A landmark project that deserves to be considered with accurate information

By Martinus 

Every issue of public significance comes with a generous amount of civic debate. Hamilton is well-acquainted with such hot topics, and is known to use “live ammunition” (to quote a City employee I recently chatted with). One only needs to consider the 50 year war over the Red Hill Valley Parkway, the heritage battle of the Lister Block, the stadium debate, the casino debacle, and most recently, the gong show surrounding the Metrolinx Hamilton light rail transit (LRT) project.

LRT route map

The public discourse surrounding the topic of LRT in Hamilton reached levels of absurdity that were impressive even by local standards. Throughout the debate over whether or not Hamilton should accept the fully-funded $1 billion transit package from the Province, arguments and theatrics from both pro and anti- sides reached hysterical levels. LRT opponent Carol Lazich compared LRT to SARS and AIDS. Councillors Matthew Green and Terry Whitehead jousted over a podium in a farcical press conference that resembled a pre UFC match weigh-in.  Councillor Donna Skelly provoked ire in Kitchener-Waterloo when she called their LRT “ugly”. It was a circus of engagement and inanity. Leaders led, rebels roused, grandstanders grandstanded, trenches were dug, lines were drawn, and there were casualties on both sides. Unfortunately, one of the most unfortunate casualties was the truth.

Now, with only one unlikely “off ramp” that could terminate the project, Hamilton’s LRT is moving full steam ahead. In the process of reaching this point, however, civic dialogue celebrated great engagement and suffered severe injury.

I’m convinced that, more than in other debates, the prevalence of misinformation, fake news, and alternative facts reached a new high. Social media channels were regularly filled with personal vitriol, uninformed opinion, and false claims about nearly every aspect of the LRT project (pro and against). Established media channels regularly printed and broadcasted incorrect or incomplete information about the project, and gave air to endless op-eds by the ignorant and opinionated.  Even the communication from Metrolinx and the City’s LRT office seemed to lack both volume and vigour. Blame Kellyanne Conway, TMZ, or the age of modern media if you wish, but it’s a sad reality that the clarity and quality of information exchange surrounding the Hamilton LRT debate has been marred by inaccuracy and inadequacy from day one.

The consequences of compromised communication are tremendous. In the case of Hamilton’s LRT debate, the muddy waters surrounding the project nearly led to the cancellation of the initiative by legislative delay.  An ill-informed public is a fierce opponent and an unreliable ally for politicians to consider, especially on an issue as significant as a billion dollar transit investment. Fortunately, the frantic wave of campaigning and public engagement that preceded the Council vote to send the updated environmental assessment to the Province on April 19th was successful, and the project is still on the tracks for now. As a proponent of LRT, I am thrilled that the project is moving forward, but I shudder to think of how close we came to losing it in a cloud of confusion and chaos.

While Hamilton’s LRT initiative is a major project with many stakeholders, a huge budget, and a long timeline, the facts most often disputed remain the same. And they’re still facts.

City of Hamilton LRT rendering

Myth:
LRT is a silly train to nowhere

Fact: LRT uses state-of-the-art, accessible rail vehicles that are both environmentally efficient and aesthetically beautiful. The LRT route runs along Hamilton’s busiest public transit corridor and connects multiple important nodes. Furthermore, the B-line is simply a part of the BLAST network; a multi-phase public transit structure that will integrate with regional transit networks throughout the GTHA. While this silly train may not stop at your front door, it is a part of a large strategic program that will enable you to get anywhere in the region easily and affordably.

Myth:
LRT is going to cost Hamilton taxpayers all kinds of cash

Fact: The cost of the Hamilton LRT project is being covered by the Province of Ontario through Metrolinx. Hamilton will not be required to pay any of the capital costs of the LRT project unless specifically stated or negotiated (based on a change of scale or scope of the project) at the request of the City. The operating costs of the project are not a great unknown, but can be estimated accurately based on the hundreds of comparable LRT systems throughout the world. While the operating agreement has not yet been determined, the projected ridership, fares, and overall tax assessment increases tied to the LRT project are anticipated to far outweigh the highest operating costs the City could incur.

Myth:

LRT is a poor investment because electric cars and flying cars are around the corner

Fact: Yes, electric cars are becoming more popular by the day, and flying cars are already being tested. No, they will not replace the need for an affordable and accessible public transit system any time soon. The simple reality of traffic congestion must be addressed, regardless of the fuel type used by cars. Hamilton cannot continue to add lanes for more cars. And no, we will not be flying in cars at any point during the useful lifespan of the LRT project. LRT is a sound investment because of the permanence of the tracks laid in the road. Investors and developers love LRT because of its permanence. The route can’t be quickly changed, and so the land surrounding it inevitably sees a bump in value, which means higher tax value, which means more revenue for the City.

Myth:
LRT won’t benefit anyone in the suburbs or rural areas of Hamilton

Fact: LRT is a critical city building tool that will help to increase the viability of the tax base in the lower city. This means increased revenues for City coffers, which benefits everyone throughout the city. A viable urban center is critical for the health of the entire municipality.

Myth:
LRT could never work in Hamilton

Fact: It’s time that we put an end to the idea that the things that work in hundreds of other cities would never work in Hamilton. There is simply no basis for this rationale. Hamilton has a population, urban density, transit ridership, and a surrounding region greater than those of the many cities already operating with successful LRT systems. Yes, Hamilton is totally different and unique, just like every other city in the world.

I could go on for pages with more facts, but now that I’m no longer Editor of this fine magazine, I have been told that I am limited to to so many words. For more facts, however, you can take a look at HamiltonLightrail.ca. Better yet, go right to the official hub for the project at Hamilton.ca/LRT. Take some time to read the FAQs, view the maps and renderings, and learn about this project. It’s a landmark project for this fine city, and it deserves to be considered with accurate information. Public debate is a great thing, but it can become a dangerous and detrimental black hole when opinions aren’t informed. Let’s keep the conversation going with respect for facts and each other – perhaps also limiting the use of ‘live ammunition’.  See you on the silly train to nowhere!