Mayor Bob Bratina posting in his blog about his recent trip to the AMO conference in Ottawa, says Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli made it clear that Hamilton will be expected to pay a share of the cost of LRT. This latest pronouncement is the culmination of a slow, 180 degree retreat from the optimism of 2008, when it was speculated the province would pick up the whole tab for LRT. Looking at the record, it is really not clear from where the notion of a free LRT ride came. When he was Chair of Metrolinx, Rob MacIssac suggested that Hamilton would do well in the LRT sweepstakes, but even then also cautioned Hamilton to set some money aside. That was in the spring of 2008, a few months before the stock crash and recession of 2008, that had governments everywhere scrambling for cash in the wake of lower tax revenues and the need to stimulate the economy. Then came a huge change in the governance structure of Metrolinx—moving from a body composed of municipal mayors to a non-political body composed of transportation stakeholders. With MacIssac’s departure to take the helm at Mohawk College, the top Metrolinx job went to a career public servant, Bruce McCuaig. From there estimates of what might be Hamilton’s share of LRT began to rise. First it was 15% and by the end of 2009 our share was now being set at 25%. A number of members of Hamilton City Council said the cost was too high and they were not sure Hamilton needed LRT. Still Metrolinx continued to send positive signals to Hamilton suggesting it ask for LRT over other transit options. Just before the 2010 election, Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger tried to organize a “swat team” of community leaders to lobby Queen Park for LRT cash. Under Eisenberger, an LRT study team was set up to explore the feasibility and benefits of LRT. Metrolinx provided $4Million for studies to support the team’s work. Before the team’s mandate was sharply cut back by Hamilton City Manager, Chris Murray last year, it had spent a total of $9.1 Million–$5 Million of that was the City of Hamilton’s direct investment. Designs unveiled at public meetings in early 2011 showed an $1 Billion LRT that would make the trip from Eastgate Square to McMaster University in 31 minutes. A Bay Observer reporter boarded a regular B-Line Bus at Eastgate and made it to Mac in 34 minutes.
A recent report prepared for the City by the McMaster Institute of Transportation and Logistics, while still favourable overall to LRT, pointed out that LRT does not always bring the ancillary development that people predict, and that in the case of a severely distressed city like Buffalo, LRT cannot on its own turn around urban decay if it has become too entrenched.
The question facing Hamilton planners now is whether some sort of phasing of LRT might be the better option. Hamilton is expected to hit its borrowing limit sometime later in this decade, mainly because of water and wastewater requirements associated with our planned growth. But very recently staff have taken a second look at the future demands on the Woodward Street Sewage Treatment plant and there now is a belief that the massive expansion that had originally been forecast might be able to be delayed or scaled back. If that is the case the city might be able to come up with a more modest LRT proposal that would fit within the debt envelope. Two years ago in the Bay Observer Metrolinx officials were asked about a shorter configuration of the B line—say downtown to McMaster and possibly an A Line Connection between the Stuart Street Go terminal and Downtown—and the Metrolinx response was that they were open to a “phased” approach to LRT. Last year the HSR, which had been largely left out of the LRT study, put forward its own plan to completely reconfigure public transit in Hamilton—especially the majority of the city that will not be on an LRT line and will still require bus transit. That plan will need to be implemented whether Hamilton gets LRT or not, but the good news is that its capital cost is a relatively modest $65 Million for new buses and shelters.