Municipal Election 2018

Vito Sgro's Platform is a Stack of Falsehoods

His plan sacrifices the most transformative opportunity this city has had in decades on the altar of anti-urban resentment and cynicism.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 02, 2018

Mayoral candidate Vito Sgro's platform is a stack of falsehoods and misleading oversimplifications. It is the same cynical, divisive wedge politics that we have seen before in a slightly slicker package.

Hamilton LRT rendering (Image Credit: Metrolinx)
Hamilton LRT rendering (Image Credit: Metrolinx)

The billion-dollar Light Rail Transit (LRT) funding commitment is not a blank cheque we can spend on whatever we want.

Sgro's central campaign pledge is to cancel the LRT plan and use the $1 billion in committed LRT funding for other infrastructure projects. This is fundamentally disingenuous.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has said he would allow the money currently earmarked for Hamilton's LRT to be spent on other "approved" projects, but has not said what kinds of projects would be approved, what the criteria would be, or how we would be expected to submit them.

Consider the timeline for the City's LRT plan, which took five years to develop and submit to the province, another two years to get approved, and another four years after approval before shovels are projected to go into the ground. We have already spent or committed $137 million implementing LRT.

If we cancel LRT and go back to the drawing board, it will realistically be years before we manage to come up with a new plan and funding request. There is no way of knowing what party will be in power by the time we have completed our new plan, let alone what their capital investment priorities will be.

This is a classic bait-and-switch. We would be trading a sure thing that is backed by a decade of detailed planning, binding legal agreements, and robust expert recommendations for a cheap slogan.

BLAST Rapid Transit Network
BLAST Rapid Transit Network

We do not have to choose between building LRT and building the BLAST network.

Sgro is trying to force a false alternative between building LRT and building the BLAST network, but this is literally nonsensical. The BLAST network is a system of five rapid transit lines serving the entire city, and the fully-funded B-Line LRT is the first line in that network.

Hamilton already has a ten-year strategy to build up conventional bus service and ridership on the other four lines to start getting them ready to upgrade to rapid transit in future phases (proceeding with the north-south A-Line for phase two) while going ahead with LRT construction now.

We can't build the network if we don't start somewhere, and the B-Line already has the ridership, land use plan and infill development opportunity for rapid transit today. Sgro is counting on people not understanding that the B-Line is literally the "B" in BLAST.

HSR articulated bus (Image Credit: Chris Whitfield)
HSR articulated bus (Image Credit: Chris Whitfield)

BLAST is not just a network of buses.

BLAST is a proposed network of rapid transit routes, but Sgro advocates merely adding buses to the routes - something the City is planning to do anyway.

By implication, he conflates bus rapid transit with express bus service, but these terms have distinct meanings. Bus rapid transit has frequent service with short headways, stations where passengers prepay for faster boarding, and dedicated lanes so the buses don't get stuck in traffic.

Express bus service, which currently exists on the B- and A-Lines, is just buses running in mixed traffic, but with fewer stops and shorter headways.

We do not have to choose between building LRT and fixing infrastructure.

This is one of Sgro's most pernicious falsehoods. LRT is infrastructure, and most of the capital cost of LRT is going directly to constructing new roadway, bridge, water, sewer and transportation facilities that will serve the city well for decades to come.

That new LRT infrastructure allows the City to intensify and grow its tax base along its busiest urban corridor, increasing property tax revenue and attracting new employers and jobs without having to expand our expensive network of suburban roads. That means more taxpayers helping cover the cost of running the city, which alleviates the tax burden on everyone.

LRT also increases the traffic carrying capacity of the route so that more people living and working along the corridor don't result in gridlock.

In addition, the investment along the LRT corridor frees up local infrastructure capital and operating dollars that can be reinvested in other parts of the city - including bus service to under-served areas.

We cannot fix our infrastructure crisis by throwing a one-time pot of money at it.

Hamilton has an unfunded infrastructure maintenance and lifecycle backlog that is over $3 billion and growing by almost $200 million a year.

Sgro wants to divert some of the LRT capital to chip away at some of the backlog. This is profoundly short-sighted, since it does nothing to change the reason we have a growing infrastructure deficit in the first place. The infrastructure backlog would shrink during the years we spent the money, but as soon as the money was spent it would resume growing each year, because we would have done nothing to close the gap between what the city collects and what it costs to operate.

The problem is that it costs more to operate and maintain our municipal infrastructure than we collect in total property tax revenue. For decades, most of Hamilton's growth has been low-density sprawl that requires a lot of infrastructure. Every time we build another sprawl subdivision, we grow our long-term costs faster than our revenues and dig ourselves deeper into the hole.

Our choices are: (1) keep deferring infrastructure maintenance until our roads turn to gravel, (2) raise property taxes significantly to close the gap, or (3) grow the tax base with infill development served by our existing infrastructure so there are more taxpayers to split the cost.

Option (1) is not sustainable. Option (2) is not affordable for most Hamiltonians. Only option (3) provides a ladder to climb out of the hole we've dug ourselves into.

That is what LRT does: it grows our tax base without also growing our legacy of low-density infrastructure. It's why the LRT plan has been at the centre of the City's strategic land use and transportation plans for the past decade. Without it, we're just drifting.

Huge infill transit-oriented development potential along the LRT line (Image Credit: Google Maps)
Huge infill transit-oriented development potential along the LRT line (Image Credit: Google Maps)

We would not be attracting LRT-oriented development without LRT.

