Has the Hamilton Spectator gone over to the dark side?
I was delighted to open my paper to the editorial page on Thursday and see the paper making a case for studying paying for the HSR entirely out of the tax levy, with fares abolished.
The idea, most recently suggested by Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla, seems ridiculous in a city that just raised transit fares twice in a year. And yet:
In truth, the idea of fully funding public transit isn't as crazy as it might first appear. If there's broad consensus and political leadership that agrees we need to take definitive steps to promote transit, get traffic off the roads and improve air quality, the discussion should include this as one possible option.
Howard Elliott, the author of the piece, points out that other services, like libraries, schools and recreation centres, are funded entirely out of tax money regardless of whether a given taxpayer uses them because we believe they provide tangible public goods that benefit society as a whole.
In fact, he argues that transit is more important, but that our society "doesn't put the same value on public transit as it does on other services." He challenges this assumption, noting:
We all know the value that efficient, environmentally appropriate transit can bring to any city, never mind one facing the kind of environmental and revitalization challenges facing our city.
The editorial concludes:
Very few jurisdictions in North America offer free transit. But many are taking innovative steps to coax more people out of cars and onto transit. Some reduce or eliminate fares on key routes, or on smog days. Some use corporate sponsorship to reduce costs.
Here's the real point. The cycle of regular fare increases and ridership erosion isn't sustainable in a society that needs new and smarter ways to deal with transportation issues. As we try to figure out how to take the next step toward that goal, all ideas are, or should be, welcome. Let the debate begin.
I'm still reeling from reading such a progressive argument from an editorial board that is otherwise so committed to unsustainable, backwards-looking economic strategies like highway- and airport-oriented development.
However, it's not without precedent in the city's daily paper. As Spec editor Lee Prokaska recently argued when Council was considering the latest HSR fare increase:
[I]t doesn't appear the city has fully embraced the concept that attracting more riders is better for the HSR and the city than increasing fares to raise revenues. It is becoming clearer that getting people out of their cars and onto public transit is crucial to reducing both pollution and gridlock. The provincial government for example has declared the development of public transit must be a priority, and its vision includes light rapid transit in Hamilton. For that to make a difference, though, the rest of the city's public transit system must be functioning well and frequently to feed into a rapid transit option.
Earlier, back in the early summer, Spec editor Robert Howard wrote the paper's highly astute editorial endorsement for light rail:
[W]hat Hamilton really needs is the next step up - the 21st century solution. The proposed rapid-transit lines for Hamilton would essentially be dedicated routes for better or larger buses. This is the time for Hamilton to push the province, and the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority charged with implementing the plan, to consider light rail transit (LRT) lines for Hamilton that would replace some buses with quiet, environmentally friendly electric trains.
He also noted astutely that the line should improve service "where it is needed - where people live, work and commute now" rather than "as a carrot to encourage future growth that may or may not happen". This is an important distinction as the city asks for provincial money to establish BRT-lite along Upper James to the airport.
Finally, on December 18, the Spec got around to taking a closer look at models of sustainable economic development based on energy production and conservation.
The two stories by Gord McNulty, "Energy City" and "Think light-rail, wind turbines and energy-efficient buildings", examine the work of Richard Gilbert, whose work has been featured prominently in RTH, and Daniel Lerch, whose new book Post Carbon Cities is reviewed in our upcoming issue.
In April 2006, Gilbert presented Hamilton: The Electric City [PDF], a report on peak oil that projected gas prices will reach $4/l in around a decade and recommended the city make energy production and conservation - and specifically electrification of ints critical infrastructure - its economic Plan A.
One quibble I would make is that the article seemed to suggest that Gilbert endorses development around Hamilton International Airport:
Opponents [of Gilbert's proposal] questioned the viability of the concept, given the threat that a steep rise in oil prices would potentially pose to air freight and passenger traffic.
Gilbert suggested aerotropolis would be better suited as a Highway 6 business park, connected to an energy-efficient transportation network and encouraging a diversity of industries.
In fact, while Gilbert has been careful not to comment specifically on whether the city should develop the airport lands, he has made it very clear he thinks we should be concentrating our efforts on leveraging and developing under-used land in the lower city.
More recently, Daniel Lerch presented a proposal to City Council recommending that the city plan for energy and climate uncertainty instead of planning with the assumption that energy will remain cheap and abundant.
Lerch supports more compact, energy-efficient development, something that runs counter to some of the conventional thinking in Hamilton. In 2003, the city began developing a 30-year growth management strategy which called, in part, for a massive aerotropolis industrial park centred around Hamilton Airport.
The aerotropolis proposal, now known as the Airport Employment Growth District, is touted as a solution to the city's shortage of employment lands and is currently under study. Lerch doesn't favour the aerotropolis plan.
Unfortunately, the city's willingness to entertain proposals by forward-thinking analysts has yet to translate into real change in how the city does business.
Council is still approving big box developments, still raising transit fares, still promoting the airport as an employment growth engine, and still favouring buses over electric rail for transit improvements.
Let's hope that the burgeoning sea-change in the Spectator's editorial board is a harbinger of more substantial changes in the municipal government and the city culture in general.
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