Is it just small-minded political parochialism and old-style partisan politics having Hamilton say NO to a $Billion for an LRT line?

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

September 1, 2016



It could be the culmination of all that pollution from (former) Stelco and the other steel company taking its toll on the brain cells of some Hamilton City Councilors.

Or it might be the fact that this city is still almost ungovernable, perhaps even more so after over a decade of forced amalgamation. Or perhaps it is just small-minded political parochialism and old-style partisan politics getting in the way. But Hamilton is on the cusp of saying NO to a billion dollars.

The Province has offered to build a billion dollar light rapid transit system through the downtown core of this rust-belt city at no direct cost to Hamilton. But some Councilors are playing politics.

LRT outside city hall

A model of the proposed LRT was placed outside Hamilton city hall for a number of months.

Some Councilors who don’t have constituents in the downtown core are looking for a political payoff in order to vote yes to the billion dollar transit gift. That is one of the games in municipal politics, the parochial politician who won’t support anything that benefits other parts of the city unless he/she also gets something in return.

This is a Liberal provincial government making the one-time offer, and it certainly seems that those who support, or once sought election for, another political party are saying no thanks. Is it that they’d rather see Hamiltonians lose the only realistic hope for a rapid transit system in a long time, than see the Wynne government get the credit?

There is a lot of spin by the naysayers. What if the construction costs more than a billion? What if the McMaster University terminus moves and that demand dries up? How will emergency vehicles cross the elevated tracks? Won’t self-driving electric cars and buses make rapid transit obsolete?

Pier 8 Hamilton

There are plans to develop Pier 8 – putting housing where shipping sheds now stand in the north end of the city. GO train station is within walking distance.

Not that building a high speed transit line is without hiccups and annoyances. The line under construction in Kitchener has taken longer than expected and is very disruptive to local residents and businesses. Still the public there have not lost patience nor passion, knowing that the pain is worth the gain.

They understand how the subway in Toronto grew the downtown economy of that city, preventing its decline into the ’60/70’s rust belt which plagued other cities in the Great Lakes basin, including Hamilton. No economic studies have shown a downside for the investment from Hamilton’s perspective. And just about everyone expects that mass transit will provide a much needed kick-start to revitalizing a commercially depleted and desperate downtown Hamilton.

I lived in Vancouver when the Sky Train came into operation. Rapid transit has proven to be one of the best things that ever happened to that city, which would otherwise be choking on the exhaust fumes of its own success, more than it is. Unfortunately Hamilton’s dim-sighted politicians decided against a similar system when it was offered by the Davis government back in the day. Concerns over commuters peeking into residents’ backyards apparently put that project into the waste bin of history.


Is it just small-minded political parochialism and old-style partisan politics having Hamilton say NO to a $Billion for an LRT line?

I wrote about the last municipal election in this space back in 2014. One of the biggest challenges seen by the mayoralty contestants was getting independent minded Councilors to work as if they were in a team – to focus on what is good for the city rather than just their own ward or their own political ambitions.

Despite his best intentions, that doesn’t seem to be working for Mayor Eisenberger. If Hamilton’s politicians are so determined to only look after their own interests, why were they so enthusiastic about making the city one big community? Perhaps the answer lies in eliminating the ward system and electing the entire council at large.

LRT picture of trains

Development has always followed transit – will the planned LRT create a new Hamilton?

Of course that billion dollars offered by the Province is not really free. Provincial grants are made up of all our money, collected mainly through provincial income and sales taxes – and there is only ever one taxpayer. So the cost-benefit question is whether there will be at least a billion dollars of increased net economic activity. That seems to be the expectation, and nobody is arguing that this infrastructure investment will be a waste of taxpayer money.

So what is stopping the politicians from getting to yes? The vote is next scheduled for September and I’ll be watching to report on the decision. Are our municipal politicians prepared only to put their particular interests ahead of the general welfare of the city, or do they really believe in the new Hamilton?

