Commentary

The Green Standard on User Fees

A look at three recent major environmental issues dealt with by council sheds some light on whether user pay is a principle or just a convenient debating tool.

By Don McLean
Published March 24, 2008

The theory that users should pay for services is a favourite argument of some city councillors. A look at three recent major environmental issues dealt with by council sheds some light on whether user pay is a principle or just a convenient debating tool.

Back in November, there was a big debate at council about raising bus fares. They had already been increased substantially in June, and a second hike was being proposed. Together the two increases added 22 percent to the price of an adult HSR pass, and 26 percent to the passes used by elementary and secondary school students. For a family of four that added $648 to the annual cost of riding the bus.

Faced with rising costs of operating the transit system, the councillors identified two choices – raise fares or raise taxes. The latter increase was less than $20 per home. Should just the users of the HSR pay, or should the burden be spread out over everyone? The user pay argument won the day. The fares went up.

User Pay for Drivers?

Then in January, several citizens made presentations to council suggesting that this user pay principle should be applied to the Red Hill Valley Parkway.

In presentations to city council, they pointed to the extra $2.6 million a year it is costing the city to operate the new road, and to several more million required to cover the debt for the parkway.

They called for a 10 cent per kilometre toll on the expressway – something that a 2004 consultant study calculated would generate a net revenue of about $14 million a year. That would mean drivers of the eight kilometre parkway would pay 80 cents for the privilege – exactly a third what HSR users are now paying in cash fares for each ride they take.

The idea was not taken up by council.

User Pay for Flyers?

At the end of last month, the user pay philosophy got a third test drive at city council, this time in relation to the $3 million purchase of some lands at the airport.

Airports collect a passenger tax for airport improvements so it was suggested that the private operators of Hamilton's airport should do the same.

There was a fierce debate and that user pay suggestion went down to defeat, in an 8-8 tie vote (tie votes lose). The taxpayers will be footing the $3 million bill.

Council Breakdown

The toll issue didn't come to a vote since it had only been recommended by citizens, so we don't know exactly how the council would have divided, but we do know that councillors Tom Jackson and Sam Merulla were outraged by the idea that expressway users should have to pay for the privilege of driving on it.

Jackson also voted for the fare hikes, while Merulla voted against them. The two of them divided the opposite way on the airport passenger fee – Merulla in favour of a user fee and Jackson opposed.

Like Jackson, Lloyd Ferguson, Maria Pearson, Fred Eisenberger, Dave Mitchell, Margaret McCarthy, Terry Whitehead and Rob Pasuta all voted for increased user fees for HSR riders, and against increasing them for airport users.

Bob Bratina, Brad Clark, Chad Collins, Scott Duvall and Brian McHattie took the opposite position – voting against more user fees on the buses, but for them on airplanes.

Bernie Morelli was absent for the transit vote, but supported user fees for airline passengers. Russ Powers voted for a fare hike, but also argued for user fees at the airport.

But there is an underlying consistency here.

An Environmental Twist

Each of these examples, of course, has an environmental twist to it. Raising HSR fares obviously hurts the environment by encouraging more people to drive cars. Adding tolls to an expressway has the opposite effect, hopefully encouraging some of the drivers to use greener alternatives.

Note that the environment was the loser on both these issues. Then when it came to raising the cost of flying, one of the most environmentally damaging activities an individual can do, the environment again played second fiddle.

So on these three issues, despite being all over the map on the alleged "principle" of user pay, the councillors were remarkably consistent with respect to the environment.

Of course, that's just three examples.

Don McLean is chair of Friends of Red Hill Valley and coordinator of Citizens at City Hall, a volunteer group that has monitored city affairs since 2004 and distributes free news articles via email. The group can be contacted at info@hamiltoncatch.org.

47 Comments

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By Frank (registered) | Posted March 25, 2008 at 14:04:03

Glad Chad Collins is my councillor! On the issue of climate change, take a listen to the show Counterpoint on ABC radio titled "Climate Change". Quite a compelling argument.

