It's time to develop a narrative around LRT that speaks to its great potential for Hamilton and that portrays Hamilton as the city it is and the city it can be, a narrative that revolves around hope, determination, ambition and vision.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published November 30, 2010
The debate over Hamilton's light rail transit (LRT) proposal is entering familiar territory - the same territory we covered during the stadium debate.
It starts with an important issue that generates considerable public interest. A progressive consensus backed by evidence emerges. Promising sounds are made by various levels of government.
Hamiltonians get a growing sense that the deal is done.
Then the process starts dragging on. A final decision is delayed. The province mysteriously shuts up, leaving the municipal government with no clear idea of what's going on.
But the deal is still done, in the minds of most people. Council votes have been taken, the Spectator and the Chamber are on board, visiting experts on urban issues extol the benefits of the city's stated preference.
People move on. After all, there are other issues to think about, and not just municipal ones, either.
That's when the naysayers, the NIMBYs, the exceptionalists and the anecdotalists see their moment. "Now, now," they say knowingly, "let's be realistic. This is Hamilton. What works in other cities might work well there, but it won't work here, because..."
That moment has arrived for LRT in Hamilton.
A trickle of negative, emotional (and simply unfactual) letters to the editor has started appearing in the Hamilton Spectator. Bill Kelly is casting doubt on LRT's benefits, asking, "Is Hamilton even placed in a position to see [the] economic growth [from LRT]?" and featuring a professor from the University of Waterloo who says that LRT works in Salt Lake City, but won't work in Hamilton.
Unless LRT opponents are countered, light rail transit in Hamilton will join the list of projects that would have, could have, should have changed Hamilton for the better - until they died.
Some LRT opponents are worried about personal inconveniences like traffic congestion during LRT construction, or own car-dependent businesses they worry will be negatively affected by LRT. These are honest concerns that should and will be addressed, though some short-term pain in the interest of long-term gain is inevitable.
Other opponents have been swayed by the LRT criticism they've heard and read, and are susceptible to changing their minds if they can be convinced of the evidence in favour of LRT. Others are simply ignorant.
But the most dangerous and committed opponents of LRT are those that have an anti-urban outlook. They believe that Hamilton is a failed city and as such is not worth investing in. They want Hamilton to be a conglomeration of bland suburbs, a so-called "bedroom community".
Their strategy is to create is a division between the suburbs and downtown. They argue that LRT is only in the interest of downtown, even though a vibrant downtown is in the interest - including the financial interest, from a distribution of taxes perspective - of people who live in the suburbs too.
LRT is too expensive, they claim, and it only benefits the downtown.
But downtown has had to live with the ongoing fare raises (and corresponding ridership decreases) at the HSR. Downtown has had to live with what Hamilton spends on roads: $70 million this year and $82 million last year, much of it spent on roads that downtown residents never drive on, including the burgeoning stock of sprawl-servicing roads which the city must maintain.
Hamilton spent $439 million building the Red Hill Valley Parkway and the Lincoln Alexander Parkway. In addition to those capital costs, both of those suburban roads generate significant annual maintenance costs, which are born by taxpayers, not fare-payers. Area rating does not apply to roads, but it applies to public transit, so while suburban Hamiltonians pay less for public transit they use less, a tax break is not given to downtown residents who rarely or never drive down the Linc or the RHVP.
Worst of all, however, are the downtown freeways which choke neighbourhoods, pollute the air, and outright kill people whose principal fault was to get in the way. Although we've spent billions developing a ring road system to channel trucks around the city, truck routes still criss-cross the downtown (though progress has been made).
The residents of the lower city deserve LRT, and building it in the lower city benefits everyone. And once the B-line is built, we can build the A-line and make mountain residents happy too.
People are frightened by emotions but comforted by facts. LRT opponents evoke emotions using anecdotes, sarcasm, unsubstantiated predictions of abject failure, strawman arguments and inflated costs. These can be countered by facts, and if you need some, Hamilton Light Rail is a rich source.
But they also need to be countered by positive emotions. It's time to develop a narrative around LRT that speaks to its great potential for Hamilton and that portrays Hamilton as the city it is and the city it can be, a narrative that revolves around hope, determination, ambition and vision.
Hamilton is not a failed city. Downtown is not a lost cause. By basing our decisions on evidence, by staying focused on progressive initiatives like LRT, and by encouraging city council to act decisively, we can turn Hamilton into the envy of municipalities across Southern Ontario.
Please consider contacting the media and your councillors and local MPPs. LRT is vitally important. As progressive Hamiltonians with a vision for this city, let's keep the heat on until the deal is well and truly done.
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