City File: Ticket to Ride

The anti-LRT gang insisted on making this election a referendum, and I say we hold them to it.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted November 01, 2019 in Essays (Last Updated None)

The City has been planning the east-west light rail transit (LRT) line between McMaster University and Eastgate Square since 2007. Council submitted its funding request in 2013 and accepted full Provincial funding in 2015, so one might be forgiven for thinking the LRT project is settled policy. But this is Hamilton, where restless issues insist on sneaking out of bed and making a ruckus long after their bedtime.

For the past few years, a small, angry group of LRT opponents has done everything they could to undermine, confuse and stall the project to anyone who would listen. Their primary modus operandi has been misinformation and shameless fearmongering, and we are living in a brave new social media world in which such tactics are toppling some of the world's largest political systems.

Among the various mayoral challengers facing incumbent Mayor Fred Eisenberger, a staunch LRT supporter, one single-issue grievance candidate emerged as a highly effective organizer and fundraiser. Liberal Party insider Vito Sgro styled himself as a right-wing populist on a simplistic, single-issue "Stop the Train" platform that amplified and extended the anti-LRT fearmongering.

The anti-LRT gang quickly coalesced around Sgro, insisting that they spoke for the silent majority and that the election would be a referendum on LRT. Eisenberger tried gamely to talk about some of the other municipal policies issues facing the City - affordable housing, road safety, economic development, the opioid crisis, and so on - but the existential LRT showdown was set.

Central to Sgro's thin platform was the flimsy premise that we would be able to use the billion-dollar capital investment for other infrastructure projects instead. The new Ontario Progressive Conservative Government provided some cover for this invention: they suspended Metrolinx property acquisitions along the corridor and claimed that, while they would honour the LRT funding commitment if that's what we want, we could also have the money for other "approved projects".

First, we need to remember that there is no pot of money sitting in an account. The capital cost will be financed by the consortium that wins the contract to build the system. Metrolinx will pay back that cost over the 30-year operations and maintenance agreement, partly funded by fare revenue and new transit-oriented development. Anyone who thinks Premier Doug Ford would be willing to deficit-finance a billion dollars for whatever infrastructure wishlist Hamilton comes up with is deluding themselves.

Even this question is moot, since we would first have to agree to come up with a new set of projects and submit them to the province for approval. It took five years to develop the LRT plan to the point where it was ready to submit for approval, and another two years before it was approved. Then Council wasted another year kvetching over whether to accept the funding it had requested. Shovels won't hit the ground until 12 years after we first started planning LRT.

Anti-LRT candidate Sgro raised a truckload of money and poured it into nonstop push-polls, radio commercials, social media ads, lawn signs and even an airplane banner. It began to look like Sgro had the momentum to topple Eisenberger and kill the project. A landline poll commissioned the week before election day suggested the two candidates were neck-and-neck. The anti-LRT gang confidently predicted a Sgro victory and crowed that they would finally be able to shut the project down.

Election day finally came, and Eisenberger was re-elected with such a commanding margin that it was something of an anticlimax. Sgro managed to capture 52,190 votes, or 38 percent of the total, but Eisenberger crushed it with an absolute majority: 74,093 votes or 54 percent of the total. While a media narrative after the election suggested some kind of downtown-vs-suburbs division, the simple fact is that Eisenberger won nearly everywhere.

He won 13 out of the city's 15 wards: the lower city, the upper city, Ancaster, Dundas, Glanbrook and Stoney Creek overall, winning an absolute majority in 12 of the 13. He only lost Ward 9 (Upper Stoney Creek) and Ward 5 (Waterdown). If you drill down to the poll-by-poll results, Eisenberger won 189 out of 222 polling districts, or 85 percent of the total. It was a city-wide sweep: downtown, uptown and suburbs alike. The anti-LRT gang insisted on making this election a referendum, and I say we hold them to it.

Of course, the Mayor is only one vote around the horseshoe, but the composition of the rest of council is also favourable to the project. By my count, the incoming Council will have six strong LRT supporters, another five qualified LRT supporters, two frequent flip-floppers who could go either way, and only three diehard LRT opponents.

So LRT should be a shoo-in, right? Unfortunately, we're not quite out of the woods yet. Premier Ford and Flamborough-Glanbrook MPP Donna Skelly promised that the PC Government will honour the LRT funding commitment, but it's entirely possible that they might change their minds. And the anti-LRT gang is surely already lobbying hard to convince them of just that.

But assuming Ford keeps his word, the last big hurdle will come once Metrolinx selects the winning bid in the Request for Proposals (RFP) that is currently underway. Once the terms of the contract are finalized, Metrolinx and the City will have to sign an operating cost- and revenue-sharing agreement. That agreement will go to Council for a vote in 2019. If all goes well, construction will begin in 2019 and service will begin in 2024 - only 17 years after we started planning this line and 64 years after our first plan for rapid transit along the B-Line.

First published in Hamilton Magazine, Fall 2018 issue.