Rivers looking to his left

Ray Rivers

Ray Rivers is an economist and author who writes weekly on federal and provincial issues, applying his 25 years of involvement with federal and provincial ministries. Rivers’ involvement in city matters led to his appointment as founding chair of Burlington’s Sustainable Development Committee. He was also a candidate in the 1995 provincial election.

Editor’s note:  Why would a Burlington paper publish an opinion piece about Hamilton?  Because Hamilton is going to be the economic engine that pulls Burlington along with it and knowing what that engine is doing and where it is going tells us where we will end up.  The parochialism that exists in Hamilton also exists in Burlington.

Background Links:

Rust Belt –  LRT –   10 Questions –  Vote Postponed 

Waterloo Experience –    HSR –    Gazette article Oct 2014

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9 comments to Is it just small-minded political parochialism and old-style partisan politics having Hamilton say NO to a $Billion for an LRT line?

  • Hans

    No, he hasn’t. And haven’t we given enough jobs to China already?

  • Ray Rivers

    Thanks for your comment everyone but I think Monte has nailed it?


  • Hans

    P.S. – I understand that, as operator, Metrolinx will collect all the operating revenue from the LRT fares. Perhaps they will control the fare cost too? Since LRT (as George wrote above) has lower operating costs than buses, will the fares be cheaper too? Will Metrolinx pay property taxes to Hamilton for their right-of-way?

  • Hans

    Sorry Ray, but those who claim to be “economists” are typically wrong much more often than right (which is the reason for the large number of “economist jokes) and this is one of those “wrong” times.

    Like most of those in favour, you seem to think that the “free” factor should be of paramount importance. An unwanted or inappropriate gift from the province – if it is a gift – is still as bad an idea as a nuclear power plant on the Bay, even if it is “free”. It remains to be seen what the province expects in return.

    The Hamilton Spectator, like one caught in the trance of a Cobra snake before the fatal bite, is similarly fixated on the “free gift” aspect of LRT. Unfortunately, the “Spec” has a tendency to behave this way whenever a large and shiny potential project (the bigger the better?) comes into view (Pan Am Games, Stadium, etc.) and start “cheerleading” prematurely, to the detriment of those influenced by its editorials.

    Let’s start with the capital cost, which was originally estimated at $800 million. Somehow – and for a plan severely truncated in scope – in a short time it has grown by 25% to $1 Billion. It would be interesting to know what the original concept would cost currently….maybe $1.5 Billion? These amounts may be beyond most people’s comprehension, but we know they are large. $1 Billion would be roughly the Burlington city portion of a year’s property taxes from 500,000 homes.

    I haven’t seen any operating cost figures; perhaps they are as nebulous as the true per kilometer capital cost. A pro forma operating budget would be interesting….

    Next we might consider the devastating result on businesses during construction. Some of us will recall the failed Hamilton downtown dedicated bus lane experiment. Some of us will recall also what happened to Hamilton’s downtown when a city block was destroyed to build Jackson Square. I suspect that many of the original businesses in the Jackson Square block did not survive. Last month, one of Toronto’s new streetcars derailed at King and Bathurst Sts. It paralyzed two of Toronto’s major east-west downtown routes during the busy weekday commute, throughout the day, and into the evening rush hour. Does anyone seriously believe that it can’t happen to an LRT streetcar?

    Was anything learned from these events?

    At the beginning, in speculating about a possible cause of ongoing uncertainty and opposition to LRT, you speculated that the intellectual capacity of some Hamilton councillors might have been impaired by exposure to steel industry emissions.

    I believe that the LRT opponents on Council are acting completely rationally and prudently, and in the best interests of their City. The last thing Hamilton needs is a fiasco like the Burlington Pier but several orders of magnitude greater.

  • George

    @ Mark Milligan – Buffalo lost half its population between 1960 and today, an astonishing collapse of population that no LRT system can single-handedly fix. In any case, Buffalo’s system is more like a subway than an LRT, as it runs mostly underground. In addition, Buffalo planners did not establish a transit-oriented development corridor along the route. As a result, developers had to contend with a miasma of arbitrary, suburban-oriented postwar zoning and development regulations that have deterred urban reinvestment

    Furthermore, B-line LRT is only the first line planned for “making the entire city more mass transit friendly”, and as already stated, there are currently MORE than enough riders to support and justify LRT along the single busiest transit route in Hamilton, and come 8 to 10 years from now when LRT is up and running, there will be even more.

