Perhaps one day an aspiring PHD student in sociology, psychology, or really any of the “ologys” will be able to make some sense of the collective LRT mania that blew through Hamilton in 2008, infecting politicians, seasoned municipal bureaucrats, the social engineering class and the media. The only group that wasn’t significantly caught up in the euphoria was the beleaguered taxpayer whose enthusiasm for LRT was and is, largely a fiction arising out of a massive and sometimes deceptive PR campaign. One of the many definitions of public relations is “manufactured consent,” and as we point out elsewhere in this edition, that is exactly what happened in Hamilton in 2007-2008.
What was described as underlying “research” for some of the early, critical decisions on transit were nothing more than an exercise in inside baseball involving a group of mainly LRT enthusiasts. On the basis of sparsely-attended workshops, heavily promoted among the LRT fans and largely attended by them, we got the early rejection of Bus Rapid Transit, that up until then had been Hamilton’s primary transit goal. A mere 151 respondents sealed the fate of BRT based on such comments as “I would never ride a bus,” (but apparently would ride a train along the same route).
From the beginning LRT was never about the efficient movement of people, because LRT supporters knew that Hamilton’s transit usage was so abysmally low that as of 2008 it didn’t even justify Bus Rapid transit—a situation that has actually deteriorated since. So then the argument shifted to the economic uplift that LRT would bring. Perhaps city staff should have heeded a report they commissioned that year that warned, “many new light rail systems have been designed to service existing development and may consequently limit the net gain of development. Therefore the impact of light rail transit on accessibility must be taken into consideration. The effect of accessibility can either help increase ridership, therefore serving as a catalyst for redevelopment in selected areas, or it may simply mean a redistribution of development rather than a net economic gain for the city.” In other words running transit through an already fully-developed area might not give the economic uplift that would be the case in less developed routes, and, more importantly, at the end of the day it is still about ridership.
What is clear from the public record is that the push for LRT was strictly a Hamilton initiative. The record shows that Metrolinx was skeptical about rolling the dice on LRT. A good deal of the Hamilton public relations effort in 2008 was at least as much about persuading Metrolinx to invest in LRT as it was about selling the idea to Hamilton. Even in 2010, correspondence shows that the Metrolinx board was still not sold on LRT for Hamilton. It wasn’t until after the 2014 election that LRT funding was committed, and even then it was a political decision, not one based on evidence, which essentially was relying on the anecdotal notions of “city-building,” and “economic uplift” that the public had been hearing for years.
Hamilton councillors must wince, every time they are reminded that they voted for LRT some 60 times over the years. It reminds them of their abdication of their duty to ask tough questions at every step of the way. Instead they allowed the process to inch forward in a series of votes that they were repeatedly assured, were only meant to allow staff to further ”explore” the concept. But even with their laissz-faire approach to this critical issue, it took the heavy hand of coercion to bring them into line behind LRT as they were advised last year that despite what they had been told, it really was “LRT or nothing.”
That threat has been removed with the election of a provincial government that is prepared to treat Hamiltonians as adults—to allow them to decide how infrastructure funds, (much of which, by the way, we are entitled to) may be invested. Council has an opportunity to leave the past behind and make investments not only in better transit, but in projects that will allow Hamilton to regain its rightful position as an economic powerhouse in Ontario. Voters should spend the next few weeks finding out where incumbents and candidates stand on this issue and act accordingly. A number of candidates are talking about “better transit.” Insist on knowing exactly what that means.