Forget about the he-said, she-said news conferences that followed Mayor Fred Eisenberger’s meeting with Premier Wynne to discuss transit. It is time for Hamilton council to seize the opportunity to take charge of its transit future, hopefully in a spirit of pragmatism and seeking the best solution for the entire community. The solution might be as simple as allowing  city transit staff to bring forward their proposed transit master plan without having to worry about pandering to special interests. Let them  tell it like it is.

There may still be people in Hamilton who believe that the province of Ontario is going to fund an $800 Million LRT system in Hamilton without any preparatory action on our part, but hopefully they are receding into the minority. The fact is that whether you are in favour of LRT or whether you oppose it; there is a need  to take immediate steps to re-vamp  and enhance HSR now, in order to begin to get our transit ridership up to a level that would justify advanced transit. If, on the other hand one is opposed to LRT, the community can only benefit by the introduction of more frequent, more reliable bus service to parts of the city that will never see LRT. Hamilton needs to develop a basic transit culture before considering a leap into an expensive experiment that at the moment is not supported by existing ridership or existing congestion. And for those who cling to the argument that it is really about creating new investment, a look at Metrolinx’s own projections suggest the uptick in tax revenue would not come close to covering the carrying and operating costs—at least not now.

The Rapid Ready report makes a powerful case for immediately upgrading the conventional bus system—not only by adding additional buses to the system, meaning greater frequency;  but by introducing a network of new routes—providing direct connectivity between points on the mountain for instance, without passing through the downtown core. It also provides for better service to the suburban communities in order to pave the way for removal of area rating on transit.  It is expected the upcoming transit master plan will build on the principles of Rapid Ready and provide some direction to staff that, for the first time, will allow real negotiations to take place with the province on what Hamilton should be doing to enhance transit over the next decade. The most optimistic projections would not see LRT in Hamilton for 10 or 15 years, so in the meantime we cannot afford to do nothing. In fact to do nothing, would likely result in the death of LRT simply by virtue of our low  per capita transit usage. It’s a simple fact that demand must precede supply, not the reverse.

The premier introduced some important new concepts that need to be considered in Hamilton. For one, it is becoming clear that the government places greater priority on completing the all-day frequent GO service to Hamilton and the electrification of the system than it does to advanced transit here. She also signalled that for Hamilton to prove its readiness for transit support, it must clearly demonstrate how our future transit plans will provide convenient connectivity to the GO system as a priority. Repeatedly the Premier made reference to  “Regional Express Rail”, which implies more than just catching a GO train to Toronto– it implies the integration of local transit with the GO rail system, using GO as part of the network. Picture someone in Stoney Creek bound for downtown or McMaster catching a GO train at the proposed Centennial station, getting off at the James street station and boarding a frequent shuttle to either downtown or the University—all on a single Presto fare.

In her media scrum last month the Premier twice referred to the need for Hamilton “officials” (meaning staff) and government “officials” (Metrolinx) to get down to cases  and map out a short, medium and long term vision for transit in Hamilton. We agree. Hamilton council first needs to see a plan, supported by good data and clear recommendations for moving forward before they can make a good decision on how to take the next step towards building a transit system that will serve a city that will eventually have a population of 700,000. Whatever one’s view on LRT, let’s get on with a plan.

John Best had enjoyed a lengthy media management career, in television and radio and now print. As Vice President, News at CHCH in Hamilton, John oversaw a significant expansion of the news operation. He founded Independent Satellite News, Canada’s only television news service providing national content to Canadian independent TV stations. John is a frequent political commentator on radio and television, a documentary producer and author of a book and numerous articles on historical and political subjects. John is a past recipient of the New York Festival’s award for writing in the International TV category.

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