Sgro notes that Hamilton is already attracting infill development but claims we will continue to attract that development if we cancel LRT. Talk about short-sighted! We're attracting this development precisely because the LRT is going ahead.

As Jason Thorne, the City's General Manager of Planning and Economic Development, recently reported, "There's a strong correlation between development interest we're seeing and the LRT project."

Several developers are already on record saying they decided to go ahead with big projects as a result of the LRT investment. If we cancel it now, we will pay a huge price in lost credibility as a place to invest.

This is not just theoretical. Waterloo Region has already attracted over $2.1 Billion in new transit oriented development around their LRT line, and the service has not even started yet.

Waterloo is covering some of their LRT capital cost from the local tax levy, because they calculated that building LRT is cheaper in the long run than not building it and continuing to sprawl outward.

We cannot improve transit without phasing out area rating.

Today, the city charges residents different property tax levy rates for transit depending on where people live, and parts of the city with lower transit tax rates receive less transit service.

Any increase in service to one of the lower-rated areas is charged entirely to local ratepayers at that rate, rather than pooled across the entire tax base. As a result, it is politically almost impossible to add new transit in under-served areas.

But Sgro says he won't touch area rating until after he undertakes a pointless bureaucratic exercise in changing the city's ward boundaries only a couple of years after the city completed a long, challenging ward boundary review that ended up going to the Ontario Municipal Board.

Let me be clear: if ending area rating is not your priority, you are not really committed to improving citywide transit.

Leadership vs. Anti-Leadership

As is so often the case in local politics, the choice for Hamilton voters is between leadership and anti-leadership.

A leader is consistent, focuses on the big picture, takes a strategic view, navigates through challenges, unites disparate groups under a common set of values, and inspires people to share their vision for the future.

An anti-leader does the opposite: shifts position based on short-term interests, distracts attention from the big picture, ignores strategic goals, drives a wedge between different groups, and undermines the shared vision that might otherwise bring people together under a common cause.

Sgro's platform is an anti-vision for Hamilton. It's a small-minded, short-sighted wedge play fueled by civic self-loathing that sacrifices the most transformative opportunity this city has had in decades on the altar of anti-urban resentment and cynicism.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By beancounter (registered) | Posted October 02, 2018 at 11:19:56

This article needs to be published in the Spectator. As many Hamiltonians (and suburbanites) as possible should have access to this common sense rebuttal of Sgro's shameful cynical campaign.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted October 02, 2018 at 18:00:43

If Vito really is a CA and he’s not making the same salary as the mayor he is very unsuccessful. The only reason he wants the job is to enrich himself on the side. The firesale he creates along the king corridor will serve his friends well, Hamiltonians not so much.

The shocking part is the number of ward 3 candidates trying to play the same card. Not that a career operative would exploit a wedge issue.

Comment edited by rednic on 2018-10-02 18:03:25

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By rcrawfra (registered) | Posted October 03, 2018 at 11:52:42

From what Ive seen from his site he only has one item he elaborates on his platform. I'm not sure you can say a candidate has a 'platform' if he's obsessed with one issue

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By robbiej (registered) | Posted October 03, 2018 at 13:40:04

Based on the map and if you have ever tried to get off or on the mountain during rush hour, doesn't it make sense that any rapid transit or improved transit should be focused on the "A" line of BLAST? In addition, it would provide a much better option for those needing to commute to and from Toronto, once the GO service is complete. To me it just doesn't make sense to focus transit on the perimeter of the map. For these reasons I cannot support LRT as it is proposed.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 03, 2018 at 13:52:35 in reply to Comment 123874

LRT needs certain preconditions in order to be successful:

1) Existing strong transit ridership 2) Lots of potential for new infill development 3) A land use plan that supports transit-oriented development

The east-west B-Line meets all three conditions today. It has the highest transit ridership in the city (11 million rides a year, or around 40% of total transit trips), it has huge redevelopment potential, and we have a land use plan that encourages infill investment.

The north-south A-Line currently has much lower ridership, though the city is working on increasing transit service level along the corridor with the A-Line express buses. It has very good redevelopment potential - especially on Upper James, which today is mostly a low-density wasteland of huge parking lots and one-storey retail. But the current zoning is designed to maintain the current single-use, low-density land use.

So for the north-south A-Line to get ready for LRT, the City needs to continue building up transit service and ridership along the line, and the mountain councillors need to align around a vision of urban redevelopment along the Upper James corridor that makes much more high-value use of that land.

For these reasons, the A-Line is planned as the second phase of rapid transit buildout once the B-Line is running and it becomes easier for people to understand how rapid transit along the A-Line will benefit them.

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By Dylan (registered) | Posted October 06, 2018 at 21:37:08

Asked what I thought was a reasonable question on his Facebook page today, and it seems to have been deleted. Looks like he only wants clear endorsements showing. Is that normal? Seems disingenuous.

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By positive1@cogeco.ca (registered) | Posted October 07, 2018 at 07:12:43 in reply to Comment 123894

Normal to ignore and then delete a question from a voter? No mayoral material to me. Maybe I'll ask a question and see what happens.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted October 13, 2018 at 18:00:12

Struck a nerve with would-be-Don Vito: https://www.thespec.com/news-story/89626...

Seems an engaged citizenry is only a good thing if they agree with the politicos.

The sad part is there will be many who agree with him, including those whose own opinions may not mesh with that of our political "leaders".

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