In the third week of April the buzz at Hamilton City Hall was whether or not the mayor of Hamilton was demonstrating sufficient resolve in pursuing LRT for Hamilton. Was he in fact an anti-LRT subversive , damning it by faint praise? Council was all set to pass a resolution that Bob Bratina would henceforth need to be accompanied by council chaperones in any dealings with the Ontario Government on the transit issue. But only a week later the same council voted to reject any increase in taxes — municipal or provincial — aimed at paying for transit; leaving Councillor Brian McHattie the lone voice in favour of LRT at any price. It is one thing for Council to have an evening’s fun at Bratina’s expense using his alleged LRT denial as the weapon at hand, but when it comes to a vote that would endorse significant new taxes, as much as $800 per household annually, things got sober fast. The vote underlined the reality of LRT in Hamilton; support is broad on a notional level but also very thin, especially when the $1 Billion price tag is brought into the equation.
Letters to the editor, posted web comments and calls to the Bill Kelly show are far from a scientific sounding of the public mood, but there is a persistent tone of skepticism in many of these expressions of public opinion. No doubt part of the problem lies in a growing perception that Queen’s Park needs to demonstrate more fiscal responsibility before it turns to the taxpayers of the GTAH for more money.
The hydro plant cancellations costing as much as a billion dollars, the soaring costs of the Green Energy Program, the ORNGE affair, and many other stories of waste and inefficiency have collectively eroded the province’s fiscal credibility. Then there is the kind of question that every householder faces — if you were asked to set aside 1 and a half percent of your disposable income to save up for a car, could you find it in your existing budget? That is precisely what the province could do to raise the $2 Billion it needs to fund the Big Move — find a per cent and a half in efficiencies in what is now a $127 Billion budget. Council’s skepticism about increasing taxes may yet have negative consequences for Hamilton at Queen’s Park, but it is also a reflection of the growing sophistication of voters and their representatives when it comes to so-called “free” money.
Turning to the question of what kind of transit service is in Hamilton’s future, council has a good guidebook in the Rapid Ready document produced by HSR chief Don Hull. Rapid Ready embraces LRT, but does so as an ultimate goal, not a next step. Prior to installing LRT the document recommends we get our overall transit ridership up to about double the current level. That would put us on a par with a city like Calgary which has LRT. The key to increased use of transit is simple — you need frequency and speed. To get us to that level we would need 100 more buses on the road and a similar increase in drivers. Total capital investment — between $90 and $115 Million for the buses, with an annual operating cost of $25 to $45 million.
That is a lot more manageable than figuring out where to get one Billion dollars. As Hamilton council has already endorsed Rapid Ready, the next step should be to ask Queens Park where is the money for the bus upgrades. Would Hamilton be something of an outlier in going for more buses first and LRT later? It turns out, no. Recently appearing before a legislative committee on congestion, no less than the chief planning officer of the Toronto Transit Commission, Mitch Stambler startled committee members with the following statement: “It is important, of course, that we continue to expand rapid transit … which will remove a large number of car trips from Toronto. But if this committee wants to recommend action by the provincial government, we should never lose focus on the much-unsung hero, the low-cost, proven workhorse of transit: the BUS.Not every investment that the provincial government makes in transit must be a high-cost, big-ticket item like a subway. In fact, it may surprise you to know that fully 70% of the trips made on the TTC every day use buses for part or all of their trip. So if the provincial government wanted to do something quick, low-cost, effective, immediate and achievable in the short term, then investing in more buses in Toronto would be a very wise choice.”
Maybe it’s time here in Hamilton and across the GTA that we pay less attention to urban theorists and more attention to people that actually know something about moving people around.