City Manager Chris Murray announced yesterday that he’s ordered all work non-essential work on Light Rail Transit (LRT) suspended. They’ll finish their obligations under the $3 study for the province, but once that’s done nearly everyone involved will return to their old jobs or move on to other projects like all-day GO train service. This follows closely a number of other statements made by Murray and Mayor Bratina dismissing LRT, such as when they appeared together on the Bill Kelly radio show.

This sudden shift in policy would be unbelievable anywhere but Hamilton. Indeed, both Mississauga and Waterloo have announced plans to build LRT systems, and plans in Hamilton have been in the works for years. The activists/lobbyists involved in the Light Rail campaign have probably been the most succesful I’ve ever seen in this city, gaining support from nearly every quarter as well as offers to cover all or most of the capital cost from Metrolinx and the Provincial government. It had been at the point of holding public input sessions on routing, and two fairly well-defined routes (the A and B lines) had been drawn up.

Why is all of this suddenly being scuttled? Mayor Bratina’s habit of running his mouth has produced a nearly endless stream of rationales, condemnations and utter nonsense. The major points seem to be a lack of interest from powerful players in the local development industry. They’re more interested in the Mid-Peninsula Highway or all-day GO service (especially to James North), which isn’t terribly surprising.

What’s suspicious is that business associations like the Chamber of Commerce and Home-builders Association have officially supported LRT for years, as have many small businesses. The lack of “clamour” or “support” seems to be coming from a far less official group, although apparently more powerful. Bratina has made more than a few references to the Red Hill Expressway battle, and the sort of support it received at the time, so it’s pretty clear who they’re talking about, though few so far (other than Vrancor and the Molinaro group) have been willing to say so publicly.

The constant references to the dispute over the Red Hill Expressway are more than a little insulting. At one point recently, Bratina even compared Light Rail advocates to the “Get Hamilton Moving Task Force” who rallied for the expressway and labelled protesters (such as himself) as “terrorists”. What he isn’t mentioning is that those attacks came from the same development crowd which now isn’t “clamouring” for LRT. Chris Murray and Bill Kelly know this, as they were two of the Expressway’s biggest proponents at the time. Opponents of the expressway, on the other hand, were strongly on the side of inner-city revitalization (ie: transit) and against sprawl.

It’s clear that there’s enormous piles of money to be made building suburban sprawl and inner-city condo empires as bedroom communities for Toronto professionals. And it’s no secret that the companies responsible have enormous influence with the City Council – Bratina is admitting as much right now. These powerful interests, who need never be named directly, have a seat at the table, and apparently even veto power.

It doesn’t take an anarchist to see what’s wrong with this picture. Even the most hardened capitalist economists warn about the risks of this kind of outright collusion. When a few powerful businesses are favoured by the government, it stifles everyone else. Other businesses can’t compete, and taxpayers foot the bill. Giving land speculators control over transportation policy choices means an inside edge – they not only know first which land will go up in value, but also that they get to choose which land does.

Does this mean the end of LRT hopes in Hamilton? That’s far from clear. Many people are getting rather upset at the moment, and it’s likely not the last we’ve heard of the issue. Policies in Hamilton are like characters in comic books – they never really die. Still, it’s not a helpful setback.

There’s little question about where oil prices are going over the next decade, and as even Bratina mentions, the economic outlook isn’t good either. So why start building it now? Because starting a decade from now will be a lot harder. There’s a good chance we wouldn’t have offers of provincial funding. And since these systems take years to build, it would still be years till we actually saw trains on the street. In that time the costs of our growing road network will have risen greatly, as the expanding area needs means larger re-paving costs with increasingly expensive asphalt and the price of gas goes through the roof. Sooner or later we’re going to need to start laying train tracks like it’s 1865. And sooner is a far better and cheaper option.