April’s meeting between Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek, Mayor Fred Eisenberger and Flamborough-Glanbrook MPP Donna Skelly managed to clarify a few points about the decade –long project, but there were still questions unanswered when the less than 30 minute meeting ended. The most important fact to come out of the meeting is that it will be up to city council, and nobody else, to decide whether to proceed with the project or ask the province to fund other infrastructure, as Premier Ford had said he was willing to do. Stories emerged after the meeting that the Ontario Government had reverted to the Wynne government’s “LRT–or-nothing” scenario but this was firmly denied by Skelly. The Bay Observer put the question to Andrew Buttigieg, the Minister’s Press Secretary who replied as follows, “The LRT is the project that has been presented by the City of Hamilton to the province. Yesterday, the Minister reaffirmed the government’s financial commitment to that project.” In other words, Hamilton Council has not asked for any alternative to LRT and until they do, the government will continue to proceed with the project. One source told the Bay Observer, that much as some councillors might hope that the province will step in and kill the project, the decision has to be council’s. As Martha Reeves put it in the Motown song, “there’s nowhere to run to…nowhere to hide…”
Some clarity emerged from the meeting on a couple of points. For one thing, all sides are now clear that the provincial contribution to the project is capped at $1 Billion dollars, and out of that amount, over $100 Million has already been spent. Emerging from the meeting both Yurek and Eisenberger talked about a possible federal top-up, although federal grants to local transit projects have typically been premised on all three levels making a contribution, as is the case with the Kitchener-Waterloo LRT and the LRT project in Ottawa. An exception would have to be made to allow Hamilton to get off with no contribution. As well, there is now general acceptance that the project cost will exceed the $1 Billion provincial contribution, by how much is unknown, but figures in the $1.4 to $1.6 Billion have been suggested by persons familiar with provincial infrastructure tendering. Councillor Terry Whitehead said “It is abundantly clear that the McMaster to Eastgate cost will be far greater than what the province has set aside.”
Yurek announced that the province has lifted the freeze on property acquisitions along the route, which Mayor Eisenberger had cited as the reason none of the three shortlisted consortia had submitted a bid as the deadline for receiving bids ran out. The RFP process has now been extended by an additional six months. Whitehead questioned whether it made sense to continue to acquire property, especially in the eastern portion of the route, given that there has been some suggestion from the mayor that the project might be shortened to stay within available funding.
The funding shortfall issue cannot be addressed until the construction consortia submit bids, and even after that, council will at some point receive its last kick at the can in the form of an Operating and Maintenance agreement. LRT will have a significant financial impact on some of the HSR’s most lucrative routes—King, B-Line (which will disappear), and the University line. Only at that time will Council learn what impact LRT will have on its current subsidy to HSR of over $30 Million annually. What is clear, that with the six month extension on bids for Hamilton’s LRT the debate will rage on into 2020.