It was billed as a Hamilton Light Rail Transit Update from Kris Jacobson, the head of the Hamilton LRT office; but as in past updates on LRT, the meeting became essentially a case of two ships passing in the night on totally different courses. The Jacobson presentation focused on what was being done to assist tenants displaced by the project, and how many doors had been knocked on in a public consultation exercise. But for several members of council their questions were back at the starting line – essentially questioning the very existence of the project.
Terry Whitehead wondered how the city will deal with the 20,000 cars that are estimated to be displaced by LRT and will end up going through adjacent residential neighbourhoods. The answer was “we will monitor the situation.” Asked to provide the budget range that would have been in the RFP that was given to bidders, the answer was no, that number is commercially confidential. Whitehead argued that given that the bidders already know the number, there is now no reason that the number should not be public. The Bay Observer has filed a Freedom of Information request to Infrastructure Ontario to try to get the number, which is believed to be well in excess of the original $1 Billion price tag for Hamilton’s LRT.
Discussion then turned to the fact that with what is already spent there is only $850 Million left for the actual construction of the LRT line. Mayor Eisenberger was pressed to show where it is written that the province will allow escalation due to inflation since 2014 as he had asserted was the case.
Then the discussion turned to the elephant in the room–now that there is general agreement that the final price tag is going to exceed the $1 Billion budget, how will the shortfall be made up? There have been rumours floating around that a third party might kick in some money, but when questioned about it, Finance Chief Mike Zegarac said any third party involvement might mean they would have to become part of the ownership group, prompting the question of whether that would mean re-opening the bid process. Zegarac said a fundamental change in the ownership of the project could lead to reconsideration of the project by council.
Another possible solution that has popped up recently is to simply shorten the project to fit within the budget, in transit language it is referred to as “scoping.” Mr. Jacobson was unable to say if the project were to be significantly altered to stay within budget, whether that would require re-bidding.
To a question from Coun. Chad Collins; namely, what is our obligation towards the $150 Million that has already been spent? The answer was “it’s a sensitive subject.” On the issue of cost overruns, Mayor Eisenberger jumped in and suggested the Province might go to the Federal government for the extra money; contradicting Transport Minister Jeff Yurek who said on his recent visit to Hamilton that it would be up to the City to make such a request. One councillor observed that Hamilton’s share of Federal funding right now is geared towards the city’s maintenance and storage facility—in other words, all going to conventional transit, not LRT. Federal funding for other LRT projects in Ontario, namely Kitchener and Ottawa was predicated on the municipality kicking in a share, something that Hamilton council has repeatedly said it will not do. The 2015 announcement by then Premier Wynne that Hamilton would receive provincial funding without a municipal contribution was greeted with outrage in Kitchener where taxpayers had agreed to a special municipal levy to pay for their share of LRT.
Councillor Lloyd Ferguson, heretofore an LRT supporter, nonetheless asked why is Metrolinx not here? He added, “a possible cost overrun is a sensitive matter. I feel we are being set up. The new premier has been brutally clear that we’re capped at $1 Billion.” To Jacobson he said, “my fear is that you will continue to spend money with a final price tag a year away…to say you can’t provide the number is no good. We need to see the number now. I want an answer now.” Another LRT supporter, John Paul Danko wondered “why “we are still looking at completion in 2024 even though we have lost a year?” He added that he shares concerns about a cost overrun.
LRT opponent Brad Clark, referring to past claims that council had voted its approval for LRT 60 times, when many said they were only voting to allow studies and planning to continue, declared, “ I’m still opposed. I’ll vote against, receiving the staff report…I’m not going to participate in these 60 “yes” votes. I am not going to participate in that ’silliness.” He called for a detailed accounting of the $150 Million that has been spent so far. He accused Metrolinx of spending significant amounts of money on public relations and strategy firms. Councillor Judy Partridge also boycotted receiving the staff report, saying, “we’re forging ahead like a runaway train.”
Near the end of the meeting, Mayor Eisenberger told council that Hamilton will not get a billion dollars to spend on other projects as the Premier had stated several times. The Bay Observer sought clarification from Minister Yurek’s office and got the following response from the Minister’s spokesperson, “If the city decides not to move forward with the LRT project, the ministry will review any alternate transit and infrastructure project the city would like to put forward for funding.”
Perhaps responding to Coun. Ferguson’s questioning the absence of Metrolinx representatives at the meeting, the city announced late last month that Metrolinx President Phil Verster will attend the next LRT information session sometime this coming summer.