A Bay Observer examination of LRT related documents and other sources provides a picture of a massive public relations campaign in Hamilton that ran from 2008 to 2011 and absorbed millions of dollars in an apparent attempt to manufacture a sense of inevitability for the project. The record suggests funding for what became a $9 Million dollar exercise was buried in the city’s roads budget rather than the Transit budget, where such expenditures would have been more visible to councillors. Media accounts show then Mayor Fred Eisenberger aggressively pushing the project publicly and in correspondence with Queen’s Park right up to the 2010 election that he lost to Bob Bratina. Following the election Mary Devorski who had been a senior advisor to Eisenberger was hired by the LRT office. The LRT process continued for about 6 months after the 2010 election when City Manager Chris Murray finally stepped in and pulled the plug on the LRT project office.
The LRT debate in Hamilton can be traced to late 2007 when the Province announced it had allocated $17.5 Billion for transit as part of its Move Ontario 2020 plan. Up until then Hamilton had been musing about a bus rapid transit system, but the province’s promises encouraged the city to consider the much more expensive LRT. From the outset, Mayor Fred Eisenberger who was at the time, also a member of the Metrolinx board, was firmly behind LRT for Hamilton. An early LRT staff report indicates that in 2007 and 2008 he and Ward One councillor Brian McHattie held regular meetings with city public works staff to promote the scheme. In the spring of 2008 a City staff team headed by Jillian Stephen organized three public meetings that attracted approximately 300 persons. A prominent participant in those meetings was the Hamilton Light Rail Initiative—a citizen organization headed by McMaster professor Nicholas Kevlahan and dedicated to the promotion of LRT. Based on meeting participants’ feedback and the ensuing media coverage, staff told council there was “overwhelming public support for LRT”, Bus Rapid Transit was an early casualty of the process, garnering only 4% support, from a group that had clearly already made up its mind on the favoured mode–and the game was on. Staff asked for permission to conduct a rapid transit feasibility study, assuring council there would be “no financial implications.” 6 months later, on a motion from Eisenberger, who told his colleagues that he expected Metrolinx would pay 100% of the cost of LRT, staff was authorized to “continue its undertaking of required rapid transit initiative studies and aggressive public consultation program for Rapid Transit in Hamilton. “ Again council was told that there were no financial implications, even though it should have been clear that significant work was now being undertaken. Three days later at an open house organized by Metrolinx, council’s approval of “continued public consultation” was being re-branded as “unanimous endorsement of LRT”. Nobody was listening apparently when Metrolinx Chair Rob MacIsaac told those in attendance to temper their expectations regarding 100% provincial funding for the project.”Everybody wants LRT,” he told the 100 attendees. Metrolinx gave Hamilton $3 Million to study the feasibility of LRT–a move that was immediately interpreted as a signal Hamilton would eventually get full cash for LRT.
What council apparently didn’t realize was that the $3 Million would only cover about a third of the actual cost of what was being called a feasibility study, but was increasingly looking more and more like an all-out multi-platform LRT marketing campaign. The first time council was formally asked to put up some money to fund the transit initiative came in 2009 when $500,000 was set aside for “studies”. Without discussion, and perhaps, for some members at least, without noticing; Council approved an additional $7.3 Million in the 2010 And 2011 capital budgets, the amounts being single line items tucked away in the city’s massive roads budget.
In addition to holding public meetings, the Rapid Transit Study Team, as it was now being dubbed had developed a website that was unabashedly pro-LRT. A logo and graphics were developed for the project and in 2008 the team launched a newsletter, the first edition telling readers, “over the past couple of months rapid transit planning in Hamilton has been moving forward at an incredible pace,…City Council and the Rapid Transit Study Team were extremely pleased with the results of the aggressive public consultation program …” A video on the website “made the case,” as it said for LRT. Dillon Consulting, who were paid $95,000 to organize the public consultation process, in 2009 reported enthusiastically, “Throughout the course of the study, excitement for the initiative has grown and staff has been able to keep the momentum high through the execution of an aggressive communications and media plan. Media coverage has maintained excitement in the community in regards to this initiative and has kept rapid transit at the forefront of discussions.” Radio and print ads urged residents to visit the Rapid Transit website where they were invited to submit comments. The email addresses thus gleaned were then used to provide a distribution list for LRT newsletters. Experts in community consultation refer to campaigns like the Hamilton LRT marketing effort as a “push” process where public engagement is to a degree manufactured from a population that is already predisposed to the project. The level of engagement is then citied as proof the project is demanded by the broader public. Dillon’s list of agencies that were consulted in 2008 -09 showed a preponderance of groups and entities that would directly benefit from LRT.
An underlying theme throughout the exercise, in no small measure promoted by Metrolinx, was that Hamilton was in a “race” with other communities. Those that had well well-developed plans for LRT were praised by Metrolinx and the various ministers who have occupied the Transportation office. Hamilton, on the other hand, despite its clear endorsement of the Rapid Ready plan which would improve bus service while building transit usage to a level that would justify LRT; was being portrayed at Queen’s Park as an indication of a city that “couldn’t make up their minds.” More than one person close to the LRT file told the Bay Observer that Hamilton’s LRT lobby appears even today to have the ear of the Minister and Metrolinx—hence the mixed signals. Transportation Minister Glen Murray was in town as recently as last month still suggesting that Hamilton move urgently on LRT. To him, apparently, Hamilton is still in a race with other communities. The minister admonished Hamilton to “lock in a funding partnership, or we aren’t going to get this done,” adding “other municipalities have not only signed deals with us, but (their) LRT is under construction.” With a provincial election underway the entire scheme is on hold for at least a few more months.
By: John Best