On the weekend, I had the opportunity to met with David Sweet, the Conservative Federal MP for Ancaster-Dundas-Westdale-Flamborough, to discuss light rail. The meeting was organized with Councillor Brad Clark and a volunter with Hamilton Light Rail, both of whom also attended.
Clark brings a no-BS attitude and a strong emphasis on process to his job as a councillor. He likes to identify goals, set reasonable criteria and evaluate options based on evidence, a pragmatic approach that transcends party lines. I enjoyed finally meeting him after following his activities on council.
Sweet, in turn, came across as refreshingly sensible, thoughtful, and pragmatic, not to mention well informed on municipal political issues.
Sweet was very supportive of light rail, though he had some fair questions about technical performance and ridership in winter weather, especially up and down the escarpment. He was happy to hear that LRT works year-round in Calgary, and wanted to learn more about that.
He sees light rail as an issue of environmental stewardship, air quality, and planning for both gas energy price volatility and the demographic shift from the suburbs back into cities (including accessibility for aging Boomers who would rather live close to amenities than drive everywhere). He agreed that it makes long-term sense for Hamilton to focus on downtown revitalization and rapid transit.
Sweet pointed out that the federal government supports the gas tax transfer started under the previous Martin government, making it permanent and increasing it again in 2009-10. He noted that Hamilton will receive $80 million in gas tax money over the next five years - money that until now has generally gone to holding the line on transit levies and fares instead of increasing service.
He indicated that the federal government will have some additional capital dollars for Hamilton but cautioned that the infrastructure barrel is not bottomless.
He was clear that Hamilton has to decide where it wants to commit its development resources for the future, and that the decision should be based on which opportunities offer the best long-term prospects for sustainability and economic return.
He also recommended that Hamilton look into issuing municipal debentures, which are similar to municipal bonds, to raise additional capital - especially since light rail is so effective at generating returns on investment.
Last year I talked with Mario LeFebvre, director of the Conference Board of Canada's Metropolitan Outlook Service, and he made a similar argument: cities must be more willing to take on debt rather than insisting on paying up-front for investments.
As LeFebvre explained at the time, "Infrastructure is going to be in place for 40-50 years. Why pay for it all right now? Amortize it over its life." This is certainly the business approach to infrastructure investment.
All in all, the meeting was very encouraging. It's good to know that light rail has passionate, well-informed advocates at all three levels of government. However, light rail advocates in Hamilton cannot afford to sit back and take anything for granted.
We still have big challenges ahead of us to make sure that light rail passes the barrier from "nice to have" to a workable plan and on to full commitment. A lot can still go wrong.
In the meantime, it's important to keep building momentum. Attend Hamilton Light Rail's monthly planning meetings, third Tuesday of every month at the FRWY Cafe, King and Wellington, at 7:30 PM. They're open to the public and provide an important opportunity for light rail advocates to coordinate their research, outreach and advocacy work.
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