The municipal election in Hamilton has allowed for the airing of many important issues—taxes, poverty, especially the affordable housing shortage; urban renewal and many others– but no two issues have dominated the debate thus far as much as transit and infrastructure.
Hamilton has been in the throes of the debate over LRT for a decade now, although for roughly the first couple of years it was not so much a debate, as an orchestrated public relations campaign with the goal to persuade Hamiltonians that LRT was something they really wanted while at the same time persuading the provincial government that there was strong public support for the billion dollar scheme. It was a delicate balancing act because the necessary enthusiasm only really existed in a small group who saw LRT as an end in itself, and apparently still do; since there is little in the way of transit or economic uplift evidence to support it. In those early couple of years city staff spent tens of thousands of dollars on a massive public cheerleading effort that, in the end, for all the public meetings, radio TV and Newspaper ads spread over weeks and months, was only able to garner 1600 responses to an un-scientific online survey. Throughout this, Hamilton’s in- house transit expertise was carefully bypassed, because their earlier advice to council had been to ramp up bus-based transit to build ridership to a level where BRT or LRT might actually make sense.
With all the money that had been spent trying to sell the project, one would have thought that some professional public opinion polling would have been useful, and who knows, maybe there was some sampling done that the city preferred not to release. In any event, it wasn’t until the height of the LRT debate in 2017 that members of council took matters into their own hands and put LRT to the test in a professional survey conducted by Forum Research. Forum’s findings were unequivocal…”overall, Hamiltonians are very aware of the LRT project, the majority of all decided respondents disapprove of the project, and a strong majority believe that a referendum should be held to consult voters prior to the ultimate approval of the LRT project.”
No referendum happened of course—the window of opportunity for that possibility was overshadowed by the exercise by the Hamilton provincial representative of a threat that Hamilton risked losing the $1Billion earmarked for the project. It was too big a gamble and a majority of council surrendered. Then began a race to spend as much money as possible as quickly as possible as to make the project seem inevitable. The Ford government has halted any further purchase of property for Hamilton’s LRT – and whether this is of significance or not; Hamilton is the only community in the GTAH working on LRT to have this restriction imposed. Repeatedly Ford has stated that he will allow Hamilton to have its say on the spending of the $1Bilion promised, and he will allow latitude in the kind of infrastructure than can be considered as eligible for funding.
The key point is this. If the majority of Hamiltonians still do not favour LRT, it is not enough to focus on the mayoralty race alone. They must ensure that whoever leads the next council will be facing a council that has a majority of members reflecting their opposition to the LRT. In that regard it is important to closely question candidates in each ward for a clear statement of their position on the project. Qualified yes’s and no’s are not acceptable in a matter as crucial to the future of Hamilton as this issue has become.