A future vote is still needed to confirm city agreement on covering operating costs, but Mayor Fred Eisenberger expressed hope opponents will now ‘get on board’ to make the project work
Matthew Van Dongen Hamilton Spectator Wednesday, June 16, 2021
City councillors have voted to resurrect a once-cancelled Hamilton LRT that now comes with an unprecedented $3.4-billion offer of government construction cash.
Councillors voted 9-6 — with one member absent — to allow city staff to negotiate a draft agreement in principle with provincial transit agency Metrolinx that would restart work on LRT and outline the city’s responsibility for operating and maintenance costs.
A final vote by a still-divided council is still needed on that eventual draft agreement before any shovels hit the ground on the long-planned, 14-kilometre light rail transit line envisioned between McMaster University and Eastgate Square.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger called the vote “momentous” and acknowledged the roller-coaster ride of debates, election battles and a 2019 project cancellation that has slowed progress on a contentious project in planning since 2007.
He appealed to project opponents to “get on board and do what we can to make this work as opposed to continuing to undermine or look for ways of wiggling our way out of this … The community deserves to have an end to this.”
At least one steadfast opponent, Coun. Brad Clark, said that is his plan — which suggests the outcome of future critical project votes will be less uncertain.
The Stoney Creek councillor — who has publicly championed bus rapid transit over LRT — voted against resurrecting light rail transit Wednesday, noting he believes a “clear majority” of his ward residents oppose the project.
But Clark also said that if the majority of council votes to go ahead with LRT, “it is my job as a councillor to now see it to fruition, to do everything I can to make it succeed as opposed to obstruct it.”
The vote to move ahead also hinged in part on conditions set by Ancaster Coun. Lloyd Ferguson, one of only a few councillors who had not tipped their vote ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.
His conditions included council consideration of axing tax relief and other development incentives in the core, as well as endorsing the eventual removal of 29 HSR buses from the LRT corridor once trains arrive.
City staffers have estimated LRT could cost as little as $6.4 million to operate annually if 29 buses are removed from the road and ridership grows by eight per cent. That plan is not popular with the HSR union or transit advocates.
“I’m not wild about the idea of cancelling or removing HSR service as a means of paying for LRT (operations),” said Environment Hamilton representative Ian Borsuk, who nonetheless cheered the decision to restart the light rail project.
The group joined the Hamilton Transit Riders Union and other labour groups in urging councillors to instead redeploy displaced HSR buses to help improve transit city-wide.
City bureaucrats noted Hamilton expects to add new bus service — up to 45,000 hours annually — through its ongoing 10-year plan and is in the middle of a “Re-envision” project to update and improve bus routes. The HSR will need time to redraw the transit map and adjust service to account for an eventual LRT, said transit planning manager Jason VanderHeide.
The transit coalition also supported HSR union head Eric Tuck’s call for the light rail line to be run by the city, rather than a private operator. Tuck said the negotiated agreement should guarantee a “publicly run” transit line, as well as stronger language around community benefits and affordable housing.
That’s the difference, he said, between a “freedom train” and a “political gravy train.”
Metrolinx has said it is open to considering an HSR-run light rail line, but that discussion will not be part of memorandum of understanding negotiations.
Canada’s Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, meanwhile, has said more affordable housing along the LRT corridor is a condition of federal funding. The Hamilton native said via email Wednesday she was glad to see council “take the next step” toward building a “once-in-a-generation, shovel-ready project.”
Wednesday’s vote was triggered by a provincial-federal announcement last month to provide $3.4-billion to build LRT — basically the same project that was killed over budget woes in 2019.
The city has been asked to commit to the project — and estimated operating costs of $6.4 million to $16.5 million per year — as soon as possible with the goal of “early works” construction starting next year.
The city can start negotiating an agreement after council ratifies the latest vote next week. Metrolinx said it expects to present a draft agreement to council this summer — so another important vote could be just weeks away.
How they voted
In favour: Mayor Fred Eisenberger and councillors Maureen Wilson, Nrinder Nann, Jason Farr, Sam Merulla, Esther Pauls, John-Paul Danko, Arlene VanderBeek and Lloyd Ferguson
Opposed: Councillors Chad Collins, Tom Jackson, Maria Pearson, Judi Partridge, Brad Clark and Brenda Johnson
Absent: Terry Whitehead (sick leave)