The work of LRT supporters is not over. Between now and April 19, we need as many voices to speak up in favour of this transformative opportunity as possible.
By Ryan McGreal
Published March 31, 2017
After a thirteen-hour ultramarathon of grandstanding, Councillors at the Tuesday, March 28, 2017 General Issues Committee voted to defer a decision on an Environmental Project Report (EPR) amendment for the city's Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, and to reject a proposal to ask Metrolinx to evaluate adding an LRT station at Bay Street.
The former decision is at least understandable, if exasperating. The latter decision is just absurd.
It will not cost the city anything to have Metrolinx report back on whether they agree with including a Bay Street station in the LRT plan within the Provincial funding envelope.
That Council voted against it anyway suggests they were either too punch-drunk to think clearly by that point in the meeting, or else that a narrow majority of Councillors were motivated purely by spite and a desire to undermine the project.
Ironically, both the Stoney Creek and Flamborough Chambers of Commerce, while ambivalent on the LRT project itself, argued to Council that if LRT is going ahead, then it only makes sense that Council would aim to make it the best it can be.
It would be a gross violation of Council's fiduciary obligation as the City's board of directors for any Council member to try and undermine the success of a Council-approved motion, and LRT is already unquestionably Council-approved, as both the former City Solicitor and the Integrity Commissioner made clear last October.
The good news is that their vote against asking Metrolinx about a Bay Street station still has to be approved at Council next month, so there is time for one of those votes to flip back to sanity.
Approving the EPR amendment should be a mere procedural formality, since: a) Council already directed staff to prepare it as part of Council's commitment to implementing LRT, b) it's an amendment to an EPR that Council already approved and submitted to the Province, and c) it still has to be evaluated and approved by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.
It was abundantly clear from the Council debate that there were no serious, legitimate concerns about the EPR itself, which had no real surprises.
Nevertheless, one councillor made a show of hauling out thousands of pages of printed technical documents, complaining that he had not had time to read them all.
This is silly. Councillors are not engineers and it is not their job to try and read those low-level documents intended for the Ministry experts to evaluate. They were provided staff summary and ample opportunity - two weeks - before the meeting to read it and prepare questions for staff.
Instead, they spent much of their time grilling staff on questions the EPR amendment was never intended to answer, like the operational agreement that will be negotiated next year. It is an assessment of the environmental implications of building an LRT line, and there is no good reason for Council not to approve submitting it to the Environment Ministry.
Of course, the real reason Council deferred approving it is because they're suddenly fearful of moving ahead with the LRT project, despite having voted consistently and repeatedly since 2008 to move forward on every single stage of this large, complex project, and despite having made a commitment under the Memorandum of Agreement with Metrolinx [PDF] to:
proceed expeditiously, diligently and in good faith and in a co-operative and collaborative manner to [...] facilitate and expedite the construction and completion of the Project.
To reject the EPR and imperil the project without cause would expose the City to a serious claim from Metrolinx to recover the $70 million they have already spent in good faith to implement this Council-approved project.
There are around 235,000 households in Hamilton, so that $70 million in wasted LRT implementation spending would amount to a little over a $300 penalty on every household's property tax bill to pay for it.
That is just the beginning of what we might call the Skelly Tax - the direct and painful cost to local taxpayers of not moving ahead with LRT.
The Skelly Tax will also have to cover the cost of replacing all the aging and decrepit infrastructure along the LRT corridor from McMaster to Queenston Road, money that local taxpayers will have to shoulder if we reject this one-time Provincial capital funding opportunity.
It gets even worse. We would further lose out on property tax revenue from all the additional new developments on currently vacant and under-used land across the lower city, and especially in the downtown core, that LRT will generate and indeed has already begun to generate.
Downtown Hamilton, bounded by Queen, Cannon, Wellington and Hunter. All the surface parking lots could be redeveloped to generate 10-20 times as much property tax as they do now (Image Credit: Google Maps)
Just two new developments on a small block bounded by Main, Bay, George and Caroline - Homewood Suites and 150 Main West - will collectively be paying $820,000 dollars a year in new property tax to the City once completed. They paid just $56,000 before they were redeveloped, an almost 15-fold increase.
Now look at all the surface lots just in the downtown core and think of the growth that we will sabotage if we kill LRT.
So the Skelly Tax also includes the grinding annual property tax increases that Hamilton residents will be forced to absorb if we lose out on all these new sources of property tax revenue to help pay for the city's operations.
Homewood Suites and 150 Main at dusk (RTH file photo)
The developer behind those projects, Darko Vranich, sent a letter to Council last year stating it "is extremely concerning to those of us who are investing in Hamilton" to find out that Council might not keep its commitment to build LRT.
Perhaps most astonishing is Council's apparent indifference to the vast and broad array of community stakeholders that have come together in an unprecedented consensus in favour of completing this project.
