1 councillor calls the provincial and federal funding for LRT or nothing ‘politically Machiavellian’
Christine Rankin · CBC News · Posted: Jun 02, 2021 8:01 AM ET | Last Updated: June 2
After a long day of questions and answers, Hamilton city councillors say they need still more time to decide whether to take its first step toward a new deal for a multi-billion dollar light-rail transit (LRT) system.
Metrolinx and the Ministry of Transportation spent nearly six hours Wednesday briefing city council’s general issues commitment on the $3.4-billion joint commitment from the federal and provincial governments.
In the end, councillors said they needed even more information, and will vote June 16 whether to negotiate a new memorandum of understanding. They want more information about the net cost of operating the system, and development that’s happened along the route.
“If you’re asking us to write a blank cheque today, that’s going to give some of us heartburn,” said Ward 12 (Ancaster) councillor Lloyd Ferguson, who moved the motion to defer.
If the project moves forward on June 16, it will be the second time the city has hammered out a memorandum of understanding with Metrolinx for LRT.
Since the last one, the province cancelled the project in December 2019, held a task force and then revived it last month with a commitment from the federal government.
Council opinion is still mixed. Those in favour say the project will bring economic uplift that will benefit outlying areas and reduce long-term congestion, among other benefits. Those opposed fear annual operating costs will put undue hardship on taxpayers.
James Nowlan, assistant deputy minister of agency oversight and programs, told councillors Wednesday that those operating costs are estimated at a gross $600 million over 30 years or $20 million a year.
That doesn’t include cost savings or fare revenues, he said, which Hamilton would keep.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger will now wait two more weeks to introduce his motion for city staff to meet with Metrolinx, the Ministry of Transportation, and other government officials to develop a memorandum of understanding.
“We said not a dime [from Hamilton] for capital dollars, and that’s exactly where we ended up,” said Eisenberger, a long-time LRT supporter.
“If this project doesn’t happen in Hamilton, that money will go elsewhere and Hamiltonians will still pay for it. Toronto will take that money and do more subways and do more LRTs.”
“We can no longer argue if we don’t accept this that we’re not getting our fair share.”
City staff will look into net operating costs before it comes back on June 16, as well as supportive development that is ongoing, planned, or approved along the 14-kilometre line from McMaster University to Eastgate.
Ontario says agreement would be a ‘refresh’
If councillors vote in favour of that motion, the group will report back “as soon as possible” with a draft. Council will need to vote again on that draft to have LRT go any further.
Nowlan said the agreement would be a “refresh, not a rewrite” of a previous one. Phil Verster, Metrolinx president and CEO, said the province and the transit agency would take an approval as a nod to begin procurement for the project.
LRT work could start in early 2022, he said.
Nowlan said the dollar figures were based on a 2019 Turner and Townsend report. Those estimates will be refined, he said, but they’re the “best” available at this time.
Several councillors, like Ferguson, questioned how much the costs could have increased over the years.
“The $20 million is speculation,” said Ward 15 (Flamborough) councillor Judi Partridge.
Trusting the numbers
Ward 11 (Glanbrook) councillor Brenda Johnson and Coun. Chad Collins (Ward 5) also said they believe the numbers to be low.
“How can I, how can the public, trust the numbers? They seem to be all over the place,” Johnson said.
Nowlan said the province would be responsible for any overruns. Verster also acknowledged that “turbulence” is there for costs during the pandemic, but he expects it to die down in the next year and a half.
If infrastructure along the route needs to be replaced, Verster said Metrolinx will only replace what existed. The city will need to pay for any enhancements.
Ontario and Metrolinx will cover life-cycle costs, such as replacing wheels and paint. Hamilton operational and maintenance costs include aspects like break pad renewals, broken windows, fare officers, and the operational crew.
BRT not an option, but councillors continue to push
But that doesn’t mean city employees will be responsible for all of the operations.
“It’s about who funds it first, then we can figure out who does what,” Verster said. He also noted there are no set rules to have local contractors do the work, but that the “opportunities” are there.
Government officials have said the funds are only available for LRT and can’t be used for anything else. Despite that, some city councillors say they would prefer a bus rapid transit (BRT) system instead.
Nowlan said BRT was considered, but there would be significant impacts on congestion and it would have a lower capacity.
Verster said the benefits of a BRT are about half of an LRT. Both said LRT is more shovel-ready.
Ward 9 (upper Stoney Creek) councillor Brad Clark, who has written to the ministry supporting BRT along the A and B lines, continued his push.
“I find it truly troublesome, and disappointing, that the ministers have said it’s LRT or nothing which is politically Machiavellian and bordering on coercion,” he said.
Ward 6 (east Mountain) councillor Tom Jackson said the numbers aren’t where they need to be.
“Our ridership is nowhere near supporting an LRT,” he said.
He said the city should ask for the $3.4 billion to be used upgrading infrastructure and transit measures other than LRT.
Kris Jacobson, former city head of LRT and now BRT director at Metrolinx, noted future connections of HSR to LRT is a city initiative.
Already spent $165M
Metrolinx has already spent $165 million on the project. It first originated in 2007, when the city used a Metrolinx grant for an environmental assessment.
While several routes have been proposed, the one on the table would be a return to the original, running alternately down King and Main streets.
The previous Ontario Liberals committed $1 billion to the project in 2015. But the project was cancelled by Minister Caroline Mulroney’s PC government in December 2019, saying that the costs were higher than expected and that Hamilton wouldn’t be able to burden them.
In February, the province said it would pitch in $1 billion as long as the federal government helped out too. The current offer reflects a $700 million raise from that amount.