Municipal Election 2014

BRT is Not Just Express Buses

BRT is a transportation system in which high-speed, high-capacity buses run on physically separate dedicated lanes between transit stations.

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 19, 2014

At yesterday's mayoral debate organized by the Hamilton business community, candidate Brad Clark said something interesting as part of his argument against LRT:

I have said very clearly that we need to change the discussion. We need to start looking at our local transit needs now. We need to enhance Bus Rapid Transit.

You can watch the entire debate on YouTube, thanks to Joey Coleman.

Clark has said this a few times since coming out against light rail transit (LRT), and it is consistent with some of the other arguments against LRT that have floated around in recent months. It hinges on a pretty basic misunderstanding of what bus rapid transit (BRT) means.

What is BRT?

BRT is a transportation system in which high-speed, high-capacity buses run on physically separate dedicated lanes between transit stations. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a transit consultancy that promotes BRT, lists five defining features of BRT:

The B-Line bus that currently runs between Eastgate Square and McMaster University is not BRT by any stretch. The express bus service started in 1986 and has been steadily building ridership along the east-west line to the point that 13,000 riders a day now travel along the corridor.

That existing ridership is one of the reasons why the east-west route is an excellent candidate for higher-order rapid transit, but an express bus is not BRT.

The B-Line runs in mixed traffic for almost the full 14 kilometre length of the route and it picks passengers up - and, too often, fails to pick passengers up as overstuffed buses do "pass-bys" - at regular bus stops, not transit stations.

Nor does the transit-only lane running between Mary Street and Dundurn qualify as BRT. The lane covers only two kilometres of the 28 kilometre round-trip and is not physically separated from automobile traffic.

The B-Line is not even BRT-lite, let alone full BRT. But that hasn't stopped people from conflating the express bus with BRT and then claiming that BRT can deliver the same economic benefits as LRT.

Sidenote: beware claims that BRT is more "flexible" than LRT because the buses can be rerouted. If it's flexible enough to be rerouted, it's not BRT. It's just an express bus.

ITDP Study

As part of Clark's case against LRT, he referred yesterday to a recent study by the ITDP that promotes BRT over LRT. I wrote about the study in May and again in July. It spurred some dramatic headlines by comparing the performance of the most impressive outlier LRT system - Portland, Oregon's MAX - and the most impressive outlier BRT system - Cleveland's Healthline - and finding that Cleveland's BRT had a bigger relative return on investment than Portland's LRT.

Cleveland's Healthline BRT (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Cleveland's Healthline BRT (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

However, it is not prudent to compare only the exceptional cases when evaluating transit technologies. To understand how a given technology will work in another city, you need to consider the full picture and not just cherry-pick supportive examples.

When you dig into the data behind the study and look at all the LRT and BRT systems the authors considered, the study merely confirms what we've been saying all along: that BRT costs less to build and attracts less economic development. The relative return on investment is similar, but LRT attracts a lot more total development.

And bear in mind, those results are what you get with full BRT that meets the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy's rigorous checklist of criteria.

It also ignores the fact that once a BRT system is in place, it costs more to operate per passenger than an LRT system would cost. Since an LRT vehicle can carry more passengers than a BRT vehicle, an LRT-based rapid transit system can carry a lot more passengers per driver - and paying for drivers is the biggest part of transit operating cost.

Clark expresses concern for Hamilton taxpayers, but he advocates a system that lets the Province off the hook for their promise of full capital funding and then shoulders Hamilton with the burden of paying to operate a more expensive system year after year once it has been built.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2014 at 09:37:06

BRT is the preferred rapid transit option of people who never plan to use the HSR for the rest of their lives. I also love how "fiscal conservatives" are now championing building subways instead of street-level trams - because spending more money for the the same service is totally conservative.

On the other hand, does the city's LRT plan include off-board fare entry? All the drawings I've seen show just normal sidewalk boarding (plus the new in-street sidewalks for eastbound boarders).

At any rate: McHattie was right about the West Harbour stadium, history has vindicated him with this ludicrous Tim Horton's trainwreck and the new James North GO station being built right next to the planned stadium site.

The hand-wringers and haters screwed us out of the West Harbour stadium and left us with a $150 ($160? 170?) million 90 degree rotation with fewer seats. McHattie was right and they were wrong.

