The Third Rail of Municipal Politics

Meant to move people, light rail often just slows everything down.

For urban areas across the country, light rail transit has emerged as something of a miracle cure, able to reduce traffic congestion and lower GHG emissions while increasing mobility and boosting economic development. But it has also emerged as something of a third rail onto which municipal politicians stumble and get burned.

Most recently, the City of Hamilton’s LRT miracle crashed in gruesome fashion when the Ontario government unexpectedly announced it was pulling $1 billion in funding for the project. That chaotic afternoon included a hastily cancelled news conference, city councillors confronting police, and the Minister of Transportation fleeing the city under police escort. It was an epic end to a project once so full of promise one councillor had described as not just a train, but “a cultural shift for the city.”

Artist rendering of the proposed (now cancelled) Hamilton LRT. (Image: City of Hamilton)

Estimates had pegged the amount of GHGs to be saved at more than 8,500 tonnes a year. The LRT promised up to $15 million in direct and indirect employment and income impacts, and a spike in land values of up to $106 million. Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who ran for office multiple times on his support for the LRT, called the pullback “a personal betrayal.” Shortly afterwards, he applied to have his dog accompany him to the office as an emotional support animal.

Though the project ultimately died at the hands of the provincial government, it had been on life support at the local level for the nearly 13 years since its inception. Support for the LRT in Hamilton was always touch-and-go. In a city with up to 16 wards at one point, the LRT would only run through five of the most densely populated. For many in the 11 wards outside the track, it seemed like a waste of money in a city where everyone drives. For many in the downtown, the project spelled blocked lanes, traffic diversions, and five years of noise and dust.

As a result, debate around the LRT dominated four municipal election cycles and killed as many political careers as it made. The drawn-out debate on everything from routing to stops divided the city. And Hamilton was just the latest casualty of light rail transit. Ottawa’s initial plans for light rail got bogged down in politics in 2007. After many more years of debate, it was finally approved in 2012. Now built, the battle has resumed around its extension. Approving an LRT in Kitchener-Waterloo took 12 years and three election cycles, and in Toronto, a city where everyone can agree on the pressing need for more transit, no one can agree on where it should go and what form it should take. The city politics around the issue was so messy, slow and fractious, the province infamously swooped in and took control of the transit network.

It’s a move so crazy it might just work. Because at the heart of the challenges that plague light rail transit is the fact that these are linear projects. Like pipelines and transmission lines, light rail transit isn’t contained to one political jurisdiction. It requires agreement among politicians, each serving different interests. The LRT in Hamilton was going to cut through wards that included a university, the business district, gentrifying neighbourhoods and some low-income areas. Each ward was very different, and the views — and votes — of each councillor reflected that difference.

Complicating matters is the fact that LRTs are about more than just moving people. LRTs are also about the future shape of a city. The path of an LRT line will bring investment and development that will affect the look and feel of a city for decades to come. And while most can agree on the need to move people, few can agree on what a city should look like in 50 years. This is especially true when an election cycle is only four years. As Hamilton has shown, when the debate over transit is left to municipal politicians, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, it’s often the headlamp of an oncoming train.

Kevin Powers, good projects
Kevin Powers is Managing Principal of Project Advocacy, a subsidiary of Campbell Strategies, and is focused on helping project developers facing public and government opposition.
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