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2008 at 03:31:52

Maclean twists logic again!!!

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By g. (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2008 at 04:55:16

i'm wondering, Serious, if you could elaborate on your comment. Don Mclean seems to have put forward a simple straight forward arguement that certain members of city council vote with little regard to the environmental consequences of the issue. perhaps you could counter his arguement with something more than empty insinuation. whether one agrees with Don or not, i happen to agree, he at least has been courteous enough to provide a thesis and back it up whith facts. i look forward to your response.

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By GQ (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2008 at 08:07:14

Don't you know, g? Reflexively hating on Don Mclean is a kind of cottage industry here. The folks in power hate being put under the microscope and their Very Serious stooges and lapdogs always come yipping to their defense. Facts be damned, this is about respecting authority!

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By serious (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2008 at 08:30:43

A serious question deserves a serious answer. Don suggests that those who voted for user fees are against the environment is a huge catapult in logic....there are a myriad reasons why people don't support tolling the expressway, including the betrayal of taxpayers who already invested in this very expensive project. Or why councillors did not support a head tax on the airport traveller. hamilton's airport brands itself as being the affordable alternative to toronto's. That is why councillors didn't want to erode that advantage. Or fare increases for transit. This is a service which is heavily subsidized already. Maybe councillors feel that is enough, whether they are right or wrong is a matter of perspective. But to state baldly that Councillors voted against the environement is akin to stating that McHattie, Bratina, Merulla, Morelli voted because they are against business and for tax increases. Both conclusions are silly. That is why I made the point I made. It isn't the first time Don Maclean twists things. He does it out of ego and for effect. It doesn't work. He annoys people with his smarminess and holier than thou attitude.

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By BrianE (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2008 at 10:05:26

While I disagree with Don's asertion that these three council decisions were somehow related to the environment. I do find it disheartening that for many of the councillors the environmental concequences of their votes were clearly not even on their radar.

I see these issues more as hypocracy on the part of most individuals on council. A lot of words are spoken by politicians, promises are made, policies are bandied about. But when it comes right down to voting on issues, political influence takes over.

Looking at how the votes turned out, who has more influence with council? The 10's of thousands of regular HSR riders or the few individual operators of the Hamilton Airport?

User pay accross the board for all services? Or just for those users who don't or can't speak up for themselves.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted March 26, 2008 at 11:02:11

I hardly think Don was 'twisting' anything here... he has made some general - admittedly isolated - observations about the environmental impacts of these council decisions, which are indisputable. Why would Don highlight the environmental impacts and not examine the business or other related impacts? Well take a look at his profile - linked at the top of the page - and you will see. There's nothing subversive about any of this. Every RTH writer (and, in fact, every journalist in the world) has an element of bias in what they write and how they write. We write based on what we know and what we feel is important. It's up to the reader to take everything in context.

With respect to serious' comments, I agree that the business aspects of the decisions referenced are other important factors. But the environment is at least equally important.

One element that is striking in this article, is the shear weight of favour that road building and airport expansion seem to receive from the tax payer. For road usage in particular the costs are way bigger than any transit 'subsidies' - I love that word! Why do we not refer to road taxes as 'subsidies'...? - and yet we pay no user fees.

Surely the central question is: Why should one group of transit users pay user fees and another be subsidized so heavily?

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By GQ (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2008 at 11:27:02

@Serious:

In other words, the councillors who voted for raising fares, against tolling the highway and in favor of subsidizing the airport were not concerned enough with the environment to vote for the environmental choice. Let's see what Don said in the article:

"Each of these examples, of course, has an environmental twist to it. Raising HSR fares obviously hurts the environment by encouraging more people to drive cars. Adding tolls to an expressway has the opposite effect, hopefully encouraging some of the drivers to use greener alternatives.

"Note that the environment was the loser on both these issues. Then when it came to raising the cost of flying, one of the most environmentally damaging activities an individual can do, the environment again played second fiddle."

In other words, either you hate Don McLean so much that you're incapable of basic reading comprehension or you're deliberately attacking a straw man to make him look bad.

