By Rob Hardy
The latest chapter in the decade long saga of Hamilton’s road to building light rail transit has brought us to yet another mayoral election. Endless dawdling over trivial minutiae prevented council from finalizing construction plans, giving opportunistic politicians a chance to win election votes from wary residents unsure of the project.
First it was Doug Ford who campaigned provincially for city votes by promising to keep funding in Hamilton should council axe LRT, and now Victor Sgro is seeking municipal support to follow through on Ford’s words. Our current mayor, Fred Eisenberger, is determined to ride out this latest threat to Hamilton’s LRT dreams and hopefully, finally, complete the last phase of planning so that shovels will indeed soon be in the ground.
No one can blame you if over the course of years you have switched sides on this issue, perhaps more than once, given how long this tiring soap opera has dragged on. After all, when decisions which have been voted on multiple times somehow repeatedly get challenged and second-guessed, it’s inevitable that our community will become as unsure as its councillors. Indeed, there are some who just want this issue settled once and for all, regardless.
But there are several things to consider as you weigh the pros and cons of who to vote for. First of all, as of now all systems are a go for building LRT in Hamilton, as slow as things are going. In the years since full funding was given to Hamilton, businesses have made contingency plans, residents have paid a premium to buy homes near a promised LRT line, while others have moved, and considerable investment has occurred because rapid transit was a factor. Backing out now would be bewildering to stakeholders.
With LRT possibly shelved, we have to consider what would replace it. Well, nothing. Sgro’s plan, as per his campaign website, is to invest $300 million towards adding more buses, some of these being express routes to rural Hamilton locales where most residents have cars. I’ll leave it up to voters to decide if transit usage on the HSR is going to increase or become profitable based on merely updating and reshuffling bus routes.
Moreover, a vote for Sgro is not necessarily a vote to kill the LRT project. The mayor can neither unilaterally save nor scrap the project. Council would still need to formally vote to back out, and given recent criticism against our provincial premier and his political conduct, it is plausible that city council might not find Ford’s promise credible enough to depend on. In other words, even those against LRT might prefer to stay with the current plan rather than gambling on vague alternatives.
If LRT were to actually get nixed, plans for a future BRT at some point would still be years away, as even the best case scenario would involve some more lengthy planning, and further back and forth squabbling, given this is Hamilton we are talking about. This means that current HSR riders will remain trapped on the same and only transit system we have for the foreseeable future.
This also means that despite what Sgro’s camp asserts, growth and investment in Hamilton would certainly be adversely affected. For instance, there is a reason why downtown Toronto attracts millions of tourists a year, and a reason why Niagara Falls does the same. It isn’t a mystery why Hamilton, despite being an attractive, sizeable city halfway between the two, does not see the same brisk business.
One of the main debates regarding LRT cites the city’s falling transit usage. With a considerable portion of residents falling within a very low income bracket, it is a very curious thing to wonder why so many people find ways to avoid using the HSR. A reasonable hypothesis is that what is being offered is so unappealing that massive upgrades are needed, and that buses alone aren’t enough to attract a wider ridership.
Whether it is LRT or BRT, a subway or a sky train, Hamilton needs to revamp its image and infrastructure, and we can’t afford to wait any longer. Given that LRT is the option we’ve chosen, and the only one possible to begin implementing within the year, this is the project that will finally see Hamilton soaring to new heights.