And now many of the same voices are rallying behind Brad Clark. Those voices have no credibility anymore, and should be mocked as such. You don't get to screw Hamilton out of 9 figures of Provincial/Federal money twice in a row in any sane world.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2014-09-19 09:37:29

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 10:30:55

Forget driver:passenger ratios. LRT can actually go driverless.

mic-ro.com/metro/driverless.html

Bonus: HSR's toxic culture/harassment issues dramatically improve.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 10:44:21

Yeah. That use of the term 'BRT' to make a point about current bus service was sloppy. The truth is- Well, there's a couple of points to be made here.

1) Sometimes I think that pro-LRTers don't ride the HSR. Aren't authentically aware of the current situation.

2) The resultant huge blind-spot is not shared by those residents currently using the HSR; the B-Line is only one aspect of it. There are some pronounced problems with the current system that non-B-Line users face every day.

3) If you're betting on McHattie winning based on him championing LRT ('because it's been proven to the best option possible'), I wouldn't put any money on that. Why? Because the vast majority of Hamiltonians really don't care about the benefits of something they'll never use, but will have to pay for (to one extent or another). And it's these voters who will actually decide the election. You know, the residents in Wards 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15... As I've said before, LRT has not been sold well to these people, and to have counted on Council or an individual Councillor to have done so is absurd. As the Brits are wont to say, 'Good luck with that.'

Comment edited by ItJustIs on 2014-09-19 10:45:50

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By Ms Me (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 09:14:48 in reply to Comment 104618

Well said!

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2014 at 14:40:18 in reply to Comment 104618

I've ridden the HSR frequently. And buses in other communities.

Yes, the HSR sucks... but not substantially worse than other similarly-sized cities. Fundamentally, buses are not great. LRT will make transit travel something actually good-enough that people with better options (IE a car) will actually consider taking it.

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By Starbuck (registered) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 13:33:08

Since we learned from Clark and highlighted in Andrew Dreschel's article at the Spec titled "Clark goes fo r opponents Jugular" (http://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/4863819-dreschel-clark-goes-for-opponents-jugular-on-lrt/)that Hamilton taxpayers would potentially be on the hook for infrastructure costs associated with LRT, I am curious why no response from the team at RTH??? I mean complete radio silence on the issue.

According to McHattie, the question was posed to the transportation minister, Steven Del Duca, this past July. The reply; he'll get back to us and Dreschel speculates the answer will come after the municipal election. Why hasn't the RTH staff acknowledged this important information? Instead they, as well as the other mayoral candidates sling mud at Clark and accuse him of playing the wedge issue card. Don’t get me wrong, I have not made any decisions as to who to vote for this election, however I am grateful for the questions finally being asked regarding what the impacts of LRT will be. The infrastructure costs is a very important question that requires answers.

In short, I hope the staff at RTH, look into it these questions, rather than being perceived as disingenuous, due to questionable omissions of fact and dialogue, around the true impact of LRT costs to the taxpayer.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2014 at 13:57:49 in reply to Comment 104625

I wrote about Clark's claim here:

Clark also claims the City will have to spend "millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars" on capital upgrades, even if the Province keeps its commitment to paying 100 percent of the capital cost of the LRT system.

It's hard to take this claim seriously, not only because it is unsourced but also because it represents a cost spread of two orders of magnitude.

Since the Province has not yet made a funding commitment, we do not know exactly what the Province is willing to fund or how it defines "100 percent capital funding". This seems to be pure speculation on Clark's part, designed to sow fear and uncertainty and undermine public support for the plan.

We also contacted Clark and asked him to provide the source of his "new information" about how much Hamilton would have to contribute if the province keeps its 100 percent capital funding promise. We have not received any response.

I invite you to contrast Clark's comments today with Clark's comments three years ago:

It is incredibly frustrating that we were promised this commitment and now this Council has jumped through hoops to get the Pan Am Games money, and the entire argument was, "Why would you turn down 56 percent of the money?" Well, I'm curious: why are we going to look the other way on LRT when 100 percent of the money was promised by senior levels of government? I don't get it.

He also said:

One would think we'd be fighting tooth and nail to get the Province to keep their promise to pay 100 percent of the capital cost for LRT.

And:

People in the media kept saying to me, Who really believes the Province was ever going to pay 100 percent? I said I believe it, because they're doing it in Toronto. So it's to our own neglect that we're not looking at what's happening in other municipalities, because Toronto asked for it and they got it.