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2008 at 11:51:53

@GQ primarily, but also Rusty:

I don't hate Don M. What in my comments gives you that impression? I'm just not impressed with his logic. It is twisted in my view. I have seen him do this on this site and others time and time again. I attended a meeting not too long ago in my neighbourhood on flooding issues. Don was up and down like a yo yo trying to monopolize. He had to be shouted down before he sat.

In this case, here is what he says:
Eisenberger, Ferguson, Jackson, McCarthy, Mitchell, Pasuta, Pearson and Whitehead consistently took the anti-environmental position.

Bratina, Clark, Collins, Duvall, McHattie, Merulla and (apparently) Morelli consistently voted green


The votes for Don were for or against the environment. For the reasons I stated above his argument just don't cut it. Granted, it is his opinion, but it is VERY faulty.

So, please don't use me as a 'straw' person just to defend the indefensible.

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By GQ (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2008 at 13:03:25

@Serious

"What in my comments gives you that impression?"

Hmmmmmm, maybe it's when you write "Maclean twists logic again!!!" with three explanation marks or when you write "It isn't the first time Don Maclean twists things. He does it out of ego and for effect." or when you write "He annoys people with his smarminess and holier than thou attitude."

"The votes for Don were for or against the environment."

All I can say is, read what he wrote and take the line "[some councillors] consistently took the anti-environmental position" in the context of what I quoted above. On three major issues that had environmental impacts, the councillors in question all voted consistently for the choice that hurt the environment.

That's what he means when he writes that they "took the anti-environmental position" - they took the position that hurts the environment.

Please explain this to me: how can consistently voting for decisions that hurt the environment *not* be anti-environmental?

It's not enough to say that they were voting based on other considerations. You still have to explain why the councillors believed those considerations were more important than environmental ones, especially on decisions that have major environmental impacts.

No one sets out to destroy the environment (at least I hope they don't). It gets destroyed because people make decisions without caring about the environmental impacts of those decisions. That's what being anti-environmental *is*.

If councillors vote for the option that hurts the environment because they're not thinking about the environment, they're being anti-environmental.

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2008 at 08:07:54

GQ, you consistently try to set up a straw man to defend Don's indefensible somersaults in logic. No where in my statement is there hatred for MacLean. There is a dislike of his style and his 'persona' and his policies and his utter disregard for the honest opinions of others (in this case Councillors) who disagree with him. I have never spoken to him but have watched him in action at a public forum I spoke of. I was behind him and that was uncomfortable because it was summer time and I think he had biked to the location in the east end. Not a pretty thing. In spite of that, I didn't know who he was til someone pointed him out and he was obnoxious to say the least.

But in this article, it is his illogical conclusions that gall. If someone votes for raising bus fares so services can be improved, they are according to him anti environment! If someone tries to keep the competitive edge on the airport, they are anti environment. If someone doesn't toll the Linc, they are anti environment. Has it ever occurred to you that maybe people were just voting on fares and airport lands and tolls? And don't tell me that people should see everything through the environmental lens. Although a motherhood attitude, it isn't always preached even by Don who goes on the computer, a clear anti environmental thing to do. Who probably has electricity, a clearly anti environmental thing to do. Who probably shops at a grocery store and buys food from far away, a clearly anti environmental thing to do. Who probably drives to the two universities he works in, a clearly anti environmental thing to do..etc etc. Do you see how silly this argument can get?

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted March 27, 2008 at 08:19:38

Serious,

You don't want him to bike (it's disgusting) and you don't want him to drive (it's hypocritical). You just wrote an entire paragraph of presumptions (over half of your comment in fact). We get it. You disagree with his extrapolation regarding "voting for or against the environment". But for you to claim that you are not attacking the author personally is laughable at this point.

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By GQ (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2008 at 11:14:58

Seancb put it best, serious. You write "He annoys people" but what you really mean is "He annoys me", now stop trying to hide behind pretend-objectiveness.

