In light of this week's provincial funding announcement for Waterloo's planned light rail transit system, the Hamilton Spectator editorial board published a forceful call today for the Ontario Government to make a commitment to Hamilton:
It seems ironic that Waterloo and Ottawa - both outside the mandate of the much-touted arm's-length provincial Metrolinx agency - are proceeding with LRT projects, while Metrolinx decisions on Hamilton, seen as a prime candidate for light rail, languish.
At this point, it seems unlikely a Metrolinx decision on whether Hamilton should even get LRT will be seen before early 2011. When funding would be allocated is unknown. That, it seems from here, shows a remarkable and disappointing lack of urgency or even enthusiasm.
We've said it here before and we'll say it again now: There's very little that promises to be as transformative to this city's fortunes - its image, its collective self-confidence and its economic development - as a quality light rail transit system.
These are strong words, and it's encouraging to see how clearly the city's daily paper understands the potential of light rail - and the potential squandered opportunity if the Province fails to step up.
But in fairness, Waterloo Region is ahead of Hamilton on light rail planning. They started their process years ago, before the Province changed the Environmental Assessment rules in 2008 to speed approval for transit projects and even before the original MoveOntario 2020 announcement.
They've already done their legwork: lots of staff research, extensive public consultation and a detailed EA and design phase. They've got funding in part because they're pretty much ready to start digging.
Hamilton started a bit late - after the Province announced a regional transit strategy and local advocates started promoting LRT over the city's tepid bus rapid transit plan - but has moved with surprising speed and decisiveness to position itself for transit funding. The Province even kicked in $3 million for the city to conduct the next phase of studies on routing, land acquisition requirements, traffic planning and so on (about which more in an upcoming RTH article).
However, there's no question that Queen's Park has dropped the ball on the Metrolinx project. All the early enthusiasm and momentum has been drowned in costly, time-consuming reorganizations, duplicated studies, canceled funding and an "arms' length" leash so short that Metrolinx lacks the basic authority to approve projects or allocate funds.
The ball for Hamilton's rapid transit prospects has dropped back into the political court, and so Hamilton Light Rail has launched a campaign calling on Hamiltonians to express their support for LRT directly to Queen's Park.
Unfortunately, for all the city staff are conducting studies into the next phase of LRT planning, the city government has done little to demonstrate its own support for transit at a time when we're asking the province for more support. Hamilton is actually losing some of its provincial gas tax transfer because transit ridership growth has been so dismal.
It must seem presumptuous to the Province to hear Council say, in effect: Transit is essential to Hamilton's future - so essential, in fact, that we refuse to invest more in it! Meanwhile, the likelihood of Hamilton reaching its official goal of doubling transit ridership by 2020 grows more remote with each passing year in which the status remains quo.
But the fact remains: every year that goes by in which our rapid transit plans remain mired in endless studies and political equivocation is a year in which Hamilton continues to miss out on the urban efficiencies and positive Jacobs externalities that high quality transit brings to cities. We continue to miss out on an urban revitalization spurred by entrepreneurial activity and economical reuse of our existing assets.
And the power centres of this city remain oriented around low-density, low-value greenfield blobs around the periphery of the city while the enormous potential of our existing built environment is allowed to languish and decay.
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