Special Report: Light Rail

Council Fails to Realize Hamilton's Needs and Potential

As a group, City Council has demonstrated too much passivity, a serious disconnect from the potential of this city, and a lack of long-term vision.

By Eric Gillis
Published February 12, 2013

this article has been updated

Hamilton City Council's approach to light rail transit (LRT) highlights a wider issue: Council is not in touch with the needs of most Hamiltonians, and is far too passive as a whole to be taking any true leading stance on this city's future.

Passivity and complacency: these are not options, they are pitfalls. They're failures to act, and while perhaps they're good in certain situations that demand diplomacy and proper analysis, they're not universal in their applicability. It is we citizens, the people this council represents by making decisions for us on our behalf, who suffer the most when they apply passivity and complacency as universal solutions.

So I offer an apology for the breadth of this article, but the problem is a lot bigger than just "dropping the ball" on LRT, and I don't feel comfortable pretending otherwise.

First, let me start by justifying why I even think my opinion is pertinent, and reflective of reality in regards to Hamilton needing to pursue LRT. I was born and raised in Hamilton in a single-parent family. My mother was a hairdresser, and that isn't exactly the highest-paying job around. So obviously affording a car was out of the question. This meant that any time my mother and I needed to go somewhere, public transit was the answer.

I more or less grew up on public transit. To this day, that hasn't changed. It has become a staple of my daily life. Having grown up here and now attending McMaster - and also having a job that is located outside of Hamilton - there is quite literally not a day that goes by where I do not spend at least two hours on public transit.

Whether it's commuting to work, going to school, or visiting some friends, my transportation mode is always the same: public transit. Because of this, I've seen my fair share of the problems that can arise with buses, our current public transit mode of choice.

Because bus operators do not have direct control over the state of roads and traffic, transit service is frequently plagued by failure to adhere to schedules and unrealistic route planning. Worse, on certain routes our city's buses suffer daily from severe over-capacity.

I'm not blaming the HSR or its operators for this. They do a wonderful job given the limited resources they have. No, I place my blame on city council for not realizing exactly what this city really needs, and furthermore lacking the fortitude to pursue those things.

The city definitely needs a strong, well-funded transit system. Many people in this city rely on our public transit service, but the reality is that it's simply not as comprehensive as it needs to be.

Here are a few specific examples.

Not Comprehensive Enough

Both of the mountain's theatres - SilverCity Ancaster on Golf Links Road and SilverCity Hamilton on Paramount Drive in Stoney Creek - reside in rather inaccessible locations for those who do not own cars. Both theatres are located at either end of Stone Church Road - and Stone Church has very limited transit service as a route, especially later in the evening when most people go out to watch a movie.

Another example: pretty much anyone who has ever taken routes "51", "5C", or the "1" at any regular time of day will agree with me when I say that they are suffering from overcapacity. These routes, while admittedly pretty regular, still aren't meeting the needs of the people who are using them. They're always packed.

I am not making a rash statement in saying that ridership is amazingly high on these routes. It's a fact. The 2010 HSR Operational Review found that buses operating on these routes carry 13,000 passengers a day.

This high ridership is not a negative thing - it's a great thing. More transit on these routes would mean more people moving around our city more frequently, which means more money spent around the city. Making it easier to get from Point A to Point B is never something that is going to have a negative effect on the economy.

Even Mayor Bob Bratina acknowledges, and heralds, that it is a fact our economy is being significantly and positively impacted by an improvement in the level of public transit available, specifically in the form of the all-day GO Transit service the Province has promised for Hamilton to begin in 2015.

High ridership on these routes brings the need for more transit capacity, but simply throwing more buses on to this won't solve the problem, as illustrated by a McMaster paper [PDF] analyzing the health, environmental and economic impact of LRT in Hamilton:

The results of the research on light rail transit (LRT) and its possible benefits indicate overwhelming support for the economic, health, environmental and social benefits of LRT, especially when compared to other forms of transit, including rapid bus and local transit schemes. [emphasis added]

Out of Touch

So why, given the obvious need, benefits and desire for LRT, has Council adopted a stance that can most charitably be described as passive? Council is not in touch with the reality of Hamilton's needs and potential.

