Special Report: Light Rail

Debating LRT on CHCH-TV's Square Off

Nicholas Kevlahan and John Best debated the pros and cons of light rail transit on Tuesday.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published September 11, 2014

On Tuesday, September 9, 2014, I had the opportunity to participate in Square Off, a "talking heads" style debate program on CHCH, to discuss the city's light rail transit (LRT) plan. You can watch the nine-minute segment by visiting the Square Off page, clicking Tuesday, September 9th, 2014 and then Segment 2.

B-Line LRT route map
B-Line LRT route map

Donna Skelly and Mark Hebscher hosted the program, and we were also joined by John Best, published of The Bay Observer. Best claimed to be neutral on LRT, which is odd because everything he has written about it has been strongly negative.

Best's main points were:

1. That the project is too expensive and there is "only one taxpayer" so we shouldn't care whether the Province or the City pays for it.

This is incredibly naive: if the province is determined to spend money on improving transportation throughout the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, why would we nobly stand aside and let them spend the money elsewhere to "save the taxpayer"?

Why should we as a City be telling the Province how to spend their money, especially if it means telling them not to spend it in Hamilton?

2. That we were naive to think that Hamilton would get an LRT "before" other cities like Toronto and Mississauga get what they want.

This is a really sad example of the "Hamilton doesn't deserve the nice things that other cities have" argument, which a Spectator op-ed by Margaret Shkimba did a great job of pillorying.

No one is claiming that Hamilton should get LRT before Toronto or Mississauga (Toronto is already building LRT and subways), but should Hamilton meekly go to the back of the queue and wait until every other city has had its fill?

3. That the City wasn't given any options: the province told us it had to be an LRT from Eastgate to McMaster or nothing. Best actually asked why we didn't consider a phased approach with LRT from Downtown to McMaster first.

As we know, this is absolutely false: the City and the Province considered LRT, phased LRT, BRT or do nothing. They also have a comprehensive plan for expanding rapid transit throughout the city called "BLAST".

In any case, the Province has repeatedly said that they don't want to impose a particular solution on Hamilton and staff themselves have analyzed why the B-line is the obvious first choice.

The LRT was always understood as the best option for the city, but was seen as a long-term aspirational goal until the province offered to pay the capital costs in 2007 (and again in 2011 and 2014).

4. That there is no evidence of significant economic benefits.

Here Best just looked at the conservatively predicted tax increases to the City and claimed it would not even cover interest payments on the capital costs. He again ignored the fact that it would not be the City paying the capital costs and that the economic benefits go far beyond just the tax increases.

In any case, the example from last year of Wilson-Blanchard's property where a small three-storey office building increased the tax assessment from $7,000 to $77,000 shows the potential of re-developing all those surface parking lots and vacant buildings.

5. His basic complaint is the most preposterous: he claimed the project hasn't been studied enough and that we need to pause and do our homework.

This is the most studied infrastructure project in the city's history, and the most pre-designed. What more could we ask for? The Class Environmental Assessment, 30 percent engineering and detailed design, land use study, benefits case analysis, public consultation and an independent study by McMaster Institute of Transportation and Logistics have all been done.

And this isn't for some pioneering experimental piece of infrastructure that no one has ever attempted. There are hundreds of cities worldwide who have already built successful LRT systems, including over 30 in the United States and over 20 in France alone.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By redmike (registered) | Posted September 11, 2014 at 11:22:26

john best? the LAST person to be talking to. john best has a clear and vested financial interest in opposing lrt. its a shame the new chch would stoop so low as to pretend john best was neutral on lrt.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 11, 2014 at 16:52:15 in reply to Comment 104433

He's the same guy interviewed by Bill kelly a couple weeks ago and said that Brad Clark has been absolutely consistent going back many years on his position on LRT.
Why is anyone bringing a guy on TV to ask his opinion when his biases and less than factual 'info' is known around the city as a joke? See above article for the consistency of Brad Clark's message.

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By TEll us (anonymous) | Posted September 11, 2014 at 12:53:21 in reply to Comment 104433

What is Mr. Best's "vested" interest? Does he own a car dealership or something?

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 11, 2014 at 13:02:35 in reply to Comment 104442

Mr Best is the executive director of the Southern Ontario Gateway Council http://gatewaycouncil.ca, a group lobbying for the goods movement industry (trucking, rail, shipping and air cargo). In particular, they strongly support the Mid-Pen Freeway, as does Brad Clark.

Money spent on LRT and transit in general, is money that can't be spent building new freeways and reducing congestion for inter-city trucking.

Using LRT as a way of attracting development to urban areas, which leverages existing infrastructure, is counter to the aerotropolis project which wants the city to put all its development resources into greenfield warehousing near the airport. The aerotropolis will cost hundreds of millions to develop and, again, if money is spent on LRT there will be less available to be spent on the Aeroptropolis.

This may be what Mr Best meant when he said "there is only one taxpayer".

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-09-11 13:06:37

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By redmike (registered) | Posted September 11, 2014 at 21:29:04 in reply to Comment 104444

thank you.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 11, 2014 at 11:22:49

Well argued.

Personally i find the LRT debate tiresome at this point. There is a strong case for building LRT in Hamilton, especially the B-Line.

Yes, it requires a major financial commitment from the province -- so did building the QEW, Skyway, LINC, Red Hill (the last two cost several hundred million to build), and countless other major infrastructure projects.

