systems.
Also, it scarcely needs to be pointed out that Hamilton will not get to decide how to spend whatever rapid transit capital the Province promises.
We cannot afford to make major policy and investment decisions based on ignorance, fear and knee-jerk opposition to change. The City and the Province alike have a serious responsibility to explain what modern LRT is and how it benefits the city and the region.
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