It goes without saying that our Councillors don't rely on our transit system in their own daily lives - but that's just one part of a much larger problem.

Take, for instance, the recent casino debate: we have a mayor and quite a few Councillors who are giving this casino what seems to be infinitely more consideration than the pursuit of beneficial infrastructure that would improve the quality of lives of a large majority of the people living in Hamilton. It shows just how short-term their vision is.

Why are they not giving long-term consideration to this city's future? It's not enough to be able to say, Look, we didn't raise your taxes.

What about: Look at how vigorously we've pursued improving the infrastructure of this city so as to improve the quality of life of all Hamiltonians, and in doing so pursued making Hamilton a destination of its own accord, and not just some mere hub for people to leave from towards Toronto.

It says something when your city's own government thinks that making it easier for people to leave Hamilton to work elsewhere is more important than making this city itself the destination.

Is their aspiration for Hamilton really that of a "commuter" city? A city built on short-term, gimmicky developments full of people who would rather live elsewhere, but live here for its cost-efficiency?


Another concern is that when impassioned citizens actually try to advocate for change, they are dismissed as irrelevant or not representative of the majority of people's views. There actually seems to be an effort to discredit people who participate in civil discourse on "social media" as being insignificant from a community perspective.

There seems to be an air of superiority fueling this effort, as discussed by independent journalist Wayne MacPhail.

I would not be so adamant in this regard if the Councillors of our city, and our mayor, had won landslide elections. But that is not the case. Many councillors won more than half of the votes cast in their wards, but only very small percentages of elegible voters.

Here's some simple electoral data from Hamilton's last election that can easily be pulled off of Wikipedia about our latest municipal election:

Votes in 2010 Municipal Election
Name Position Votes Voters Registered Voters % Voters % Registered Voters
Bob Bratina Mayor 52,684 141,174 353,317 37.3% 14.9%
Brian McHattie Ward 1 5,373 8,279 20,767 64.9% 25.9%
Jason Farr Ward 2 1,607 7,662 19,424 21.0% 8.3%
Bernie Morelli Ward 3 3,186 7,329 23,670 43.5% 13.5%
Sam Merulla Ward 4 6,787 8,420 23,721 80.6% 28.6%
Chad Collins Ward 5 6,876 10,642 25,755 64.6% 26.7%
Tom Jackson Ward 6 6,560 12,190 28,266 53.8% 23.2%
Scott Duvall Ward 7 9,027 16,173 40,571 55.8% 22.2%
Terry Whitehead Ward 8 9,908 15,135 34,259 65.5% 28.9%
Brad Clark Ward 9 3,454 7,743 19,235 44.6% 18.0%
Maria Pearson Ward 10 5,464 8,772 19,350 62.3% 28.2%
Brenda Johnson Ward 11 4,410 10,676 24,665 41.3% 17.9%
Lloyd Ferguson Ward 12 7,447 8,279 20,767 90.0% 35.9%
Russ Powers Ward 13 4,884 8,450 18,439 57.8% 26.5%
Robert Pasuta Ward 14 4,264 4,264 12,147 100.0% 35.1%
Judi Partridge Ward 15 3396 6,526 18,609 52.0% 18.2%
Average 48.0% 19.3%

Given that not a single member of our municipal government garnered a "landslide victory" in any real sense of the term, it is hard to accept such assumed superiority. (Note: Rob Pasuta was acclaimed with no other candidates running for his ward.)

There is a clear need, if they still wish to consider themselves a legitimate representative of their people, to constantly and consistently seek to have their constituents, and the opinions of experts in related subject matters, heard and respected.

The handling of LRT and the casino alone shows that's not something that our current city council does, despite having a weak mandate to govern.

