Special Report: Light Rail

Visionary Leadership Usually Looks Like 'Going Rogue'

Thank goodness for those few politicians who are willing to step outside the status quo and take calculated risks to achieve transformative change.

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 25, 2014

In today's Spectator column, Andrew Dreschel accuses Councillors Brian McHattie and Jason Farr of having "gone rogue" after their vote on a recent motion by a joint City/Chamber of Commerce Light Rail Transit (LRT) task force.

Hamilton B-Line LRT rendering
Hamilton B-Line LRT rendering

The task force voted to reiterate Council's support for 100 percent provincial funding, but also stated that if the City does have to contribute something toward the capital cost, the Province should pay those costs upfront and allow the City to use alternate funding tools, like tax-increment financing, instead of having to pay via the property tax base.

Such a message is likely to be received well by Ontario Transport Minister Glen Murray, who understands the net benefits of LRT and says Council needs to come to the table to discuss LRT funding options, particularly in light of an upcoming provincial budget that will allocate serious money to transit projects that are ready to go ahead - projects like Hamilton's east-west B-Line LRT.

Council, for its part, maintains that it is only interested in LRT - and barely at that - if the Province covers 100 percent of the capital cost. Council actually went so far as to oppose any provincial funding sources for LRT that would affect Hamiltonians.

Unserious Position

This position is hard to take seriously. Council apparently understands the case for LRT well enough to have supported its development and design over the past six years, based on the assumption of 100 percent provincial capital funding.

Given that, Council should also understand that we would be insane to turn down 90 percent provincial funding plus tools to generate the rest without hitting ratepayers, if that is the best deal we can get.

The current Mayor of Hamilton, Bob Bratina, was elected in 2010 on a platform supporting LRT but has since spent over three years delaying, misinforming, confusing and undermining the case for LRT.

Despite clearly understanding that a project as big and scary as LRT needs a political champion to explain and defend it, navigate political and bureaucratic challenges and marshal broad community support, Bratina steadfastly refuses to be that champion.

Bratina has already announced that he will not be running for re-election in the upcoming municipal election. However, McHattie is a registered mayoral candidate. (Disclosure: I have done some volunteering with McHattie's campaign.)

Saving the Lister

To Dreschel's credit, he credits McHattie with "go[ing] rogue" on principle:

[T]his clearly positions McHattie as LRT's champion par excellence, in much the same way he broke ranks and stepped into the breach to save the Lister from demolition. As then, so now, principle is probably the guiding force.

It's interesting that Dreschel draws a parallel to McHattie's efforts in 2006 to save the Lister building. At the time, the Mayor and Council approved a plan by LIUNA and Hi-Rise Group to demolish the iconic building and replace it with a cheap replica - and all with a large public subsidy.

No matter that it had already been designated as a municipal heritage building under the Ontario Heritage Act and that it had been inspected by architects and engineers and found to be structurally sound and an excellent candidate for restoration and adaptive reuse.

Council didn't see the value in heritage or the exciting opportunity that restoring such an important building would provide to help revitalize the core.

As a last resort, McHattie went directly to then Minister of Culture Caroline Di Cocco and asked her to intervene by designating the Lister as a Provincial heritage building.

Di Cocco commissioned a study by the Ontario Heritage Trust which concluded that the building meets Provincial criteria for designation and "is a provincially significant building that is associated with provincially significant patterns of Ontario's history and is an increasingly rare aspect of the province's heritage."

The Province stopped short of designating the building, but a last-minute intervention brought the parties back to the table to work out an agreement by which the Lister was restored rather than demolished and replaced.

Principle and Pragmatism

When the building's fate was still in the air, Dreschel described the Council meeting where Councillors voted to demolish the building as "the moment of truth between purists and pragmatists" and warned that McHattie was "open[ing] a can of worms" by involving the province.

During the 2006 election campaign, Dreschel accused McHattie of being "on the side of the lofty angels if not necessarily the grounded realists."

Yet here we are today, patting ourselves on the back because principle and pragmatism came together and we ended up saving the Lister building after all.

Most of the people who had most loudly demanded that the "eyesore in the core" be demolished have since acknowledged that the city narrowly missed making a tragic mistake and that saving it was clearly the right thing to do.