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2008 at 16:27:49

Sean and GQ,

I concede that my argument makes silly points. But it does so to show that Don's points are as specious.

If you get my point, Sean, that is all I ask for. I don't intend to attack the person. That would be doing what Don also does and I can't criticize it and practice it at the same time. So, sorry if the words are personally offensive. I was trying to attack the arguments only.

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By peter (anonymous) | Posted March 29, 2008 at 10:46:51

i'm confused. what did dan maclean say about the environment?

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted March 30, 2008 at 00:07:19

Peter, he essentially said that if Councillors don't vote the way Maclean thinks they should vote, he will call them anti-environmental.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 30, 2008 at 00:47:57

Peter,

It's actually Don McLean. Different guy altogether. :)

Serious,

You're still attacking a straw man, misrepresenting McLean's argument so you can refute it more easily.

As I read it, McLean is making two related arguments:

  1. In a series of important policy decisions with significant environmental ramifications, a group of councillors consistently voted for the option that harms rather than helps the environment.

  2. Despite professing to support a "user pay" approach to policy decisions, these councillors applied such reasoning only selectively, citing it for transit yet dismissing it for the expressway and the airport.

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted March 30, 2008 at 17:30:10

Ryan, it seems you will find any way to defend Don's indefensible argument. How can supporting a rate increase at the fare box, in order to improve bus service, harm the environment?

There is no straw man here...only flimsy logic by Don and his friends.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 31, 2008 at 08:43:52

Serious,

You mention "flimsy logic", but in this statement - "How can supporting a rate increase at the fare box, in order to improve bus service, harm the environment?" - you naively accept the flimsy logic that the fare increase will actually improve bus service.

The empirical fact, established conclusively by all the available data, is that raising fares reduces transit use. Public Works knows this (they acknowledged as much in their presentation to council but unlike previous fare hike recommendations, they neglected to project actual ridership declines), and anyone on council who takes the slightest interest in the issue knows it as well.

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By serious (anonymous) | Posted March 31, 2008 at 08:57:10

Ryan, you are just practising the art of selective information sharing. You know that Council also approved a subsidy for the most needy along with their fare increase. The point is that to suggest as Don did that one is anti-environment based on that single (and complicated) vote, is silly and destructive of people's best intentions and good results.
you are complicit.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 31, 2008 at 10:16:52

Serious,

The Affordable Transit Pass Program in no way reverses the effects of the increase.

  • It's targeted to the working poor - specifically, people whose family income is below the LICO and who do not receive income from Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).
  • It's allocated via application and means testing.
  • It only provides funding for around 1,000 people, out of 25,000 people who are eligible.

In any case, the people who stop taking transit as fares go up are those who have other options, people who take transit by choice, not necessity.

You seem to see transit merely as a subsidy for the poor, as do those councillors who voted for the fare increase / transit pass subsidy. That in itself is part of the problem.

"to suggest ... that one is anti-environment based on that single (and complicated) vote"

First, it's not that single vote. This article actually discussed three entirely separate votes (all of which are related in that they are potentially subject to a "user pay" argument and all have significant environmental ramifications). You have chosen to focus on just one, yet you accuse me of "selective information sharing".

Second, it's not a complicated issue. Again, the economics are quite simple: raise fares, and ridership goes down. If city council was really committed to increasing ridership, improving air quality and so on, they would have no difficulty making a decision to hold or reduce fares.

Instead, they're committed to the principle of increasing ridership and improving air quality as long as that doesn't require an actual commitment of resources. On the other hand, the same councillors managed to find the resources to subsidize a land purchase so we can publicly subsidize air transport.

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted March 31, 2008 at 11:28:04

Ryan, I could have made and did in an earlier post the same argument for the other examples given by Don...equally specious and selectively critical to advance his own political point of view.
You yourself reference staff reports in terms of the deleterious effects on transit of fare increases...but fail to acknowledge that it was staff who recommended these same increases. So, really, you can't have it both ways.

