To paraphrase the old McCarthy-era witch-hunt phrase–“Are you now, or have you ever been an LRT denier?” After simmering on the back burner of public opinion for a few months the LRT issue suddenly re-ignited in Hamilton last month. Tracing the origins of the latest heated debate is difficult. It may have happened when LRT skeptic Mahesh Butani in a February posting, attacked Pro LRT blogger Ryan McGreal and the Hamilton Spectator for their “hijacking of the public conversation on transit, and misdirecting it to a zero-sum position.” He called for a realistic public conversation on transit issues. “Failing to do so,” he wrote, “ will only ensure that our failed messiahs and opportunists will continue to lie and misinform the residents of our city about LRT being the only way forward.” A couple of days later Spectator Columnist Andrew Dreschel wrote that LRT was losing ground with a City Council that LRT supporters frequently cite as being “unanimous” in their support for LRT. Shortly after that, Dreschel’s boss Paul Berton, wrote an editorial strongly supporting LRT. Things reached a crescendo in the days running up to Transport Minister Glen Murray’s appearance in Hamilton on February 28th to make a routine announcement on GO.

LRT supporters wanted the minister to make a strong statement in favour of the transit scheme. Others, including local Liberals, urged the minister to stay neutral, reminding him that two nominated Liberal provincial candidates have issued a manifesto saying LRT is premature. Clearly the question of spending $800 Million to $1 Billion dollars on a transit system for Hamilton has moved into the same category of polarized sterile debate that we have seen with subjects like global warming and Obamacare. There appears to be no middle ground. It seems to us that there are two fundamental reasons to invest in public transit. The most important of these would be to get people to work, school and shopping, while at the same time reducing traffic congestion. Then there is the second reason—the one that has dominated the Hamilton discussion—city building, property value enhancement, livability. With regard to the first objective, moving people around, we have a mixed record. The lower city is generally well served by bus transit, particularly with east-west connections. Including the current “B” Line; there are 6 bus lines that essentially traverse the city east to west with good frequency. But in the fast-growing south mountain and suburban areas, bus service is not frequent or direct enough to encourage many to abandon their cars. Recognizing this, the city has developed the Rapid Ready plan—essentially a massive upgrade to the existing bus system—adding routes and frequency aimed at enhancing service on the main routes; but more particularly providing a hefty upgrade in service in those areas where transit use is low. The objective is to roughly double transit usage in Hamilton which is where we need to be to support LRT. LRT supporters say ridership along the proposed B line is already sufficient to support LRT, but to justify an expenditure of $1 Billion the HSR will need a steep increase in fare-box revenue across the system.

Even if the LRT was packed all the time it would not generate enough revenue to offset such a massive expense. So then we go to the second argument for LRT, that it will generate huge increases in property values, and attract untold new development. Here at the Bay Observer we try to work with what is on the public record, relying on those with greater expertise to help us form a reasonable opinion. We would expect Metrolinx, as the proponent of LRT for Hamilton, to have the most informed view of the matter. Their report “Hamilton King-Main Benefits Case, February 2010,” does indeed predict assessment value increases. Unfortunately their most optimistic prediction would yield less than half the amount needed just to service the debt that Hamilton would incur, if as expected, it ends up that Hamilton will have to pay one third of the cost of the LRT system. If we are going to have a reasoned debate on the LRT issue, then we need to be clear on the set of assumptions we are working with. If somebody believes that Metrolinx’s assumptions are too low, let’s see their assumptions.

We hear a lot about how LRT has transformed Portland Oregon. It may have; but it’s also worth noting that Portland’s violent crime is rate 58 per 1000,while Hamilton’s is 1.3 per 1000. Which city is more livable or walkable? The most dangerous argument that we are starting to hear goes like this. Hamilton will be included in the Big Move funding formula whether we like it or not, so we might as well go for LRT. We would suggest the right approach is let us have the Billion dollars, or more we are paying anyway, and let us decide on what kinds of transportation we want to buy.

John Best has had 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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