Simmering tensions over the Light Rail Transit (LRT) issue were on display last month as Councillor Terry Whitehead released a 58 page report taking issue with some of the longstanding claims that have been made to support LRT. The report challenged assumptions about the expected economic uplift that LRT will create and also took issue with claims about ridership and costs. Almost immediately the report was greeted with derision in the social and mainstream media after McMaster Professor Chris Higgins subjected the report to a rigorous academic critique that was posted online. Higgins’ critique identified substantial omissions—conclusions drawn in some cases not supported by evidence, overall structural problems with the paper; but also veered into nit-picking typos and spelling. Most of all Higgins’ objected to what he considered out-of-context use of his own academic papers on LRT, prepared on behalf of the McMaster Institute of Transportation and Logistics. “Right now there are only a handful of studies considered,” he wrote, “and on top of that the ‘evidence’ looks to be cherry-picked for maximum effect rather than to present a balanced analysis (much to my disappointment, this applies to the very small snippets of my work used throughout).” Higgins has declined media interviews, saying he is busy working on further LRT studies.
The Whitehead report’s release coincided with a tense meeting of the Light Rail Transit Subcommittee, which, for its part, despite being a committee charged with implementation of LRT, has seen its meetings thus far stubbornly dominated by continuing questioning of why LRT at all. LRT supporters on the committee, including Chairman Jason Farr showed growing irritation with fellow members, notably Whitehead who commissioned the dissenting report, and Ward 7 Councillor Donna Skelly who has been an LRT skeptic since her election. Her persistent questioning of fundamental aspects of the project generated muttered asides from LRT booster Matthew Green. When Skelly suggested that there were a number of merchants along the proposed route who felt they had been “left out of the conversation,” an exasperated Farr interrupted her, and turning to staff said, “we would be happy, I am sure to provide the new councillor a running history, a timeline, a gantt chart of where we did reach out and where those opportunities to converse and continue to converse have occurred over many years.” Skelly later told the Bay Observer, that one of the reasons for her persistent questioning, which clearly gets under the skin of some of her colleagues, is an attempt to get matters placed on the public record that have not been adequately addressed in the past.
As arguably flawed from the standpoint of academic rigor as the Whitehead document may well have been; there has been no shortage of loose methodology on the pro LRT side as well. For instance, the very early decision to reject Bus Rapid Transit in favour of LRT. A staff report in June 2008 described a public consultation process that involved roughly 150 people showing up at two public meetings. The meetings took place at the end of a week that saw vigorous media campaigning in the Spectator by guest editorialists Terry Cooke, Ryan McGreal and Margaret Shkimba. Wrote McGreal, “at a stroke, LRT can help us reach our economic development goals, intensify our land use around our major corridors, meet our goal of doubling transit ridership, improve our quality of life and boost our image as a progressive city.” That argument has changed little in the intervening eight years. LRT Booster Nicholas Kevlahan in an article first raised the argument that LRT, unlike Bus Rapid Transit could attract the so-called “briefcase crowd.” The two public meetings were followed by what staff admitted was an “aggressive” advertising campaign That over a two month period generated 1600 responses. Despite the absence any attempt at statistical reliability of the outreach, staff reported, “the overall public opinion in regards to the Rapid Transit initiative is that of support for a rapid transit system (94%) and more specifically, the public supports…LRT technology.” So by the summer of 2008 based on two modestly-attended public meetings and an aggressive advertising campaign that almost certainly would have attracted more transit activists as opposed to ordinary citizens as poll participants, the key elements of the transit narrative that exists today were established. If there was any doubt as to whether this campaign was a pure attempt to seek public input, enthused staff wrote, “staff have been able to keep the momentum (our emphasis) high through the execution of an aggressive communications plan. Staff has been able to maintain an excitement in the community in regards to this initiative and have kept rapid transit at the forefront of discussions.” The tone was a departure from typical reports from staff.
From the beginning the LRT discussion has been held against a backdrop of a need for speedy decisions. In 2008 the urgency was to ensure that Hamilton made the first cut of Metrolinx capital planning rather than a later tranche. Over the intervening years leading up to the Wynne government’s announcement of full funding for Hamilton; the city was frequently portrayed as being in a “race” with other communities for transit funding. Currently planning for LRT is being accelerated to meet another deadline—issuing contracts before the next provincial election in 2018, the concern being that a new government, especially a Conservative one, might cancel the funding. That argument was thrown into question by Conservative leader Patrick Brown who, speaking to a Flamborough audience last month, pledged to honour the funding commitment—prompting Mayor Fred Eisenberger to suggest Brown was now backing LRT. Light rail subcommittee member Arend Kersten who attended the Brown event set the record straight by quoting Brown directly. Brown said he would fund LRT if that was the wish of Hamilton Council, but added, “If the Mayor and council said they wanted those infrastructure investments to be done in another transportation project, I think it’s incumbent on the province to be flexible on what the clear municipal will is.”
A number of technical reports that will further flesh out details of the LRT implementation will be presented in coming months.
Written by: John Best