But we stray from the essential point in Don's argument...that Councillors are anti environment based on votes that through 6 degrees of separation logic relate to the environment...in fact, he is wrong. And by saying so, I am not anti environment. Far from it!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 31, 2008 at 12:26:02

So because staff recommended it, it doesn't impact negatively on the environment?

And since when are votes on transportation policy separated from the environment by six degrees? It's difficult to think of another issue that is more intrinsically related to the environment than transportation.

The essential point of Don's argument is that votes have consequences, and votes on user pay as it relates to transportation policy, have consequences for the environment, no matter how pleasant it is to imagine otherwise.

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By serious (anonymous) | Posted March 31, 2008 at 13:10:33

Highwater, please read some of my earlier posts. Ryan quotes staff on the one hand, so I'm saying, city staff can't be dismissed on the other. They either count or they don't. Let's be consistent, not selective.
On the '6 degrees of separation', please tell me how charging a 'head tax' to passengers, which may or may not make sense financially, how does that help or hurt the environment?

I'm asking for consistency and logic; not faulty extrapolation. Too much to ask it seems!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 31, 2008 at 13:25:09

Serious,

You write, "I could have made and did in an earlier post the same argument for the other examples given by Don"

Except you didn't. You merely concurred with City Council that the environment is not enough of a priority to make it a determining factor in policy decisions. As I responded above, not worrying about the environment when you make political decisions is anti-environmental. As highwater points out, "It's difficult to think of another issue that is more intrinsically related to the environment than transportation."

You also write, "You yourself reference staff reports in terms of the deleterious effects on transit of fare increases...but fail to acknowledge that it was staff who recommended these same increases. So, really, you can't have it both ways."

I don't need to reference staff reports on the deleterious effects of transit fare increases. All the evidence from every study on transit fares makes this relationship abundantly clear.

What I pointed out is that even staff acknowledge this fact, though this time they neglected to project actual ridership declines (in previous recommendations, they had included ridership projections).

In any case, your point here is nothing but a red herring. The very problem is that council and staff have not made gains in transit ridership or improvements in air quality or reductions in GHG emissions enough of a priority to actually do something about it.

As I wrote last year around the time of the vote:

"Ultimately, Public Works is constrained in what it can do by the budgets it receives from Council. Now, this is something of a chicken-and-egg problem, because staff tend to ask for what they think Council will approve, and Council tends to make budget decisions based on what staff recommend." http://raisethehammer.org/article/670

You are refusing to see the recurring pattern in how Council makes decisions. Here's another example of that pattern at work:

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/864

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted March 31, 2008 at 13:33:01

There you go, Ryan, being dismissive just because I don't agree with you and Don. My point is debatable; yours even more so. But to suggest that I am trying to distract is just a technique of setting up a straw man to criticize for you to advance your philosophy. Exactly what Don did in his piece. He wants to champion the environment AND criticize Council so he killed two birds (pardon the anti-naturalist saying) with one stone.
It just doesn't work, however. Not a great piece of connecting the logical points.
Enough said?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 31, 2008 at 15:03:12

Serious,

I'm not being dismissive. Don has argued that it is anti-environment to make policy decisions without caring what the environmental consequences are. Your response has been:

  • Ad hominem attacks against Don as an individual;
  • Attacking a straw man by oversimplifying Don's argument;
  • Begging the question by arguing that the councillors had other considerations in mind (well, obviously); and
  • Introducing red herrings like the affordable transit program and distractions about whether I'm allowed to make reference to a staff report.

The bottom line is that for a city government, the biggest impact it can have on the environment is how it makes transportation and land use decisions. How the city invests public money in transport infrastructure and zones land use has a huge impact on how and where people choose to live and work and how they get around.

Cities that invest the most in fast, convenient transit, density, mixed use, and so on create urban environments with the lowest per capita energy use and air pollution.

Cities that invest the most in highways, airports, and single-use low density zoning produce the highest per capita energy use and air pollution.

It's really that simple. The contortions to which you've subjected this straightforward, well-supported argument leave me at a loss to understand just what it is you're actually getting at.