A leader's job is to do what Clark was calling for three years ago: advocate forcefully for a fair deal that will bring the biggest benefit to the city. Instead, Clark is now advocating that we give up and assume we won't get a fair deal from the Province.

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By Starbuck (registered) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 15:21:46 in reply to Comment 104626

It doesn’t sound as though we will be getting a fair deal since the transportation minister is being coy regarding the infrastructure costs to begin with. Clark was attacked for highlighting this point. Why the hate for Clark for bringing this issue to the light? If the Province isn’t being straight with the taxpayers of Hamilton, how is that Clark’s fault?

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 22:02:08 in reply to Comment 104634

transpo minister is being coy because our mayor is allowing him to be. What kind of idiot would the minister be to say "we are going to give Hamilton all the money in the world even though their mayor has spent the past 4 years trying to send it back to Queens Park"?

They are wisely waiting until after the election before making any further promises because they are smart. If we elect a mayor who wants to send back 50% of the funds so it can be spent in Mississuaga/Brampton the province will happily go along with that. If we elect a mayor who actually cares about Hamilton and will fight for us to be treated fairly, the province will have a tough time getting out of their commitment, and personally I don't think they will.

We could have had LRT under construction by now had we not just wasted 4 years doing nothing but talking about how amazing the Ticats are.

If we elect Brad Clark, we not only waste 4 years, but we turn down a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in Hamilton's urban future, and our competing cities in the Golden Horseshoe are all ready to jump at the chance to snag our money. Even Burlington is quietly getting LRT plans ready and will make their case for the 'Hamilton area funds' to come to them as they watch and see Hamilton doing what Hamilton does best - saying no to incredible opportunities and investment.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 08:30:24 in reply to Comment 104649

Not that there isn't something to the mayoral angle, the province has always had latitude on this investment, entirely by design. As this year's budget emphasized, it's all about the business case, so it's the strength and rigour of Rapid Ready that should make the difference. That the Premier (who served as Minister of Transportation when all-day GO was promised) and her Minister of Transportation are acting as if that report doesn't exist as telling as any municipal electoral shenanigans. There is no commitment, only intention.

Ridership numbers in Mississauga/Brampton are exploding alongside population, and their adult cash fares are 70 cents higher than those of the HSR. Hamilton's ridership and revenues are stagnant. Mississauga/Brampton spent $20 million on the EA for LRT; Hamilton spent, what, $3m? Mississauga has reportedly sunk $250 million into the construction of an 18km Transitway; Hamilton balks at a 2km bus lane pilot. It's far bigger than an election cycle.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2014 at 16:22:04 in reply to Comment 104634

We already knew the Province was being coy about what it will fund. Clark himself was making that point three years ago, with the crucial difference that he believed the mayor and council should do a better job of fighting for Hamilton's interests.

The reason the Province is being noncommittal is that we have a mayor who doesn't support LRT - and has been misrepresenting council's position - and we have a municipal election coming up. They're waiting to see who becomes the new mayor before making a decision so they don't have a repeat of the transit fiasco in Toronto.

Again, I invite you to contrast Brad Clark of three years ago, who blelieved the Mayor should fight for Hamilton, with the Brad Clark of today, who believes the Mayor should just walk away from provincial investment and create a self-fulflling prophecy on the Province's decision.

Meanwhile, the Brad Clark of today keeps saying things about LRT that are straight-up false and misleading, things he has no excuse not to understand. It's profoundly cynical and manipulative, and either you are blind to this or you are a willing agent of his misinformation campaign.

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By Starbuck (registered) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 18:57:30 in reply to Comment 104636

This is not a Clark thing. For credibility sake, stop attacking those who have concerns about the impacts to the taxpayer. What Clark's position is irrelevant. What is relevant are the unanswered infrastructure costs to the city. Do you deny these costs may fall on our shoulders? Do you truly believe LRT will be self sufficient and not dip into the infrastructure budget that requires tax increases to meet current demands? Willing agent of information. LOL.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 19:15:47 in reply to Comment 104644

Do you know what the infrastructure costs will be? They aren't directly LRT related, but are for systems already in place that it may be wise to replace or upgrade at the same time as the LRT is constructed. In Toronto i believe the arrangement calls for the province to pay for infrastructure replacement if the construction of the LRT requires it, otherwise the city pays. I understand Clark raising the spectre of additional costs, but these are costs we would face either way. The only issue is timing.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 22:04:08 in reply to Comment 104645

These costs are unknown, but one fact is very clearly known, and Clark knows this himself but like most other facts is choosing to ignore it: those servicing/underground costs are the same for BRT and LRT.

