What was expected to be routine General Issues Committee meetings last month threatened to erupt into another existential debate on LRT, as a number of councillors sharpened their line of questioning about aspects of the project. The Committee was considering a recommendation from the LRT Subcommittee to add an additional stop at King and Bay Street—a recommendation that was widely seen as a done deal. Somewhat surprisingly it was Clr. Lloyd Ferguson, who has been a supporter of the project overall, who said he would not support the Bay Street stop, which he cautioned, amounted to “mission creep” a situation he said would ultimately result in cost overruns. Ultimately the Bay Street stop was dropped in a 9-6 vote by the committee only to be overturned days later in full council following a last minute media campaign by Hamilton Chamber of Commerce President Keenan Loomis. At the request of Clr. Jason Farr, an LRT proponent, the matter was deferred to a special LRT meeting at the end of this month. The vote to scrap the Bay Street stop may have more to do with councillors who are non-supporters or skeptics of LRT finding their voice than the actual merits of the stop. The two councillors who changed their vote to allow the deferral, Jackson and Pearson, at the same time expressed reservations about the project. In a radio interview Jackson complained about the number of changes that have popped up since the project was first announced nearly two years ago. As to his vote to allow the Farr deferral request, Jackson said it is a routine courtesy that council colleagues extend to each other. Jackson also took a swipe at the Loomis campaign to save the stop. “After all the lobbying over seven days, with heavy hitters in town—you were only able to change two votes; I would suggest…that is a demonstration of growing nervousness in the city about this project.” For her part, Clr. Pearson said “we have been advised by a fellow councillor that council has voted 40 times on the LRT in favour of the project, I really question that as far as what was actually voted on,” adding that her personal preference would be for a bus rapid transit (BRT) system.
As the discussion on LRT droned on for about two hours, Clr. Maria Pearson who was chairing the meeting, complained that at every meeting she had chaired that month as Deputy Mayor, LRT had dominated the discussion and prolonged meetings. “If there was any reference to LRT on an agenda item, the meeting immediately got bogged down,” she told council. She recommended that there be a special GIC meeting each month where nothing but LRT would be on the agenda, where all relevant LRT staff could be on hand to answer questions, leaving other important city business for the other GIC meetings during the month. Clr. Farr, who has been chair of the LRT committee until last month said the motion amounted to an expression of mistrust in the work of his committee; but in the end he would support the change. Clr. Skelly in supporting the change said she was sick of constantly being told information would be forthcoming sometime in the future. “If we can’t discuss LRT here (at GIC), when can we discuss it?” she asked. In the end the motion to stage a special LRT meeting each month passed with only two members dissenting. Taken together the two votes suggest there is a greater degree of scrutiny in store for the LRT project going forward.
The LRT Subcommittee has 7 councillor members– Mayor Eisenberger, Aiden Johnson, Jason Farr, Matthew Green, Sam Merulla and Lloyd Ferguson–all LRT supporters and Terry Whitehead, who has been an LRT skeptic in past, but who has also said he will support LRT “done right.” Observers from council and community have told the Bay Observer that the LRT Subcommittee did not provide a particularly welcoming or respectful atmosphere for those who were opposed to the project or who voiced concerns, hence the initiative to move decision making and debate to a more ideologically- balanced forum like GIC.
Prefacing some of their tough questions to staff several councillors nonetheless praised the cool manner in which LRT boss Paul Johnson has handled the hot file, but the questions showed growing impatience with the lack of clear answers about costs, property expropriation, and other aspects of the project. So far councillors are being told the $1Billion provincial contribution will be sufficient to build the B line LRT from the Queenston Traffic Circle to McMaster, to add any extra LRT stops that may be approved at a cost of $2.5 Million, to fund an A line bus or BRT service from the harbour to the Airport, and most recently, to possibly accommodate public benefits which might include public housing and community centres. Also unclear is how the proposal to install an A line Bus system extending from the Harbour to the Airport would differ from the current A line system , which experiences one of the lowest ridership levels in the HSR system.
LRT raised its head again at a second GIC meeting last month in a discussion about Hamilton’s worsening infrastructure deficit. Skelly told her colleagues that, but for LRT, Hamilton would have been eligible for 500 to 600 million dollars in unrestricted, or less restricted infrastructure funding. She said the province, when it announced its $31 Billion Moving Ontario Forward fund in 2015, added Hamilton to the newly named GTHA. The GTHA would receive roughly half of the funding all of which was earmarked towards higher order transit like LRT. The other half of the fund which went to municipalities outside the GTAH could be used for a wider variety of infrastructure projects including roads. Mayor Eisenberger jumped on the assertion as ‘nonsense’, but under questioning from Skelly, City Treasurer Mike Zegarac confirmed that Hamilton, were it outside the GTHA, would have been eligible for roughly a half billion dollars in infrastructure funding although he could not say how much latitude would have been allowed in the use of those funds.