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By Homo Sapiens (anonymous) | Posted March 31, 2008 at 15:53:40

Stop it both of you. You both protest too much!

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By Homo Neanderthalis (anonymous) | Posted April 01, 2008 at 08:01:40

@Homo Sapiens - Speak for yourself, I'm enjoying the back-and-forth more then the article itself!

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By trey (registered) | Posted April 02, 2008 at 08:25:30

The RedHill is turning into a local road -- access for the upper Stoney Creek residents to the QEW. In that case it should have tolls.

If was used regionally for jobs like it was pitched, then I could see it paying for itself without tolls. But that is not the case. 90% of Hamilton residents will never use it or maybe once or twice a year, but 100% of Hamilton residents paid for it, that's nothing but a subsidy.

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By arienc (registered) | Posted April 05, 2008 at 09:56:20

Interesting site here...travelling on a typical Airbus A320 flight actually uses less fuel per person, than if that same person travels in a Smart car.

Add a passenger, however and the Smart wins.

And among the least energy-efficient modes of travel...cruise ships and car ferries.

http://strickland.ca/efficiency.html

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By Homo Sapiens (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2008 at 15:49:52

Trey...oy vey. Another twister logicker art thou. The RHP is the best thing that has happened to this city in well....years. Get over it.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 05, 2008 at 21:41:24

HS, do tell. Please explain how this is the best thing that has happened to this city in years. Can we expect a big increase in our tax base next year?

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By Homo Sapiens (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2008 at 22:35:58

Yes HighH2o....and for many years to come.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 06, 2008 at 15:18:34

Can I hold you to that?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 07, 2008 at 08:08:26

Homo Sapiens,

Are you aware that the city has projected zero percent assessment growth for 2008? The biggest demand for industrial land in Hamilton these days is from property developers who want to buy industrial lands and convert them to commercial use for big box centres.

It may be too early to state that the RHVP has been a failure at economic development, but it certainly seems significant to me that all the companies that might have been interested in moving to Glanbrook knew when the highway was scheduled for completion but chose not to start building to coincide with its opening.

I can only think of one major project that has timed its construction to coincide with the highway: Summit Park, the billion dollar residential development made possible by the construction of RHVP and built by a home building company that illegally over-contributed in 2003 to politicians who supported the highway.

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted April 08, 2008 at 08:05:22

Ryan, you got your comeuppunce in the Spec today. Tee hee!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 08, 2008 at 09:06:30

Serious,

Charming as always. :) I've posted some reflections on the piece here:

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/965

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted April 08, 2008 at 10:08:58

Tee hee!

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By Jovial (anonymous) | Posted April 08, 2008 at 16:33:19

@Serious: "Tee hee!"

Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

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By Staffer (anonymous) | Posted April 09, 2008 at 13:24:04

Sure Jovial: RaisetheSickle.com

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By Jovial (anonymous) | Posted April 09, 2008 at 15:08:07

Oh Staffer you made a witticism - people who disagree with you are communists! Oh that's a funny joke, it's the reason I'm so Jovial.

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted April 09, 2008 at 17:57:51

I don't have a web site or newsletter or even blog. I just contribute as I see fit. My tee hee wasn't meant to be too insulting...but 'hoisted by one's own petard' does come to mind sometimes.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted April 12, 2008 at 15:25:57

There have been a lot of drawn out arguments on this site, but bookmark this one as an example of how anyone can still be so Serious when he has been so annihilated from several directions of argument. Pit bulls are far less tenacious! Run for office?

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By Serious (anonymous) | Posted April 12, 2008 at 15:33:41

Ted, being on the wrong side of an issue has never stopped you. I'm on the right side. Tee hee.

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By Unserious (anonymous) | Posted April 13, 2008 at 23:13:49

Maybe if you actually acknowleged peoples arguments instead of 'bobbing and weaving' all the time, people like Ted would take you more seriously.

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By paul (registered) | Posted May 15, 2008 at 21:37:14

Lets say we took all the cars off the road who would pay for your dreams then?

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