Like most people who say they support BRT, here is what he really means:

"I don't want to spend a dime on transit, but have to pretend I do. Once we all suddenly realize that all the underground work also has to happen with BRT we can easily sell a total cancellation of the project to the public and get back to building more roads through farmland in Stoney Creek".

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 10:13:35 in reply to Comment 104650

Yeah, I agree that's Clark's angle. I may not agree with him, but i see the political logic.

Like most people who say they support BRT, here is what he really means:

"I don't want to spend a dime on transit, but have to pretend I do. Once we all suddenly realize that all the underground work also has to happen with BRT we can easily sell a total cancellation of the project to the public and get back to building more roads through farmland in Stoney Creek".

Much of this is probably true. I don't think Clark's vision of BRT is much more than minor enhancements to the existing B-Line bus, so it won't be so much a cancellation of the project as much as a debate over what BRT is. McHattie needs to do a better job emphasizing the difference between the higher upfront capital costs of LRT and long-run cost-savings and fiscal improvement for the City from lower-operating costs and greater potential for redevelopment, i.e. tax-base growth, from LRT. The decision between LRT and BRT isn't that difficult to make placed in that context. Of course, you are right Clark is obscuring his real position, which is do as close to nothing on transit as possible. Where does the Hamilton growth machine sit? Developers are eyeing up Downtown and the Waterfront for condos, etc. Aren't they concerned about the LRT project?

Comment edited by RobF on 2014-09-20 10:16:18

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By Joshua (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2014 at 15:53:36

Ryan, thanks for the clarification on Bus Rapid Transit; it helps to move the discussion forward, now that terms have been defined. I think the expansion of the current Hamilton Street Railway system is the most possible option. It keeps the most people currently employed and allows for more transit drivers. Ideally, I'd like to see light-rail transit in the city, too, especially as current bus service to secondary schools in the south-east is inadequate and it's more environmentally sustainable, but bus expansion is a good beginning.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2014 at 16:31:40 in reply to Comment 104635

Joshua, that position doesn't make sense. With LRT, we can carry more passengers at a better per-passenger operating cost across the entire transit network. Net operating revenues on the LRT line will actually help to subsidize higher service levels on the bus lines.

If you think losing LRT will make council decide to dedicate more city revenue to operate higher bus service levels at a higher per-passenger cost, you haven't been paying attention to this council. They just scaled back a proposal to boost service to Redeemer College because it would cost Ancaster ratepayers an extra $20 a year.

LRT is a game-changer. Without LRT, our transit system is stuck in maintenance mode for the foreseeable future.

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By Joshua (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2014 at 17:10:07 in reply to Comment 104638

Ryan, thanks for the clarifications.

I wasn't aware that light-rail and bus transit were going to co-exist, though that does make sense as the proposed light-rail transit isn't going to cover yet what the Hamilton Street Railway already does. What's going to happen, though, to the bus drivers whose jobs are absorbed by the efficiencies of light-rail transit? Has any discussion been had regarding the effects of light-rail transit on current transit employees?

As for city council's lack of investment in public transit, I was aware of federal gasoline tax revenues not being re-invested into public transit as well as of Councillor Ferguson's decision not to increase public transit to Redeemer College. These things do not bode well for the future of public transit in Hamilton, but these things can be changed, too. Awareness, of course, isn't worth much but it's good to know what's happened in order to understand how and which changes are possible.

I think I am coming around to the light-rail transit camp, as I wrote, for its environmental sustainability and my professed anti-automobile stance, with the exception of emergency vehicles, which could be, I know, any vehicle, depending on circumstances. Ideally, I'd like to see it fare-free for everyone's sake, but that's probably a long shot.

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By Narayan (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 17:39:16 in reply to Comment 104642

I don't expect that bus drivers' jobs are particularly at risk due to the efficiencies of scale associated with LRT. Yes, LRT would result in fewer drivers per passenger, but it would also result in far more passengers.

LRT would probably increase the demand for transit operators, because while it may slightly reduce the number of employees needed to operate King/Main services, it would certainly increase the demand on the bus routes people use to get to and from the LRT.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 21:45:54

So it appears that only the money candidates were invited and not all the candidates. Shame on the organizers of this event. The fix is in.