McHattie saved the city from Council's short-sightedness by intervening to protect the Lister from demolition. Today, in his ongoing efforts to show the leadership on LRT that is missing from the mayor's office and scant around the Council table, McHattie is once again trying to save this city from its chronic inability to recognize value and seize opportunities to create change.

Thankfully, this time he also has the support of the Chamber of Commerce, which has shown some impressive leadership on transportation investment and urban revitalization.

If they are successful, we will once again look back on this as an inflection point in the city's history - a transformative change narrowly saved from a failure of tragic proportions.


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 wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted April 25, 2014 at 10:46:42

A highly relevant article in last month's Atlantic of two cities that were transformed by bold, committed mayors who ignored the naysayers and FUD and did what needed to be done. In the absence of Naheed Nenshi moving to Hamilton, we need to support those who are willing to take a bold stance, vs. being political weathervanes. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/arch...

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By Weak Chamber (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 10:47:05

Good for McHattie. The only point I want to make is that the new CEO of the Chamber says Hamilton can do fine without LRT. Although it may appear supportive of LRT, it also looks weak and wishy washy when the position in a recent CBC article about the FAILED Vision 20/20 initiative, Keanin Loomis states: "While a plan B is needed, Loomis said that downtown Hamilton doesn't need an LRT to realize its potential." That maybe true, but either you are a champion or you are not.

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By You're Kidding (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 14:16:05 in reply to Comment 100624

Did not Mayor Bratina get his butt kicked for doing this same type of thing - advocating a position not in step with council? Shouldn't McHattie likewise be called to the caret and disciplined?

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 10:55:43

It only took a 13-year coma to get the City to ante up $2 million a year in rent to save the Lister, shouldering most of the cost of a project that council eventually came around to viewing as important for the future economic viability of downtown. Granted, council was prepared to spend tens of millions on the Lister whatever the heritage value of the end result, but maybe with time (hopefully much less time) they will come to see that LRT is similarly worthy of investment.

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By Desmond (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 12:34:39

It all comes down to how much is it worth? Was it worth $40 million of taxpayers money to save the Lister? Sure it looks great but couldn't/shouldn't that money have gone to something else?

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By MattM (registered) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 13:06:34 in reply to Comment 100627

Considering the fact that a renovated Lister Block has resulted in 2 new businesses inside of it and indirectly resulted in many more along James North and King William, I think it was worth it. When we look at all the money that we spend on roads and infrastructure versus the one time cost of restoring the Lister Block, and the economic spinoffs it has created... it's definitely worth it. Unfortunately a lot of people can't see past the $ signs.

SHOULD it have been as expensive as it was? Probably not. But at the time it was our only choice and it does seem that LIUNA intends to put forward their own dollars to rejuvenate the area with a new condo or two, further accelerating the economic spinoffs in the area.

Comment edited by MattM on 2014-04-25 13:08:02

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By You're kidding (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 14:13:18 in reply to Comment 100628

You are kidding, right? 40 mil invested at 5% returns 2,000,000 a year. Do the 2 new businesses inside the Lister and the "many more" (if provable) produce that return for the city?

Please tell me what the nebulous benefits of rebuilding that building are as opposed to the benefits we would have received if the land had been sold to a developer on the condition that it be torn down and rebuilt with a new facility at their expense.

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By Reality (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 15:35:45

McHattie just assured that he will be on the outside looking in after the next election.

There is not desire for increased taxes to build the LRT and McHattie's comments and actions will be used against him from now until the election is over. He's done like dinner.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 23:37:46 in reply to Comment 100633

"Everyone knows an ant can't move a rubber tree plant."

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 15:54:59 in reply to Comment 100633

...even thought he did not say he wants to raise taxes to build the LRT.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 19:30:32 in reply to Comment 100634

He didn't say taxes wouldn't be raised either.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 19:25:43

You know Ryan, I do truly apprecaite all your efforts. You are a good person with smarts and intuiation of things to come.

I really liked your comment about the status quo, you hit the mark on the head, in more ways then one.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2014 at 20:25:11

I just ran into a former resident of Hamilton, who now lives in oil sand land.

While I listened to their view, as this person works in the toxic land of oil production. I ask how can we change the view of those who work in a field that provides them a living.

