By John Best, the Bay Observer
The Ministry of the Environment will have a few Hamilton citizen Light Rail Transit objections to mull over between now and early August. The Bay Observer has learned that Environmental lawyer John Tidball, of the Toronto firm Miller Thomson, in addition to filing a submission to the Ministry on behalf of a group of LRT opponents; has thrown the ball back into council’s court by asking them to voluntarily allow a re-examination of alternatives to LRT, like Bus Rapid Transit.
Under the current Environmental rules, transit projects are allowed a fast-track through the environmental assessment process. Transit projects typically use the Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP), which is essentially a self-directed examination where the proponent decides what the environmental impacts are and then tells the ministry how those impacts will be mitigated. One environmental expert described TPAP as a “non-Environmental assessment disguised as one.”
In a letter to council Tidball urges “ that the City undertake a full and complete environmental assessment of the LRT Project, rather than proceed (with) an incomplete and truncated self-assessment process that exempts transit projects from some of the most important elements of the EAA(Environmental Assessment Act).“ Council has the power under the rules to allow a study that, among other things, could look at BRT as a possible option. Concludes the letter, “Our clients believe that a real EA of the LRT Project would produce a fundamentally different assessment, especially in relation to social, economic and cultural matters. They believe that such an assessment may well persuade Council that the disadvantages of the LRT Project to the environment far outweigh the advantages, and that another alternative is preferred.”
In his letter to the Ministry Tidball tackled some specifics of the current LRT plan, taking particular aim at the fact the B-Line will not connect directly to GO. Connectivity to regional rail has been frequently cited by Metrolinx as a critical goal of Rapid Transit. Tidball notes, “In order to make the connection from the LRT to the GO Train, transit users will have to walk outdoors along Hughson Street, which will increase their travel time by approximately 15 minutes and expose them to inclement weather. It seems unlikely that (the pedestrian link) will do anything to encourage GO Transit riders to use the LRT to connect to the train.”
A second submission on behalf of a group of LRT opponents alleges early manipulation of the public consultation process and fudging of numbers; resulting in the early rejection of Bus Rapid Transit as an option. The submission describes a behind-the -scenes campaign by LRT supporters in the community, some members of council and city staff that emerged in late 2007 and early 2008 that essentially pushed BRT off the table before most people, including most members of council were paying attention. The submission notes that on the strength of the comments provided at two public meetings in May 2008, by 151 people, mostly LRT advocates, staff declared “overwhelming public support” for LRT and successfully persuaded council by June 2008 to abandon further consideration of BRT without any technical or economic analysis. The submission alleges that subsequent public consultations were geared towards bolstering the LRT-only message by appealing to an audience likely to favour LRT and, hence, by 2009 the LRT narrative was set in stone. A later poll of 1600 respondents yielded a huge majority in favour of LRT, but of the respondents, only 25% were regular transit users—a fact omitted in a staff report to council but later revealed by a consultant tasked to review the city’s consultation process. The submission suggests the special LRT office that had been established during this period appeared to have a direct reporting relationship to Eisenberger. It describes a 2010 memo from the staff of the LRT office to Eisenberger in which senior city department heads and the city manager are not copied as is the normal practice. The memo advised that Metrolinx has done its own study and determined that BRT has a better return on investment than LRT but hopefully suggests LRT can be made to look better if factors like projected economic uplift are considered. Underlying the suggestion that not all members of council were fully in the loop, the staff memo to Eisenberger expresses concern that “we have been working on rapid transit with a number of parameters that have not yet been vetted through Council.” For its part, the citizen submission to the Ministry last month suggests that in fact, the Metrolinx report contained some errors in methodology and that without the errors, actually LRT would have fared much worse in the cost-benefit comparison. The submission concludes by pointing out that a BRT system coupled with the proposed BLAST bus network would leave between $400 and $500 Million available for the government to pursue other transit projects in the GTAH, including its number one goal of electrifying GO.
In addition to the two presentations, a number of LRT opponents are signing a letter being circulated by Stephen Parazader of Dundas, an Engineer who made a plea for a Rapid Transit system; “A bus service with frequent stops is vital and necessary in a City to get people closer to businesses, and other places but the proposed LRT in Hamilton would eliminate all buses on the route including more than 20 existing bus stops… quiet, pollution-free all-electric battery-operated buses would be better than the proposed LRT for Hamilton which could be provided at a tiny fraction of the huge cost of LRT and without the huge disruption etc. created by LRT, not only during construction but forever after.”
The Minister of Environment now has 35 days to decide whether to order further studies or allow the project to proceed. The current Minister Glen Murray, however, was an outspoken LRT champion when Minister of Transportation. In addition, Murray, who once indicated his interest in becoming Hamilton’s mayor, has history with Eisenberger and Terry Cooke, an LRT advocate. Cooke was chairman of the Canadian Urban Institute in 2010 when Glen Murray was CEO of that organization, and later after Murray left CUI to run for the legislature; the job of CEO went to Eisenberger following his defeat in the 2010 municipal election.