No, LRT is not magic elixir. But it's consistent with the province's Places to Grow reurbanization strategy and intensified development means increased economic activity and property assessment growth. Literature on mega-projects does suggest that economic benefits are hard to measure and are often inflated, but they don't support the claim that there are no significant benefits. We could talk about time-frame for the investment to "pay-off" and cost-benefit analysis. But again, you will find that poor outcomes are often the result of failing to change land-use planning and zoning to allow redevelopment. Or projects were embarked upon as the infrastructural equivalent of a hail-Mary pass in football ... i.e. done more on hope than anything else. In some cases, an economic downturn changes assumptions about economic benefits, at least in the short or medium term.

These don't apply to B-Line LRT. There is already strong ridership on the route. One never knows what opposition will emerge around specific development proposals, but there is a framework in place to support intensification and infill development along the line. Based on contributions to RTH we could do more work on zoning regulations to ensure that mixed-use and high-quality urban design isn't thwarted by outdated rules and standards, etc. We don't control the global economy and can't plan around future economic downturns. The economy appears to be transitioning from recovery to expansion at the moment, and there are plenty of signs of investment across the lower city.

The project has been studied. Let's not confuse political wrangling for lack of project analysis, public consultation, and planning/engineering work. The best cover for delaying a project you oppose is to argue that further study or public consultation is required.

Really, the LRT debate feels like the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day".

Comment edited by RobF on 2014-09-11 11:28:56

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By Move on (anonymous) | Posted September 11, 2014 at 12:17:07

Best, Clark et al. have ZERO credibility on these issues. Best is a lobbyist for a regional trucking group and Brad Clark has adopted the Rob Ford style to transit planning, flip-flopping on this own support for the local plan in favour of making election promises he has no authority to deliver on.

At this point, they are clearly holding this city back and need to be pushed out of the way. They have had plenty of opportunity to have their say and all they come up with is blatant dishonesty. We need to move on.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 11, 2014 at 12:34:05 in reply to Comment 104437

I'll bet you any money that Best will be using the Bay Observer as his affiliation on the lobbyist registry, though.

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By redmike (registered) | Posted September 11, 2014 at 12:49:49 in reply to Comment 104439

and what about the synergy between t.b.o - john best and the hamiltonian? from chief (of police) decaire to the h.w.t non issue there is apparently a lot that john best and publisher/candidate di falco agree on.

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By jeffzuk (registered) | Posted September 11, 2014 at 17:00:07

I just watched the video and thought Mr. Kevlahan did a great job, especially considering all 7 questions from the CHCH hosts were of the anti-LRT / FUD variety. How about, "If Hamilton loses its chance for LRT now, will we find ourselves in 5 to 10 years behind cities moving ahead with such systems?"

Comment edited by jeff on 2014-09-11 17:00:41

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 11, 2014 at 19:53:56 in reply to Comment 104456

the next time an old Hamilton media outlet cares about our economy and future will be the first time.

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By positive1@cogeco.ca (registered) | Posted September 12, 2014 at 20:34:58

John Best's Bay Observer has a peculiar editorial policy. In half a dozen issues, I have perused, I have only seen the oddly titled 'Letter FROM the Editor' column. Strange because usually readers are invited to respond with letters TO the editor. In one issue earlier this year, I read not one, but two anti-LRT articles. It seems that having all the column inches (plus editorial columns) is not enough to bash LRT. Hence the additional 'Letter FROM the Editor' just to drive home the point. Seeing an opportunity to counter some clearly false assumptions about LRT, I sent an e-mail in hopes of having it published. Nothing appeared in the next issue. Finally I called Mr. Best and asked him if indeed he actually published letters TO the editor (as would be the norm) as I had never seen any. He claimed that of course they do but he did not 'see' my e-mail. After I referenced it with a date, he did scroll down and find it. He assured me that he would publish it. To his credit, it did end up in a subsequent issue, but only after he had been called on it. An innocent mistake? Perhaps. Or would it be a case of running roughshod over anyone who opposed the party line and squelching dissent? I will give him he benefit of the doubt this time but I suggest those who have issues with what is published in the Bay Observer take the time to craft a letter and send it in - with the proviso that if you see nothing, then make a follow-up call, lest your letter be lost in the shuffle. Regarding his statement that he is neutral on the LRT issue - balderdash. Every article that he has written on the topic that I have seen is stridently anti-LRT. He should come out and say it for all to hear instead of promoting a (clearly false) 'objective' stance on the issue. I believe he should also declare his professional interest (conflict of interest?) as executive director of the Southern Ontario Gateway Council. Knowing that he may be strongly motivated to oppose certain civic projects because they compete directly for the 'one taxpayer's' dollar should be made up front. Then let him argue on the merits of the project.

Comment edited by positive1@cogeco.ca on 2014-09-12 20:36:57

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By minute23 (anonymous) | Posted September 13, 2014 at 08:48:02

John Best was also the vice-president of news for CHCH-TV from 1982 to 1996.

In 2010, he was part of the "Sprawl for Y'all" bunch (CHCH-TV, CHML, Braley, Foxcroft, Young, Mitchell, Kelly, etc.) who made the west harbour stadium plan an election issue and get Bob Bratina elected as mayor. But their obstructionism burned up too much time for new mayor Bratina to get Bob Young a stadium with a 60 acre parking lot on the east mountain eramosa karst or at Confederation Park so Bratina and Young dropped the new stadium back onto the old Ivor Wynne Stadium site and created the mess we have now.

In 2014, Best and the same bunch seems to be using the same formula to make LRT the main election issue to get Brad Clark elected. The public pitch is "BRT vs. LRT". But is the private goal to kill LRT and spend $300 to $500 million to spend on airport district development?

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted September 13, 2014 at 23:04:11

It amazes me that one person can cause so much BS. I am tired of right wing rhetoric, their constant bullying of society as a whole.

We need to change how we do things yet the old thinkers who are more interested tooney for their rich pals at the expense of so many others is tiring, old hat and undemocratic.

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