Of course this person was correct in thier view that we all use products that are by-products of oil. I did not argue against that, that person was right. It is hard to debate with someone who makes their living from such toxic enterprises.

It is sad that oil money seems to think that it can usurp the democracy of individuals for even thier pleasure of music.

Canadians come from roots, even ours, the home town of Hamilton, it is funny really to see this person trying to influence with dollars to win what they want, despite want the majority wants.

What I liked about this individual is that remember a era, gone by, in terms of hockey. This person is not a bad person but one that cannot open their mind, to anything other to what supports them money wise.

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By Ms Me (anonymous) | Posted April 26, 2014 at 07:32:19

Another twisted blunder by McHattie, this guy continues to trip over his actions. Our next Mayor will have Hamilton roots, Old Hamilton will stand strong against "New Hamilton"...Time to go back to Toronto Brian!

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted April 26, 2014 at 16:16:18 in reply to Comment 100648

"Old Hamilton"? I'm kind of old, but I can't relate, Ms. Me. Please explain.

Comment edited by fmurray on 2014-04-26 16:16:53

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By DissenterOfThings (registered) | Posted April 26, 2014 at 10:46:56 in reply to Comment 100648

What does that even mean...

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted April 27, 2014 at 12:22:51 in reply to Comment 100663

I think she supports Mr. Baldasaro's mayoral campaign.

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By Distraught (anonymous) | Posted April 27, 2014 at 20:51:20

Seriously though. As much as I like Brian McHattie, he is shooting himself in both feet and both hands. How can he hope to win? I think Fred is starting to look better and better. Call it a day Brian. There is no shame in staying put as a great councillor.

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By LOL_all_over_again (registered) | Posted April 27, 2014 at 23:01:07

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 28, 2014 at 17:09:58 in reply to Comment 100675

Tax Increment Financing is indeed a revenue tool that doesn't involve any new taxes or fees: it simply allows cities to borrow against projected future growth in the regular municipal property tax revenue due to municipal investment in new infrastructure.

The new infrastructure (e.g. LRT) will generate new property investment that will generate additional tax revenue beyond what the properties are currently generating. And this can be very significant: we recently heard how Blanchard's Jackson St property went from generating over $77,000 in annual taxes to only $7,000 once he demolished the building https://raisethehammer.org/comment/95906... That is just one three-storey building ... the 13 km LRT line is full of vacant lots and one or two storey buildings with plenty of room for densification.

User fees for a service currently provided out of general tax revenues (e.g. the portion of total highway costs borne by general taxes) is not a tax but a fee for a service. It does, however, free up existing tax revenue to be used elsewhere rather than subsidizing the service. A user fee could be termed a tax if the revenues are more than that required to totally cover the cost of providing the service.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-04-28 17:15:35

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By LOL_all_over_again (registered) | Posted May 04, 2014 at 23:59:31 in reply to Comment 100688

assuming that the LRT attracts more investment than the Metrolinx study said it would then your Tax Increment Financing would work. Not likely to happen though. But that doesn't matter on this site. As long as Hamilton gets LRT then happiness ans bliss will reign supreme.

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By Kevin (registered) | Posted April 29, 2014 at 20:55:37

Due to Dreshel and (Oakville's) Scott Thompson, I no longer get The Spec. $

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By So what (anonymous) | Posted May 03, 2014 at 07:53:06 in reply to Comment 100718

Thanks for telling us that utterly pointless story. My dog's breath smells like dog food.

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By Petulant (anonymous) | Posted April 29, 2014 at 22:45:05 in reply to Comment 100718

Isn't that like saying "Due to McHattie I always use the Linc?"

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 30, 2014 at 08:38:47 in reply to Comment 100722

You know you have to pay for the Spec, right? Your analogy would only make sense if you had to pay to not use the Linc.

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By We Pay (anonymous) | Posted April 30, 2014 at 12:46:59 in reply to Comment 100733

I think Highwater is correct. But we do pay for McHattie. So reverse it. Because of his attitude about going on the Linc I am no longer going to buy McHatte - Or as Petulant said - Because of his attitude, I am going to use the Linc even more. Bottom line, your loss for not reading the Spec - and if you use the Linc just to use it, you are just as much the fool. (I get access to the Spec for free at work though.)

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