  • George

    @ Bryce Lee – Wow, where do I start? No, street cars and LRT are VERY different.

    We’re not talking about bus systems NOW, this is long term future planning that also involves land use planning that will curb sprawl and intensify urban areas making our currently unsustainable infrastructure (that is racking up an ANNUAL municipal deficit of over $200 million!)much more efficient and affordable.

    Also, the city of Hamilton will not operate or maintain the LRT, metrolinx will, and furthermore, LRTs are cheaper to operate than are buses.

    “Already congested downtown”? Completely not true. Methinks you do not really know what congestion is.

    As for the mountain, it is slated to get future LRT lines once demand levels get there, in fact the BLAST plan calls for more LRT lines on the mountain than below, not that this sort of divisive reasoning helps with anything at all.

    Also, the current bus B-line ridership is enough to make it the middle of all other current North American LRTs when calculated by riders per km. And that is NOW, not 10, 15 or 20 years in the future. Real life experience shows a boost in ridership numbers when bus routes are converted to LRT.

    Don’t think about now, think long term.

  • Mark Milligan

    It’s an interesting piece that gives no supportive reasons to build the LRT other that the Sky train works in Vancouver. Well Vancouver and Hamilton are a bit different despite the bulging real state prices. If you want a closer look at the impact of a completed LRT on a downtown revitalization look no further than Buffalo. It has not been the catalyst that has driven investment and a resurgences in that city’s downtown and how long has that been completed? It is my believe that the billion dollars would be much better suited making the entire city more mass transit friendly instead of an east west corridor that barely has enough riders to support an LRT. Premier Wynne is on record as saying the money is not LRT or bust. I say it’s our councillors duty to not be distracted by the glitz and glamour of a LRT and propose a transit system that will work for the entire city, it’s residents and it’s taxpayers.

  • Monte

    We, as Canadians, simply are incapable of thinking on a large scale or planning for a considerable time in the future. Hamilton is no exception.

    Perhaps we should give the entire project to China, or a similar country that doesn’t fear the future?

  • Bryce Lee

    A “new” streetcar” (yes it is a gussied up streetcar) system Hamilton does not need.
    Currently the bus system works quite well, rail borne transit will be no faster. And has nobody investigated a seperate guideway for buses?

    Keep in mind that promised billion dollars delvers a system ready to go. However such a system must be maintained (and the Bomardier-built trams don’t seem to be of the greatest construction,ask Toronto), Does Hamilton have the money to maintain such a system, long term? I doubt it.

    This is a political promises, “we” give you a new transit system, we want your votes. The proposed system will mangle an already congestioned downtown core of Hamilton. And what about the residents on the top of the hill? Don’t they deserve a decent transit system?

    Sounds odd, Pittsburgh PA built a tunnel connecting upper and lowerparts ofthe city years ago, to connect their streetcsrs, the tunnel is also pave to allow rubber tired buses to use the tunnel as well. Maybe Hamilton should do so likewise, at least you’d get railed transit if ever constructed above and below the mountain. And Buffalo NY has their rail transit system in a tunnel through downtown, away from the road traffic. Hint, hint?

    GO Transit (Interlynx) rebuilt the former TH&B head quarters building (albeit a lovely piece of work) and then provided insufficient parking for private automobiles. Which is why most Hamilton dwelling GO commuters drive to Aldershot and board there, scads of parking (and often not enough there either). And now there are two Hamilton GO stations, both with inadequate parking and both served by a busy bus route.

    For any bulk movers of people there has to be numerous customers living in close proximity to the transit system be it bus or rail to be succesful.
    The downtown Hamilton proposed system does not qualify. \Buses seem to work quite well. Just let the whole thing die a peaceful death.