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By sigh (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 22:21:43 in reply to Comment 104647

Yeah, it's a pity that fringe candidates weren't invited. Too bad.

Is there anything you are ever positive about?

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By heynow (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 22:38:37

Reading this reminds me of just how incredibly fortuitous it was that I vacated Hamilton. Prepare for your already SKY HIGH taxes to explode outwardly like a spring loaded hair curler. Unbelievable how that city just keeps throwing future tax dollars at everything. If not for amalgamation, they would have been the Detroit BEFORE Detroit. Amalgamation temporarily saved their buttocks, however, they would be dead if not for this unfortunate, forced, arranged marriage that was nothing short of a mafioso scandal to save their backside. Hamilton has a complex - crying how they're just like Toronto. Um, you're not, never will be. Hamilton can trump up how their waterfalls and Barton Village are the places to see! Such a dump. Yes, I know - you're gonna say, 'good riddance!' to me. Don't care. I got out. You're still in it. And that one city councillor wears a really bad and obvious toupee. That zit guy.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 11:04:30 in reply to Comment 104655

We don't have SKY HIGH taxes, we have an weakened tax base due to a couple decades of de-industrialization. This has left us overly reliant on residential taxes. Clark was part of the government that decided to push thru amalgamation, and it's not clear who's saving who in the arrangement.

Do you consider building the LINC and Red Hill, or Aerotropolis to be throwing tax dollars away?

Finally, don't compare us to Detroit. Other than deindustrialization we share little in common. Many parts of the City of Detroit have been abandoned and the city has lost more than half its population since 1950. Hamilton is slow growing, and the Lower City while poorer overall than other parts of the city has not been abandoned and has viable neighbourhoods. We also do not have the deeply entrenched racial divisions that Detroit has ... there is a tendency to overlook the role of race in Detroit's problems, especially the accelerated white flight that followed court-mandated busing schemes to integrate public schools in the City of Detroit in the 1970s. The City of Detroit experienced sharp and continual decline of it's non-residential tax base at the same time as there was a rush to the exits among its middle-class homeowners, without a regional mechanism to prevent suburban "home-rule" from gutting the City's ability to restructure itself. Even the most competent city government would be hard pressed to survive what befell Detroit. The real lesson of Detroit is that for a Metropolitan region to prosper long-term it needs a viable core. What is unique about Detroit since 2008 is that the whole Metro was impacted, not just the City. That wasn't the case for much of the period from 1950 to 2000.

The biggest risk to our future prosperity is failing to make prudent investments in hard and soft infrastructure that leverages value in what's already here.

Comment edited by RobF on 2014-09-20 11:12:36

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 22:40:13

Dear by sigh: what is there to be positive about considering the logistics of this event? Just because I see that things should be open and fair opposed to closed and biased,seems to bother you.



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By sigh (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 08:40:47 in reply to Comment 104656

What's wrong with the logistics? The 3 real campaigns are represented. Fringe candidate aren't. Have you ever seen a debate where all candidates are there? It's absolute bedlam. Think of the last municipal election and the cable 14 debate with all mayoral candidates. It was hijacked by the fringe as a way to personally attack the frontrunners, push an agenda in the guise of city building. It's a waste of time. It's not "open and fair", it's biased and closed. Why? Because it's all about the fringe candidates then and their personal agendas. That's not open and fair.

Your noise is tiresome. It's talking a lot but never saying anything.

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By Stu Barns (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 11:24:26

If the promise of LRT is more development along the line, and thus greater density, and thus a stronger tax base... why then are we not organizing for greater density in current projects instead of the opposite, such as 220 Dundurn and many other recent developments?

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By Logic (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 16:07:48

Some articulate and well researched comments made by Ryan, as usual. However, it is a bit of an echo chamber in here. This is political season. Clark is gaining traction and McHattie/Eisenberger are splitting the LRT vote. It is time for some realpolitik. Either McHattie or Eisenberger has to graciously bow out and support he other. If you are interested in winning the 'war' as well as the debate, will RTH push for this solution to be sought.

As for who of the two should bow out? I think it is the one who has the best chance of beating Clark.

For me the choice is clear even though either of the candidates would be fine. Only one can beat Clark. The other just can't.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 16:51:58

Oh By sigh, so in the big scheme of things we can all see your true fascist tendencies. In a true democratic situation all who run are given equal time.

Are they fringe or are maybe they are just not order followers.

Keep filling the white space with nothing stooge.

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