With this announcement, every major Ontario political party supports Hamilton's LRT plan and is committed to funding it.
By Ryan McGreal
Published July 29, 2016
It has been an interesting week on the light rail transit (LRT) front, but not for the reason you might think. Overlooked in the nonsense about Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead's immediately-discredited [PDF] LRT "report" (about which the fewer words spilled, the better) was a much more important piece of news that clears one of the last remaining political hurdles for a successful implementation.
Patrick Brown, leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, announced this week that his party, if elected to form the provincial government after the 2018 election, would honour Hamilton's LRT funding commitment.
CBC Hamilton reports:
If the Conservative party wins the 2018 provincial election, Ontario party leader Patrick Brown says, it will still pay for Hamilton's $1 billion light rail transit (LRT) system — as long as that's still what city council wants.
The article quotes Brown responding to a question at the Flamborough Chamber of Commerce lunch this past Monday.
"It's incumbent on the province to be flexible about what the clear municipal will is," Brown said.
"But I think in this case, we have to respect the fact that there's a commitment to LRT, and I would honour that."
With this announcement, every major Ontario political party supports Hamilton's LRT plan and is committed to funding it. This eliminates the fear that the project could get de-funded based on the outcome of the next election, given that construction is set to start the following year, in 2019. It also undercuts the potential to entangle the LRT project into a partisan wedge issue.
This is a smart, pragmatic move for Brown and the PC Party. As I argued earlier this summer if the Tories want to convince Ontarians they are fit to govern, they need to stop trying to be the angry anti-urban party and demonstrate that they can represent the values and interests of a citizenry that now mostly lives in cities.
Philosophically, this should be a fairly easy sell. Cities are the main engines of economic development, and a combination of strategic infrastructure and sound policy unlocks the unique power of cities to multiply human ingenuity and productivity by bringing people into productive contact and leveraging the essential urban economies of scale, agglomeration, density, association and extension.
As economist Edward Glaeser wrote in his book Triumph of the City, "Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection."
LRT feeds into that dynamic, not only by attracting new dense developments that bring a higher concentration of uses into close proximity, but also by making it easier for large numbers of people to travel quickly and conveniently between destinations in a highly space-efficient way.
Hamilton City Council began studying rapid transit in early 2008 after the Province established Metrolinx, an arms-length agency to coordinate rapid transit and regional express rail across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, and committed to funding an ambitious new regional transportation plan.
Over the next several months, city staff conducted an extensive feasibility study comparing LRT and bus rapid transit on the east-west B-Line and the north-south A-Line, consulting with nearly 2,000 residents from across the City. They concluded that LRT would provide the biggest overall benefit, and that the B-Line should proceed first because it already had the highest transit ridership in the city.
Council agreed, and directed staff to begin designing an LRT plan to submit to the Province for funding. The Province provided $3 million in funding for the City to undertake the required Class Environmental Assessment. In 2011, Metrolinx released a Benefits Case Analysis that validated the City's LRT plan, and in 2013, Council formally voted to submit the plan to the Province for funding consideration.
However, constant political obstructionism from then-Mayor Bob Bratina sent the Province a signal that Hamilton was not ready for a funding commitment. A project as big and transformative as LRT needs a political champion to ensure success, and Hamilton did not have that champion in the mayor's office.
After a provincial election in 2014 that saw the Liberals win a majority, followed by the Mayoral election of LRT supporter Fred Eisenberger in late 2014, the local political context changed again and the Province announced full capital funding for a modified LRT plan in May 2015.
The approved and funded line runs east-west from McMaster University to Queenston Traffic Circle and north-south on James from King to the Waterfront.
After the funding announcement, Council voted to establish an LRT office and hire staff to work with Metrolinx on implementing the line. They also voted to sign a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Province, committing the City to work with the Province to streamline necessary approvals and also to establish land use and transportation policies that support the success of the LRT system.
In fact, Council has voted literally dozens of times in favour of LRT since this project began.
For those very few councillors who are suddenly asking whether the City should be looking at alternatives to the current plan, we must ask: what on earth did they think they were voting for over the past eight years?
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