Results of an LRT telephone survey show that 48 per cent of respondents are against the project, while those supportive or undecided make up the remaining 52 per cent.
Of the total 3,324 people surveyed, 40 per cent said they approve of the LRT project, and 12 per cent said they are undecided.
Looking just at those who have decided: 55 per cent oppose the project, while 45 per cent support it.
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The survey was conducted by Forum Research, Inc. via landline and cell phones between March 30 and April 4. Forum says its margin of error is plus or minus 1.7 per cent 19 times out of 20.
The survey's release Monday set off a fresh round of conflict over the $1 billion project.
Anti-LRT voices saw the proportion of people saying they're against LRT in the poll as validation for their fight. But proponents of the project saw the number of undecideds and the close nature of the results as putting them within "striking distance" to win over enough votes on city council to keep the project moving forward.
One area of debate that arose was over the proportion of young people versus seniors who were polled.
The largest proportion of respondents to the survey were 65 years and older. There were 1,391 respondents over 65 years old. That age group made up 42 per cent of the respondents to the survey. In the 2011 census, people over 65 in Hamilton made up 19 per cent of the total population.
And the survey was responded to by more people over 65 years old than the all age groups under 54 years old combined.
Just 4 per cent of the survey respondents were 18 to 34 years old.
Researcher Chris Higgins compared the weighting of the survey to Hamilton's population in the 2011 census, and found a wide disparity:
The survey was commissioned by a group of nine councillors: Sam Merulla, Tom Jackson, Donna Skelly, Terry Whitehead, Doug Conley, Maria Pearson, Arlene VanderBeek, Judi Partridge, Robert Pasuta.
The councillors paid proportionately from their ward budgets.
At the time, Coun. Terry Whitehead said that if the LRT project is killed, "it would be killed on its own merits," and not because of these survey results. Councillors said the survey was purely meant to find out where people stand.
On Monday, Whitehead said, "you don't make decisions based on polls, but polls help inform the process."
This survey result comes nearly on the eve of the next big LRT-related council meeting: on April 19, council is set to vote on an LRT environmental assessment.
And while there isn't a consensus on what the outcome of that vote will mean for the project, people on both sides of the issue are treating it as make-or-break decision for LRT.
Digging into the numbers
Aside from asking whether people are for or against, the survey also asked respondents how familiar they think they are with the project, and 82 per cent said they know something about LRT: 46 per cent said they were 'very familiar,' and 36 per cent said they were 'somewhat familiar.'
Of respondents who consider themselves 'very familiar,' 59 per cent disapprove of the LRT while 41 per cent approve. Of respondents who said they are 'not at all familiar,' 68 per cent disapproved and 32 per cent approved.
People who consider themselves 'somewhat familiar' were the most balanced, coming out at 50/50 for and against.
Lastly, the survey asked respondents if there should be a referendum on LRT. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) said yes, there should be a referendum, while 32 per cent said no, and six per cent were undecided.
The survey goes further with other demographic breakdowns. One interesting point is that the results show no division among various sections of the city. It's a commonly held view that a lot of anti-LRT sentiment comes from people living in the suburbs.
But according to the survey's findings, "a majority of decided voters disapproves of the project in each of the four divisions."
A local advocacy group for the project, Hamilton LRT, said in a tweet that a pro-LRT rally on Saturday had 500 people attend. At that rally, MPP Ted McMeekin of the Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale riding said, "LRT isn't a game. It's a game-changer."
'We're in striking distance'
CBC Hamilton asked Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla, a long-time advocate for LRT, what he thinks of the survey results.
"It's a huge victory," he said, "and let me explain why. When you look at the undecided, we're in striking distance."
Merulla said there were three more key questions he wanted included in the survey, though ultimately they were not: firstly, do they know 80 per cent of the construction costs goes toward renewed infrastructure?
Second, do they know this is just the first phase of a bigger transit project? And third, do they know that the $1 billion is non-negotiable, and would go to another Ontario city if turned down by Hamilton?
"If those questions were included, it would be a landslide," Merulla said. "It would be 80/20 in favour. The fact that we're within striking distance is a huge victory, considering."
"It was a lot closer than people thought," he added. "Clearly, we need to communicate the 80 per cent infrastructure issue."
Merulla also thought the referendum question was pointless.
"What a moot point that is, and I said that when I saw the question," he said. "We can't do it now because we're already engaged in implementing it (LRT)."
So the question now is, what do these results mean for the future of LRT in Hamilton? Will they influence the debate? Merulla said he doesn't know, but he just wants them to be public.
"I don't know what the other councillors are doing. I imagine they're not as eager to make them public."
Coun. Terry Whitehead, a long-time LRT skeptic, interprets the results differently.
He said, "it was a bit surprising to see 47 per cent of millennials do not support LRT." Whitehead feels the survey results "dispel myths," propagated by social media, suggesting that young people are largely in favor of the project.
But only 131 respondents to the survey were under 34, representing 4 per cent of the survey respondents.
"It's not surprising," Whitehead said, "that the majority of people most familiar are against LRT."
Speaking with CBC News in late March about his fears that the LRT project may never come to pass in Hamilton, Sam Merulla said Hamilton's support for LRT is unprecedented.
"In the history of the city we have never, ever had environmentalists, CEOs from the corporate sector, developers, labour, public health, social services, education, all supporting one project. It is universally accepted in every single sector of this community."
In a live broadcast interview with CBC Hamilton on Thursday, Mayor Fred Eisenberger said, "I'm worried that too many councillors are prone to the 'alternative facts' that are getting thrown out."
And with the results published and being discussed on Monday afternoon, the mayor weighed in again.
Based on the poll results Terry Whitehead says he likes those numbers when running for election. No concern for #HamOnt just for election!— @FredEisenberger