The vote for light rail transit was overwhelmingly in favour at regional council last night. That broad support has prompted some to say this vote was “cooked” and that, despite a very vocal “no” crowd, regional politicians had long ago made up their minds. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In actual fact, as recently as six months ago, there was very little indication that LRT would ever pass. And contrary to popular opinion, the changing of the tide did not come with the municipal election. Newly elected or re-elected regional councillors did not decide, after October 25th, that they now had a 4-year mandate and to heck with the voters who had handed it to them. Instead, to paraphrase another local blog, a funny thing happened on the way to last night’s vote.
570 News has spent considerable time on the rapid transit portfolio over the past 12 months. In that time, we had projected and re-projected how Wednesday’s vote would go. Earlier this spring, our projections showed a vote that was too close to call. It truly could have gone either way. But ever so slowly, the tide began to change. And the reason why speaks to the incredibly high level of civic engagement that many of you may have never seen.
It’s one thing to look at and report on the more than 150 public information and feedback sessions hosted by regional staff. It’s quite another to go back to last fall’s election and listen to the sounds in the air. To be blunt, the anti-LRT side was the clear leader in the court of public opinion. It had organized faster and taken to the streets with strong, sound-bite-friendly statements about high taxes, cost over runs and even the eventual cancellation of a traditional local parade. This last point stuck despite later being proven absolutely untrue. We heard it repeated as recently as the final public feedback sessions held two weeks before the vote. And it goes to show how those sound-bite-friendly statements gain traction and, eventually, a life of their own.
If Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (T4ST) became the clearing house for anti-LRT information, the Tri-Cities Transport Action Group (TriTag) became the voice for pro-LRT. However, it would be foolish to think that these groups represented the only people involved in the debate. While T4ST and TriTag publicly represented the “nays” and the “yays,” there were countless people connected to each group. And when taking the temperature around election time last fall, TriTag and those connected to it realized that if their dream of LRT was to be realized, they would have to mobilize.
Yes, there were public events held by both sides. There were letters to the editor and door-to-door deliveries of LRT materials. And there were one-on-one meetings with councillors and other constituents too numerous to count. While feedback sessions organized by the region were playing out very publicly, these efforts were playing out quietly in the background. In the end, if you were reading the tea leaves, you could have looked at the pro and anti-LRT rallies that were held on June 11th, mere days before the final vote. The pro-LRT side drew 10 times the number of participants as the anti-LRT rally and that left 570 News confident in its final projections that the proposal would pass with overwhelming support.
Did a silent majority score a victory here over a vocal minority? I’ll leave that for you to decide but make no mistake that the public engagement on this issue carried well beyond what we saw during rallies and public open houses and feedback sessions. It would not be an exaggeration to say the numbers for both sides climbed well into the thousands. These were the voices that councillors were hearing as they slowly moved from being against LRT because of its cost to in favour of light rail for the future of this community.
Post-script: I hesitate to bring this up but I think it’s important, if only to explain (and in this case defend) the position of the media. There have been a lot of conversations in cyberspace today about the results of Wednesday’s vote. Virtually all media (570 News, CTV, The Record, etc.) are reporting a 9-2 vote. I firmly believe this is the result that reflects the mood on council.
It’s true that light rail was endorsed as a technology by all but Councillor Brenda Halloran. That’s right, even Claudette Millar voted in support of light rail as a preferred technology. But Councillor Millar also pulled me aside after the meeting because she “had a bone to pick with me.” During our chat she explained that word had gotten back to her that I had said she was going to vote “yes” to LRT on Wednesday night. I assured her that, following our chat just days before the vote, I had her firmly in the “no” camp. She was satisfied with the explanation and also happy to be registered as a “no.” Even when we had talked days before and I asked her about the 2009 vote that went 15-1 in favour of LRT, she said her “yes” vote then was simply in favour of the technology. She could not then — and does not now — support a plan that provides rail to Kitchener and Waterloo before her beloved Cambridge.
Which brings me back around to the 9-2 result. For years, the discussion around rapid transit in this region has been a discussion that explained the system as one that would see rail from Conestoga Mall in Waterloo to Fairview Mall in Kitchener, and rapid buses from Fairview Mall in Kitchener to the Ainslie Street terminal in Cambridge. That was the system or phasing recommended by regional planners initially and again after re-analysis. And it was the vote on that system that resulted in a 9-2 tally. To try and pass off the LRT vote as 10-1 simply adds a layer of confusion that is unnecessary. Heck, there were a number of amendments voted on last night, one that passed unanimously! Should we report the results of each?
I think it’s in the best interests of the public to keep the conversation focused on the system we are now going to get and the 9-2 vote that is making that system possible. Everything else is just politicking and the time for that has passed (at least on this issue). It’s time to get to work.
Just my opinion, of course, and if you want to believe the vote was 10-1, so be it. I don’t think it’s worth quibbling over as both results show broad support for LRT. But I did feel the need to explain and defend the position of the media on this point.