This week’s General Issues Committee meeting saw a public display of something that has been brewing for months—a council pushback against the Hamilton LRT project. There could be several reasons for the timing of the revolt, but it really seemed to come to a head when councillors learned a few weeks back that there were serious discussions that had been going on between the Laborer’s International Union, Doug Ford, and federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna. It need hardly be mentioned that Council had no involvement in these talks, and, for his part, Mayor Fred Eisenberger insists he is not behind them either. Notable among those who spoke on the topic this week were Ward eight Councillor John-Paul Danko and Ward three councillor Nrinder Nann, both members of the progressive wing of Council, both of whom had been counted in past as pro LRT. For Danko, it was the prospect of a possible A-Line BRT that moved him into the undecided category, and he admitted to being intrigued about the prospect of higher order BRT transit service to the mountain as an alternative to LRT. For Nann, she talked about the mess that LRT had wrought on Ward three—multiple affordable housing units either boarded up or demolished with hundreds of lower income people displaced as their homes had been acquired for LRT. She talked about a transit solution that would serve all of the city. That would certainly not be an LRT running from McMaster to somewhere around Gage Park. A transit system serving all of the city would be A-Line and B-Line bus rapid transit along with complete implementation of the BLAST system providing express bus service to all corners of the city and as well, a move towards electrification of the transit fleet.
There is some urgency to both federal and provincial officials finally getting it– that a majority, probably a growing one, of Hamilton Council and the public is not onside for LRT. Council would have voted it down in 2017, but for the prospect of being blamed for walking away from a one-billion-dollar gift. Things have changed greatly from that time as the Ford Government has made it clear that the Billion dollars can be used for whatever form of transit council, and the broader Hamilton community, wish to see. Councillors are getting calls from constituents who can’t understand why, in the midst of a pandemic there is even discussion of LRT. Speaking of the broader Hamilton community, they have never had a vote on this issue, perhaps the most important one facing Hamilton in a generation. The closest they came to expressing their views was the 2017 Forum Poll that showed a majority of the public against LRT, and that was when it was “LRT or nothing.” As several councillors pointed out this week, the Eisenberger win in the 2018 municipal lection was not a referendum on LRT because all anti-LRT members were either re-elected or in one case replaced by an anti-LRT candidate. With an election a little over a year away, maybe the best way to settle the issue is to put it to a referendum. In the meantime, Feds —hands off. What we do not want to see is a hasty promise from the Trudeau government in the heat of an election campaign which is expected soon. Without a clear signal from council, the risk of Ottawa blundering into this issue is great. Doug Ford put it best recently, when he said “we are not going to impose anything on the community.” If the Feds squander scarce infrastructure dollars on what is rapidly becoming a transit boondoggle compared to the alternative available, they could risk the embarrassment of this gift being rejected. Because unlike 2017, Council has a plan B to turn to.