As Chad Collins told his council colleagues last month, if there had been a vote at the end of the April 19th marathon 13-hour LRT meeting the LRT would have likely lost by a 9-6 margin. Instead, following a week of furious behind-the-scenes lobbying coupled with a host of conflicting media statements, Hamilton city council voted 10-5 to allow an Environmental Assessment to go forward, meaning more money will be spent by the time the next milestone in the LRT saga occurs: the actual operating and maintenance agreement between Metrolinx and the City of Hamilton.
Prior to the April 19th all-day session that saw 50 citizens make presentations to the committee, Forum Research of Toronto released the results of a poll commissioned by several councillors that showed a plurality (48% to 40%) opposed to the LRT with 12 percent undecided. The poll was immediately attacked by LRT supporters who said the poll was too light in counting millennials who use cellphones. Actually the raw numbers reportedly came out at 62 percent against LRT and 38 percent in favour. Forum then applied weighting to the poll to account for millennials and ended up with the 48 to 40 total. As forum indicated in its letter presenting the results to council said, “Where appropriate, data has been statistically weighted by age and gender, and regardless of whether respondents were reached by landline or cellphone, ensures that the overall sample reflects the actual population of Hamilton.” 3324 voters were contacted via Interactive Voice Response between March 30th and April 4th and Forum said the results had a margin of error of 1.7% 19 times out of 20. While Forum adjusted the poll to account for the actual demographic profile of Hamilton, some observers noted that “Older people with landlines” as poll participants were derisively dubbed, are far more likely to vote in municipal elections than younger persons, and the 62 to 38 percentage spread might actually be a more accurate gauge of the voting public’s attitude. In any event the Forum poll showed that even among respondents 18-34 years of age, the LRT lost by a narrow margin. The poll also showed a plurality against LRT in all parts of the city including the lower city where LRT will run.
In the days leading up to the marathon Ted McMeekin, MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale repeated his previous statements that if the $1 Billion was not used for the LRT project it would go back into the dedicated rapid transit pot for “reallocation.” Several councillors opposed to LRT told the Bay Observer that it was the fear of being responsible for the loss of the $1 Billion that was making them hesitate about voting against LRT. The day after the LRT marathon meeting CHCH reporter Randy Rath tried three times to get Premier Kathleen Wynne to clarify whether the LRT money could be diverted to Bus Rapid Transit in this exchange:
Q: If they don’t build the LRT is the Billion gone?
A: The money that is on the table for Hamilton is for building transit, for building transit. There has been a discussion in Hamilton as you well know for years about Bus Rapid Transit, Light Rail. We want to build transit in Hamilton to improve the quality of life for people in Hamilton. I really hope we can come to an agreement. I was very pleased when there appeared to be a decision on the LRT, I think that’s the way to go and I hope we can move in that direction but that money is for building transit in Hamilton.
Q: But it’s not specifically for LRT?
A: It’s for building transit in Hamilton and weț‘re going to continue to work with the council.
Q: If it’s for increased bus transit are they still going to get the money?
A: you know what, I don’t know what the resolution was last night and what their discussion is right now. I had thought that they had made a decision on the LRT so it is disappointing to me that there is a back and forth on this I’ll be honest….and I hope we can get it resolved very quickly.
In May of 2016 Wynne was much more explicit, telling CBC :”It was never LRT or nothing.” That audio can be found here:
Nonetheless the “LRT or nothing” narrative had taken hold with some councillors; and the day following Wynne’s refusal of three opportunities to make a clear statement, on the matter, McMeekin was “clarifying” the premier’s remarks saying. “the billion dollars was for — and let me make this categorically clear — the light rail transit project,” If they have another plan down the road, they’ll have to … make another request.” He went on to say such a move would put Hamilton in competition with “seven other cities” asking for transit money. He did not name those seven cities, nor how much cash they were requesting. When Councillor Terry Whitehead who appeared to be a staunch opponent of LRT until recently, said he would support LRT only if it extended easterly to Eastgate. McMeekin was quick to say the province would look favourably on the proposal.
On the day of the crucial vote on the EA, Transport Minister Steve Del Duca (who was spotted in Hamilton recently drumming up support for a possible leadership bid should Premier Wynne step down) issued a letter to Mayor Fred Eisenberger saying that the province would entertain extending the line to Eastgate, but suggested funding would have to be found in the $1Billion envelope. A few minutes after council voted 10-5 to proceed with the project, Del Duca’s staff in response to a question from the Bay Observer issued a statement that said in part, “, I confirmed that the Province will work to add the Eastgate extension to the current project scope and procurement, so long as it receives Council support and there is consideration of available funding to address the gap, if necessary. (emphasis ours); suggesting that Hamilton might be expected to pay something if there was a shortfall to fund the extension. Sources at Queen’s Park say the Treasury Board has determined that there “won’t be another nickel” allocated to Hamilton for LRT.
In the days leading up to the crucial vote it became clear that several councillors who previously had been LRT skeptics or outright opponents were wavering. The first being Terry Whitehead who, to the surprise of many introduced the Eastgate extension into the scheme as the price of his vote. Sources told the Bay Observer that Ward 6 Councillor Tom Jackson was starting to turn as well. Arlene Vanderbeek was reportedly getting a lot of pressure from constituents in her Dundas ward who are referred to as the “McMaster crowd.” The biggest surprise was the about-face of Chad Collins of Ward 5 who had categorically expressed his opposition on numerous occasions; but who, in an eloquent speech prior to the vote calling for council unity, did not offer any reason for his change of heart. This was a blow to the anti-LRT faction as Collins had, for a long time, appeared to be the leader of that group.
Jackson, in casting his vote to allow the project to proceed, declared that he could still vote against the project if the cost numbers didn’t add up; but few took him seriously. As Collins had said earlier, by the time the next milestone in the LRT timeline is reached a lot more money will have been poured into the scheme. Of the five votes cast against the project, four—Donna Skelly, Maria Pearson, Brenda Johnson and Judi Partridge were women, prompting one long-time council observer to say “the women on council have more balls than the men.”
Time will tell what the political fallout will be with both provincial and municipal elections coming next year. Provincially, sources told the Bay Observer that in recent polling in the five Hamilton ridings which includes McMeekin’s Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, the Liberals are running in third place in all five. At the municipal level, the Forum Poll showed strongest opposition to LRT in the mountain wards of Jackson and Whitehead, and in Ancaster-Dundas –Flamborough. Businesswoman Carol Lasich who organized the NO LRT group said, “We feel that this is just a bump in the road as there is still a lot that needs to be done where the proponents will be held accountable for every aspect.” Lasich told the Bay Observer that her group will start looking for candidates to run in the next municipal election, which, like the 2010 election will be dominated by a wedge issue, this time LRT, last time, the stadium.