It was supposed to be a discussion with Hamilton's mayoral candidates about social justice issues, but in Dundas on Tuesday, the debate revealed a town anxious about light rail transit (LRT).

The audience at the event held by the Association of Dundas Churches posed many questions, from affordable housing to how to keep transit accessible for everyone.

But the main curiosity was LRT, which led to Brad Clark and Fred Eisenberger trading barbs. Eisenberger accused Clark of flip-flopping on the issue, while Clark charges that Eisenberger is trying to sit on the fence until after the election.

'Ever since amalgamation, people’s taxes have gone crazy.' - Marc Risdale, council candidate, Ward 13 in Dundas

LRT is a complex issue for Ward 13 residents, said Marc Risdale, one of nine council candidates.

Some link it to the town’s forced amalgamation 14 years ago, when the perception is that residents were saddled with higher taxes to support the inner city, he said.

“That’s the history of amalgamation,” he said. “Ever since amalgamation, people’s taxes have gone crazy. I talked to a guy today who paid $8,000 for his house — now mind you, that was in 1957 — but his taxes are $5,000 a year. We pay a lot of taxes.”

Council candidate Pamela Mitchell summed up that sentiment during the meeting, when her chance to ask a question turned into a rant against LRT.

“I don’t want the taxpayers in Dundas paying for Hamilton’s stupidness,” she told the candidates.

“There really is no consensus on LRT in Dundas,” Risdale said. “It really is a 50-50 issue, I think. Half the people want it. Half the people don’t want it. The main concern is getting stuck with a gigantic bill.”

By now, the candidate positions are well known. Brian McHattie and Fred Eisenberger support the proposed $800-million LRT if the province pays all the capital costs. Eisenberger, who was mayor from 2006 to 2010, wants to strike a citizen’s panel to discuss it. McHattie, a Ward 1 councillor, maintains that “council’s position is clear.”

'(This) is a complete flip from where he was a month ago.' - Fred Eisenberger on Brad Clark's LRT stance

Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark wants bus rapid transit instead. Michael Baldasaro wants an LRT line from the Hunter Street GO station to the new James North GO station. Ejaz Butt wants a referendum, Crystal Lavigne is against it, and Michael Pattison, as usual, wants the community to work together to decide.

For the past seven years, Clark has supported city council’s position for LRT with 100-per cent capital funding from the province, Eisenberger told the audience. Then “a month ago, he changed his position.”

“He said don’t waste time on GO transit to St. Catharines or Niagara. Today, he’s saying exactly the opposite, to focus on GO transit." His LRT stance, Eisenberger said, "is a complete flip from where he was a month ago.”

Council 'drank the Kool Aid'

Clark said his position change came after seeing a report from McMaster University researcher Christopher Higgins showing that Hamilton only meets half the criteria for LRT.

'What Mr. Eisenberger is trying to do is play both sides of the fence and not make a decision until after the election.' - Brad Clark

“In 2011…(council) drank the Kool Aid. This is not affordable. I’ve made it very clear that we can’t afford this.”

“What Mr. Eisenberger is trying to do is play both sides of the fence and not make a decision until after the election. The facts are the facts.”

Butt also alluded to Clark flip-flopping on the issue.

“Sixteen people decided unanimously that they went for LRT, then…he comes out with a different attitude."

Gondolas, magnetic levitation and other ideas

Baldasaro said the city “should not be building east and west LRT because of McMaster, but between the two GO systems. That puts the heart into a system we can beef up later.”

Warrand Francis didn’t answer an LRT question this meeting, but has said in the past that he envisions a transit system that includes boats, magnetic levitation and LRT. Lavigne wants better basic transit and gondolas.

Pattison referenced the issue as one the community can work together to solve. “Remember that when you get close to a 51/49, you are this close away from the truth.”  

The province has set aside $15 billion for transit in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area, McHattie said. Other areas, such as Kitchener-Waterloo, are getting LRT. That money can only be used for rapid transit, and Hamilton deserves its share, he said.

Both he and Eisenberger said LRT brings more economic spinoffs, which will impact Dundas residential taxes.

Standing room only

Clark disagreed.

“Rapid buses will deliver more value for money,” he said.

Anne Washington, president of the Association of Dundas Churches, said residents seemed to want to know about the cost and need for LRT.

“There’s obviously some differences of opinion on what’s going to be best for the community at large now and in the future,” she said.

About 300 people attended the event at Dundas Baptist Church. The association represents nine Dundas-area churches.