Political theatre bleeds into Mountain LRT information session

City LRT guru Paul Johnson faced an onslaught of questions about the project at Wednesday night’s public information session on the Mountain — except this time, many of them were from two city councillors.

Metrolinx and the city headed up the escarpment Wednesday to take questions on LRT

LRT project co-ordinator Paul Johnson addresses the crowd at the LRT information session on the Mountain Wednesday night, while Coun. Donna Skelly looks on. (Adam Carter/CBC)

City LRT guru Paul Johnson faced an onslaught of questions about the project at Wednesday night's public information session on the Mountain — except this time, many of them were from two city councillors.

For most of the other sessions across the city, councillors took a more hands off approach, leaving staff members to answer questions about the LRT project and gather input from residents one on one.

But at Wednesday night's session at the Sackville Hill Senior's Recreation Centre, Ward 7 Coun. Donna Skelly and Ward 8 Coun. Terry Whitehead were a focal point.

I'd support this if we had a big attraction to downtown, like a casino.- Sarah Warry-Poljanski, Mountain resident

Instead of an informal open house session, Johnson took questions from a crowd of about 50 people all at once, including several questions from the two councillors — who weren't shy about using the event to express their vocal opinions against the project.

"We're not ready, we don't have the ridership, we're years and years away from this," Skelly told the crowd.

"In the end, everyone here is going to pay for this."

Whitehead heralded bus rapid transit as the superior option to LRT to the crowd, and brought up his own 58-page LRT report, which was released in July to decidedly mixed reviews.

Public 'subjected to political gamesmanship,' lower city councillor says

Johnson, who is the city's LRT project co-ordinator, told CBC News that this was the first time one of these sessions was held this way. He also said he didn't take issue with the way Skelly and Whitehead were involved in the discussion.

"[The councillors] were clear to the public that there is a political side to this, and that is their business," he said.

Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla, who did not attend the LRT information session in his ward, said these meetings should be "free of political interference."

Mohawk College students Eric Bentzen (right) and Nathaniel Booth (left) are working on a school project about LRT. Bentzen is for the project, while Booth is against it. (Adam Carter/CBC)

"It skews the entire process," said Merulla, who supports the LRT project. "This is a night for the public to ask questions, not to be subjected to political gamesmanship."

The Mountain has typically been associated with some of the most vocal criticism of the LRT project, but Johnson said the comments and questions he took were "consistent" with the other sessions.

That means some people ardently for the project, some completely against, and lots in the middle asking questions.

Sarah Warry-Poljanski was against the idea, saying that Hamilton should be putting more transit options in areas that are "underserved" like the Mountain and rural Hamilton.

"I don't want to fund something that I can't use," she said, citing how difficult it is to use public transit from the Mountain to get to the lower city.

"I'd support this if we had a big attraction to downtown, like a casino," she said, channeling another of Hamilton's biggest debates in the last few years.

City says connections to the Mountain would be built under BLAST network

Mohawk college student Nathaniel Booth was also against the project. "It would make more sense to start with a line that connects the Mountain to downtown," he said.

The city says those connections would eventually be built. The current LRT A and B line plans are part of a larger planned rapid transit system called the BLAST network, which would eventually see rapid transit lines extending across the Mountain, to the airport and out to Waterdown.

A crowd of about 50 people listened while Johnson took questions Wednesday night. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Fellow Mohawk student Eric Bentzen, meanwhile, was all for LRT. "I used to go to McMaster, and I'd take transit all the time, so I know how crazy it can be," he said. "It's needed."

Plans for the $1 billion LRT project have trains running alternately on Main and King from McMaster University to the Queenston traffic circle, and down James Street North from King Street to the West Harbour GO station. Construction is due to start in 2019.

The last of the city's information sessions on the project is scheduled for Thursday night from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Dundas Town Hall at 60 Main St.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.