2018 Elections will be decisive…or not
In year-end radio and print interviews Mayor Fred Eisenberger acknowledged that the LRT issue has now been strung out long enough that there is no way final agreements can be signed before this year’s provincial and municipal elections and as a result, LRT will be a major issue in both elections. The mayor added that he is prepared to stake his support for LRT in his bid for re-election, and suggested that voters take into account the stance of any other municipal candidate on the issue when voting next October.
This publication and other news outlets predicted that 2017 would be the year when LRT was put to rest once and for all, but once again the forecasts underestimated the uncanny propensity of Hamilton City Council to rag the puck on key issues like LRT, like Ward Boundary reform and any number of critical issues. It looked like LRT had been finally put to rest on April 19th when to the surprise of many, Hamilton Council voted 11-5 to approve an environmental assessment document that effectively allowed the project to proceed to the next steps which would involve putting the project to tender and submitting an operating and maintenance agreement with the city. Three previously declared opponents or skeptics of the project—Councillors Terry Whitehead, Tom Jackson and Chad Collins—changed their votes following a week of intense lobbying by union leaders and other prominent LRT supporters. Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas MPP Ted McMeekin warned councillors they risked being guilty of walking away from a billion dollar “gift” even though Premier Wynne was less definite and as recently as one week before the crucial vote refused to agree when asked point blank if it was “LRT or nothing.”
At the peak of what should have been the grand finale after nearly a decade of discussion, the project strangely appeared to lose some momentum. A couple of objections were filed against the environmental assessment, and while these were ultimately rejected, the process ate up another month and a half. Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown visited Hamilton, took part in a LIUNA golf tournament, and then told a group of supporters that a PC government would allow Hamilton Council to determine how they wanted the transit money to be spent, be it LRT or BRT or something else.
Shortly after that, following a campaign by the city’s transit union; Hamilton Council led by Matthew Green, voted to recommend that the Amalgamated Transit Union be designated to operate and maintain the LRT system. What seemed like a bit of a motherhood issue– Hamilton councils have traditionally taken pro-union stances on any number of issues—seemed to catch Metrolinx off-guard. Metrolinx took a full four months to respond to the Hamilton proposal, advising that the agency could live with having ATU members operate the system, but if council insisted on the maintenance issue it would be back to the drawing board in terms of shortlisting potential consortia to deliver the system. Adding to the delay in response from Metrolinx was the wholesale departure of its senior management team, some willingly, some not, leaving the agency in limbo for several months. In the end council backed down on the maintenance issue and watered down the ATU-as-operator issue. Essentially council was back to where it was four months earlier—a fact that netted Green some criticism for grandstanding and wasting time on the project. At this point LRT friend and foe alike acknowledged that there would be no firm commitment on LRT until after it had been tested in two elections. Although any connection is being denied, it is significant that LRT project Manager Paul Johnson will leave that post to take over a senior position as deputy to City Manager Chris Murray. Johnson was seen by observers on both sides of the LRT issue as an articulate and capable stick-handler of the tricky file. His replacement will face a host of challenges in a time of considerable uncertainty.