On LRT, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good by Aidan Johnson

"Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." I love this expression. I first heard it from Ann Cook Petz, my fabulous Grade 9 English teacher at Westdale Secondary. But she would not take credit for it. Like so many other good things, the phrase comes from Italy.

During the Renaissance, the scholar Orlando Pescetti noted a traditional proverb: "Il meglio è nemico del Bene". Or: "The better is enemy of the good". Don't lose a valuable opportunity because you're waiting for something shinier.The phrase has been on my mind because of LRT. Too often, our anti-LRT activists in Hamilton let the perfect be the enemy of the good. They prefer the siren song of "direct democracy" (a referendum on light rail) over the complex reality of democratic debate. And they risk our best realistic chance for economic and environmental progress — LRT — in the name of an "even better" futuristic economic vision that will most probably never come. Ironically, they do this in good faith.

More irony: in a referendum, the pro-LRT side might win. But a referendum would be bad either way. This is because referendums are (final irony) essentially undemocratic. Those who embrace them accidentally suggest that citizens are not smart enough to elect leaders with the ability to make tough, good decisions. In this way, referendums are snobby.

The very phrase "direct democracy" has a certain sinister quality. It suggests that the rough-and-tumble decision-making of the elected is needlessly "indirect" (all that talking), versus the clean elegance of a popular vote. But — on a much broader scale — the cases of Quebec separatism and Brexit show the danger of "solving" vast problems by framing them as "yes/no" referendum questions.

Intricate questions like "what should public transit look like" and "how do we address our infrastructure deficit" cannot literally be reduced to "yes/no" form. To do so is further violence to the important needs to which the questions point — e.g. our transit and infrastructure deficits. We elect governments because some things require discussion. We should value simple language in that context. But we must also avoid the lure of the simplistic. (Imagine answering "no" or "yes" to the question: "How do we build our economy?" For that is the proposed LRT ballot question in different words.)

Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good manifests in our LRT debate in yet deeper ways. As a pro-LRT politician, I hear them every day from the many thoughtful anti-LRT citizens in my ward. I've learned that most anti-LRT activists want a Hamilton with good transit for all parts of the region, particularly including the suburbs. (As councillor for a half-suburban ward, I appreciate this a lot.)

Anti-LRT activists generally fear that LRT means no investment in transit for the suburbs, and no investment in the city's non-transit infrastructure gap. Instead of affirming LRT, they basically say: "Let's spend the $1 billion of provincial LRT money, plus additional provincial and federal money, on better busing for the Mountain and all suburbs, possibly BRT, and on roads, on bridges, on sewers." In other words: "The LRT vision simply isn't good enough. We must aim higher. We want a city that is absolutely fabulous for car drivers and transit riders in all neighbourhoods, plus renewed non-transit infrastructure."

Yes: We need to address the transit needs of the whole region. (And yes, we need the feds and province to help.) But that doesn't mean scrapping LRT. Rather, it means a plan that includes augmented transit for the areas not served by the trains — to feed the light rail lines. Good news, we are working on exactly that "feeder" plan. Stay tuned.

The truth is that LRT is going to augment the city's infrastructure massively. In my own ward, we need $3- to $5-million to extend Frid Street — one of the city's most promising economic hubs. We also need massive upgrades to the Longwood bridge (the only bridge over the 403 that the city owns). The plan to build our LRT "train barn" at Longwood-Aberdeen, using Frid and the bridge, is our realistic best hope for those needs.

This is an example of why it is simply untrue that LRT will waste $1 billion, while failing to lessen our most key (non-transit) infrastructure deficits. On the contrary, LRT will bring those deficits down.

Letting hypothetical perfection undermine a good, concrete plan reflects a kind of idealism — a hunger for utopia. Anti-LRT activists are admirable for several reasons, and this is one of them. Who can argue against the perfect?

One possible answer: those of us who believe in the messy trade-offs of democracy, and in elected leaders doing their job. And those who believe that in building Hamilton we must not let the better be the enemy of the good. Il meglio è nemico del bene. (The truth often sounds better in Italian.)

Published in the October 5, 2016 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.