Councillors have heard loud and clear from representatives of every major stakeholder and anchor institution in the city, including: the Chamber of Commerce, both school boards, McMaster University, Mohawk College, St. Joseph's Healthcare, Hamilton Health Sciences, Arcellor Mittal Dofasco, the Hamilton-Halton Home Builders Assocation, the Hamilton-Burlington Society of Architects, the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington, hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses, Environment Hamilton, the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, the Downtown BIA, multiple neighbourhood associations across the city, area MPs and MPPs, a coalition of former mayors and regional chairs, Cycle Hamilton, the McMaster Downtown Health Centre, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Hamilton Convention Centre, major commercial downtown Hamilton employers, and more.
It may be indecorous of me to write this, given that I was one of the delegates, but it needs to be said: the pro-LRT delegations were on the whole professional, measured, articulate, factual, forward-looking and hopeful.
They argued from evidence, respected the process the City has been following on this project, and took a compassionate, inclusive view of the city and its residents. The highlight was a delegation by 14-year-old Matthew Carrabs of Winona, who delighted the chamber and most of the audience with is impassioned call for Hamiltonians to come together in common purpose.
His delegation is worth quoting at some length:
Like the backbone of a person, the LRT will connect the city's different parts and give us a closer feeling of community. In my school we learn about community, people living and working together in harmony, people who are connected with each other and God. One thing that helps people be connected to each other is being able to get around. The LRT won't solve all of our transit problems, but it will take some cars off the road and encourage more of us to use public transit.
Right now, I know that people in Winona like me, and people in Dundas don't feel much like we are in the same community. The project being reviewed today does not include Winona and Dundas, but we are on the master plan for Hamilton transit. As the whole transit system gets stronger and stronger, starting with the new LRT, our connections will also grow stronger and stronger. These strong connections will help us build a stronger Hamilton.
Of course, this won't happen overnight, but we've got to start somewhere. And about why a teenager from Winona would care about the rest of Hamilton, well, it's not just about me, it's about all of you, Hamilton.
I can't imagine any Council member hearing Carrabs' words and not being inspired - or at least ashamed - into recognizing that a great city is built on mutual respect and dignity, not selfishness and spite.
But none of it seemed to make any discernable impression on Council. Instead, a swamp of misinformation, fear, uncertainty, cynicism and angry hyperbole seemed to carry the day.
The anti-LRT delegations that presented were for the most part angry, bitter, contemptuous, and abusive. They ranged in hyperbole from merely hostile all the way to catastrophically over-the-top.
The leader of the NONOLRT movement got things going by comparing LRT to AIDS and SARS, deadly infectious diseases that have killed millions of people. The committee chair, Dundas Councillor and Deputy Mayor Arlene VanderBeek, let this statement pass without a challenge.
Another delegate directly accused Metrolinx and Mayor Eisenberger and Councillors Aidan Johnson, Jason Farr, Matthew Green and Sam Merulla of lying, the most egregious form of unparliamentary language that should never be allowed in a legislative chamber. The Chair failed to call the delegate out on this violation but shut down Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr when he tried to rebut it.
Yet another compared accepting Metrolinx funding to Judas Iscariot accepting 30 pieces of silver, and charmingly reminded the assembled councillors that Judas went on to hang himself.
And yet another pointedly warned the pro-LRT supporters they should dust off their resumes.
More than one other LRT opponent, unable to contain their basic contempt for Hamilton, insisted that what we really need is not transit for the city but rather transit out of the city.
Anti-LRT councillor Donna Skelly of Ward 7, who admits to actively collaborating with the anti-LRT group [MP3 link] despite having promised to respect and uphold Council's support for LRT, followed a pattern of asking blatantly leading and irresponsible questions of the anti-LRT delegates.
The LRT opponents on Council continue to make the misleading insinuation that if we reject LRT, we can still use the $1 billion funding commitment for something other than the approved plan.
This is false. If we reject LRT, the money will be released back into the rapid transit fund and we will have to start from scratch to develop a new rapid transit funding request, a process that takes several years.
We would throw away a decade of planning that got us to where we are today and spend another decade getting back to this point again - if we ever do. What Provincial government would ever want to partner with a fickle City Council that can't keep its commitments?
You may be feeling exasperated with all the shenanigans on this long and winding file, but it's not over yet. We get to do it all over again on Tuesday, April 19, when Councillors will once again convene in a General Issues Committee to listen to more delegations (yes, there will be more delegations) and consider approving the EPR amendment they deferred at this meeting.
That means the work of LRT supporters is not over. Between now and April 19, we need as many voices to speak up in favour of transformative opportunity as possible.
We need supporters to evangelize this project with their families, friends and networks, send messages to Council, register to delegate at the next meeting, and create the space that Council clearly needs to bring itself to approve this important step before the project timeline goes into jeopardy.
More to come on this. Meanwhile, stay hopeful: the narrow voices of cynicism and fear may have had their day, but they will not decide the fate of this city.
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