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)
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
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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