Once again, Hamilton needs the Provincial Government to step in and protect us from our own pettiness, short-sightedness and kneejerk fear of change.
By Ryan McGreal
Published April 24, 2017
As the latest council debate over the Hamilton light rail transit (LRT) plan lurches from absurdity to farce, the Province must once again step in and protect us from our own pettiness, short-sightedness and knee-jerk fear of change. Councillors have already twice deferred a vote on the City's Environmental Project Report (EPR) amendment, a procedural document that the Environment Ministry needs to approve before the project can go out for a Request for Proposals to build, operate and maintain the line.
With the funded LRT plan from McMaster University to Queenston Traffic Circle coming in well below the defined $1 billion envelope and the James North spur de-scoped earlier this year, the Province has an opportunity to get Council back on track by confirming funding to extend the B-Line LRT to Eastgate Square.
LRT opponents love to focus on what happens if the project goes over budget - the Province has already confirmed that it will reduce the project scope if no bids come in under budget - but the more likely situation is that the current approved project will come in significantly under budget.
As such, the extension to Eastgate is likely to fit within the already-approved capital funding envelope of $1 billion, given the likely McMaster-Queenston cost of around $800-850 million and an estimated Queenston-Eastgate cost of around $150-200 million.
It is certainly the best decision for the overall success of the LRT system, and it is already the Province's stated intention to extend the line to Eastgate at the appropriate time. When the funding commitment was first announced in May 2015, Transport Minister Steven Del Duca specified that the line to Queenston is only a first phase and that it will extend "ultimately to Eastgate Square."
At 14 km in length, there is absolutely no argument to be made that it "only" serves the downtown - an argument that is already absurd with the 11 km approved line linking several neighbourhoods and important nodes across the city. And more immediately, a commitment to Eastgate is very likely to give some fence-sitting councillors the push they need to reaffirm their own wavering support. A direct connection to Eastgate would directly benefit residents in wards 5, 9, and 10 (and by extension ward 11).
Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins is a diehard LRT opponent, but Ward 9 Councillor Doug Conley, Ward 10 Councillor Maria Pearson, and Ward 11 Councillor Brenda Johnson are still ambivalent and may feel better about the plan if they can point to direct benefits for their constituents as well as the overall benefits of living and paying property tax in a more prosperous city.
Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead is also on record saying he will support the plan if it goes to Eastgate. Of course, Whitehead has said a lot of things about LRT, many of them mutually incompatible, but it would be extremely difficult for him to reject such an overture from the Province so soon after insisting he will support it if it goes to Eastgate.
Hamilton is one of the ten biggest cities in Canada, but our leaders behave as though we are a minor bedroom community. It is embarrassing that our Councillors now seem incapable of staying the course on the strategic transportation plan that Council itself has endorsed continuously over the past decade and has repeatedly voted to implement within the current term, but that is where we find ourselves.
The bottom line is that Ontario needs Hamilton to be a high-performing city with its finances in order, a healthy economy and a functional, sustainable land use and transportation system. For that to happen, we need this strategic investment in rapid transit and urban revitalization.
In a more functional local context, Council would be voting unanimously for this transformative vote of confidence in the city's future (as indeed they did in the years before the Province approved the city's funding request). But realistically, the EPR Amendment only needs a majority of votes - half plus one - to pass.
It seems utterly absurd that this Council could conceivably say no to a billion-dollar investment in the city's first-ever rapid transit line, and yet the entire project is suddenly at risk. The City's transportation legacy is on the line here: a repeat of the short-sighted Council decision in 1981 to reject a rapid transit line would be even more disastrous today, not only to the city's credibility but also to its capacity to grow and intensify over the next several decades.
But the Provincial legacy of rapid transit investment linking the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area is also on the line, after decades of successive provincial governments pouring money into highways and neglecting transit. To save the integrity of the Regional Transit Plan from parochial politicking, the Province needs to step in once more and save us from ourselves.
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