As Hamilton taxpayers and Hamilton City Council now sit on the sidelines, awaiting the recommendations of the Transit Task Force on how to invest the billion dollars earmarked for the cancelled LRT project; some may wonder how did we get to this place? Now that the province has indicated its willingness to see the LRT funds go to alternate transit and transportation projects, one question worthy of exploration is how did we get to the decision that Bus Rapid transit (BRT) was not an option—that it was LRT at all costs? The Bay Observer has devoted considerable time studying City Council documents, staff reports and media coverage in an effort to understand what happened in the early days of the LRT debate. What emerges is a scenario where city staff, working with and supported by a small group of LRT activists and with the editorial support of the Hamilton Spectator managed to get Bus Rapid Transit tossed from consideration without any technical analysis and with some significantly flawed assumptions.
The story begins in February 2007, when council approves a comprehensive Transportation Master Plan covering transit, roads and cycling. Compared to the LRT proposal that followed it was modest in scope, recommending the development of a Bus Rapid Transit network consisting of today’s A and B lines as well as a third corridor running east-west on the mountain; but even then the report indicated that at current ridership levels, BRT would have to be phased in.
The first mention of LRT comes a few weeks later when the Spectator published an opinion piece by Ryan McGreal, editor of the Raise the Hammer blog disagreeing with the city master transit plan. McGreal contends LRT will attract riders who won’t take a bus. It will result in massive new investment along the LRT route. In the coming years these will be constant themes from LRT supporters. McGreal suggests LRT can be built for $10-$20 Million per kilometer—a number that even in 2007 was contradicted by available information on LRT costs in other communities.
The real push for LRT came in June of 2007 when the McGuinty government announced its $17.5B Move Ontario 2020 transit plan. In the plan, at 32 and 33 out of 51 suggested projects is a mention of a rapid transit route from McMaster to Eastgate and another along James to the Airport. A preference for LRT or BRT is not specified. But that announcement set off the decade-long LRT frenzy. A citizen organization, Hamilton Light Rail was formed. Early members include Ryan McGreal and Dr. Nicholas Kevlahan of McMaster. The next day the Hamilton Spectator runs the first of many opinion pieces supporting LRT. In November of 2007, without council direction, City staff undertake a rapid transit feasibility study. A staff report indicated that somewhere around this time staff began meeting regularly with Mayor Eisenberger, who was at that time a board member of Metrolinx and Ward 1 Coun. Brian McHattie to discuss LRT. At this point Hamilton Council has not been asked to vote funding for an LRT office, but one is established nonetheless, complete with its own logo and website.
On April Fools Day 2008 the rapid transit feasibility study is released. While allowing that both LRT and BRT can promote economic growth in the community, the report in effect says that because there is provincial money available that wasn’t available a year earlier, when the city drafted its Transportation plan, it “may also make LRT in the short term more feasible than it appeared in February 2007.” In other words, the transit demand forecasts haven’t changed, but LRT should be considered anyway because there may be money to build it. The report continued, “LRT is often thought of as being more permanent than BRT and as being able to provide greater economic spinoffs than BRT. LRT may also attract riders who, for whatever reason, will not commute by bus.” Staff asked to be authorized to undertake “public consultation”
The public consultation consisted of two city-organized public information sessions In May that, despite an advertising campaign and supportive media coverage, attracted only 150 participants, preceded by a session organized by LRT proponent Hamilton Light Rail. In addition, the city developed an email list drawn from a number of organizations, many of whom were on the proposed A or B Line route or stood to benefit. The process took on the look of a closed feedback loop driven by stakeholders and LRT activists. A staff report describing the public consultation repeatedly referred to media coverage as a sign of public support for LRT but by May the media coverage had consisted of a pro LRT guest editorial by McGreal and a flattering profile of Dr. Kevlahan, both with Hamilton Light Rail, in addition to a supportive editorial by the Spectator and a few news stories advising of the public information sessions.
The language in the report betrayed an urgency that Hamilton demonstrate to Metrolinx its enthusiasm for LRT. Staff apparently wanted to ensure that Hamilton was going to be included in the first tranche of projects approved by Metrolinx. In sharp contrast to the neutral language normally seen in Hamilton staff reports tone of the LRT reports was breathless. Examples:
“(LRT has) the ability to provide the City with a better image (keeping up with other cities, clean, modern, HIP (our emphasis) and quiet).”
“Staff consistently heard that the time is now for LRT and that the City must seize the opportunity to move forward and to not miss out on the opportunity at hand to construct a rapid transit system the would compete with other world class cities.”
“The general public opinion, as it played out in the media, was that it was no longer a question of if we should, but when and how we should proceed with an LRT system.”
“In general, there was a sense of excitement from the crowd, a crowd that included young, old, disabled, families and business owners, and a hope that a rapid transit system for Hamilton could mean great things, particularly if it was an LRT system.”
It took less than a month from the time the two workshops were held to the issuance of their findings on May 28th that staff persuaded council to kill further consideration of Bus Rapid Transit. In the public relations business, the communication process Hamilton underwent in 2008 is known as “manufactured consent”. In an interview with the Bay Observer in 2012 Scott Stewart who was nominally in charge of the process as General Manager of Public Works, acknowledged that “maybe the language in the reports was a bit overenthusiastic.”