To clarify: I don't want people to think I have a low opinion of every member of city council, or even the mayor on every issue. What I mean to argue is that as a group, City Council has demonstrated too much passivity, a serious disconnect from the potential of this city, and a lack of long-term vision.

As a city, we need and deserve a lot better.

Update: updated to note that Robert Pasuta won by acclaim. You can jump to the changed paragraph.

Eric Gillis is a born-and-raised Hamiltonian, and a student at McMaster University who is very passionate about politics.


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By johnny velvet (anonymous) | Posted February 12, 2013 at 09:03:43

Interesting article...just wanted to clarify one statement: "Given that not a single member of our municipal government garnered a "landslide victory" in any real sense of the term..."
In actuality, Councilor Robert Pasuta was acclaimed last municipal election. I think that is a true testament of how his constituents feel his handling of his ward issues and wider city issues. This is a very activist ward and has had its fair share of issues, especially when it came to slot revenue is 2008, in which the Councilor bravely stood before his constituents and explained why he voted the way he did.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted February 12, 2013 at 10:50:40 in reply to Comment 86175

I think the point still stands in that he still only had 35% of registered voters. Relative to other councilors (or any elected official, for that matter) that may be a decent turnout, but in an absolute sense it is still a weak mandate. Yes, everyone who cares about

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By Eric Gillis (anonymous) | Posted February 12, 2013 at 09:37:09 in reply to Comment 86175

Hello Johnny,

I did make a note of the fact he was acclaimed in my original submission, it would seem that it was edited out for brevity.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 12, 2013 at 10:44:27 in reply to Comment 86177

That's my fault. I converted Eric's list of candidates and their share of eligible voters into a table, and inadvertently dropped his note about Pasuta winning by acclaim. I've updated the article to correct this.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted February 12, 2013 at 09:04:01

Given that not a single member of our municipal government garnered a "landslide victory" in any real sense of the term

What about the three councillors that received over 80% of the votes cast in their ward? Not even the one who received 100% is considered a landslide? Sheesh, you’re tough to impress.

And as for the "eligible voters" angle, if you don't stand up to be counted you don't exist. If people cannot be bothered to vote they are giving their tacit approval for the status quo.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted February 12, 2013 at 10:57:17 in reply to Comment 86176

Except that you do, actually, exist.

I could argue that if only 20% of eligible voters turn out, that means that up to 80% of your constituency doesn't think that voting for you or any other candidate will make a difference anyways. If both candidates are - according to my values of an elected official - equivalent, then it doesn't make any sense to vote for one of them just so that I can 'exist' in your books.

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By C. Erl (registered) - website | Posted February 12, 2013 at 10:35:14 in reply to Comment 86176

That is such a surface-level argument. The whole 'if you don't vote, you aren't a good citizen' is pulled straight from civics class circa 1950. Such a comment does not take into account the socio-economic factors related to voting patterns, people's personal experiences with the democratic process and matters of conscience.

Take a look at a map I put together after the last municipal election. Its a big file, so it might take some time to load, but it is certainly worth the wait: http://democraticperspectives.files.word...

The areas with lowest voter turnout are the areas with some of the highest instances of poverty, whereas the few areas where voter turnout was over 50% are some of the most affluent parts of the city.

Eric has a point about the tenuous nature of council's authority. They have the support of few Hamiltonians and are generally in power to support the city's business interests, a topic which I am myself writing about as we speak.

Don't be so quick to assume things like voting is the only way to be heard. It fails to consider the realities of our situation.

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By cm (anonymous) | Posted February 12, 2013 at 20:41:19

I'd just like to point out that Hamilton already has all-day GO service, with buses leaving the lovely Hunter Street station for Toronto every half hour (every 15 minutes during rush hour, and 20 minutes on Saturdays), and hourly bus service connecting to the train at Aldershot. What the province is proposing is all-day two-way train service, with no mention of how this will affect either Hunter Street or the existing bus service.

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