Monday, June 13, 2011

Reflections on the eve

(Late edit: Mike Farwell of 570 News did me the inestimable honour of asking to use parts of this post as an introduction to his broadcast as a guest host of the Gary Doyle show. Turns out, he liked it so much he read almost all of it on the air! If you'd like the "audiobook" version of this post, visit this link and listen to the start of the podcast.)

It's a good time to take a moment and reflect on the remarkable local developments in the LRT story before Wednesday's vote. The last nine months or so have been transformational, whether I consider the community or myself.

Prior to the leadup into last October's municipal election, LRT was not an issue. The public consisted of the very few who knew and supported the proposal, the very few who opposed it, and the vast middle who was quietly apathetic. But something happened on the way to the polling date... the opposition to rapid transit got their message out.

And in the absence of any other voice, the very simple message-- This is risky! Disruptive! Expensive!-- became almost viral.

I don't question that local politicians got an earful at the door. Especially if you consider the kind of filtering mechanism is in place when you go door-knocking through low-density neighbourhoods, and the ease with which a cost-and-risk narrative finds traction. Still, we didn't see any massive shift in council or mayoral membership. The discontent vocal minority hadn't been large enough to define a council mandate, but boy oh boy did they get noticed.

And so, council reacted. Bringing in a BRT reevaluation became a political necessity. Staff had to engage in "value engineering" and despite a significant pricetag reduction, they hurt the optics of that achievement by building in inflation (I think to protect a cost-contingent federal contribution.) Optics were also in play when staff released almost a dozen LRT alternatives, and just one BRT option.

Anti-LRT media had a field day. Their advantage is the perceived safety of the status quo and the superficial simplicity of their message, if your audience doesn't take the time to research their own opinion.

But in the background, in the deepest, darkest depths of twitter, and facebook, and on newly minted blogs (like this one!), something was starting to change. Initially we had been frustrated and disbelieving at hidebound reactionaries who seemed to be awfully confused or dissembling in their criticism. Now, we were starting to worry that maybe it would work...

Realization set in, in myself, in others... we would have to be heard. TriTAG had started, but the silent supporters who approved of their effort started to clue in that they couldn't sit on the sidelines.

I think there are dozens of us who have gone from having an opinion to being very vocal with it. I have a hard time thinking that when this issue dies down again, that we all will clam down again. LRT has galvanized civic engagement (both for and against, to be sure.) Whether it passes or fails, I hope that this is a watershed moment for Waterloo region's twenty- and thirty-somethings.

Wednesday's vote is not so far away. And I'm starting to think we may see LRT move ahead after all. Opponents claim that they're being railroaded (heh) by councilors whose minds were made up, but I don't think that's it. Most of council knows this is right because despite the naysaying and magnification of flaws, the case for LRT is very strong. But they needed to hear it from enough constituents. In the absence of our reluctant voices, some would shelve their better judgement in the face of a one-way public sentiment.

But even so, we don't know what will happen on Wednesday yet, and we can't forget the twists and curveballs that groups like T4ST and reporters like Outhit and Taylor have contributed, and how very close they came to defining our reality.

After last Saturday's rally, Jean Haalboom, one of the few supporting councilors willing to stand up for rapid transit and LRT, said to a few of us that we can't just drop this issue on Thursday if this vote passes. We have to keep on it. 2014's municipal vote could become a last-gasp money-burning cancellation movement if we go silent again after the immediate fight is won.

Most of us support LRT because we're thinking about the future, right? Well, it's time we take the long view. LRT doesn't get delivered if and when Council votes yes. In the years to come, we need to shepherd it home.

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