Hamilton willingness to pay a share may be tested
The new Hamilton city council will be confronted with some serious decision-making around the LRT issue in the coming term, and at this point council lacks the necessary information to make an informed decision. Premier Doug Ford, asked about LRT at a hospital announcement in Grimsby, reiterated that Hamilton council will get LRT if it wants it, but was not asked about cost overruns. Mayor Fred Eisenberger has stated that he wants council to cast an “affirmation vote” early in its term to keep the project on-track with the Ford Government. But sources familiar with the file have told the Bay Observer that the latest cost estimate for the project could be in excess of $1.3 Billion, possibly higher; and that the province will not budge beyond its commitment of $1 Billion for the project; leaving a shortfall of $300 Million to be made up by Hamilton taxpayers, and possibly more. The Bay Observer has asked representatives of Infrastructure Ontario and Metrolinx for comment on possible cost overruns and the response was almost identical. Bob Nichols of the Ontario Ministry of Transport replied, “Metrolinx is in the procurement phase of the project, with a Request for Proposals released April 13. We are unable to share detailed budget information at this time. In doing so we ensure a competitive bid process that will deliver the most competitive price. Please stay tuned for more information.” He was unable to provide a date when the successful bidder and the final price tag would be released, but it will certainly be in the New Year.
In addition to the possible capital cost overrun, council has yet to see the operating and maintenance agreement that it will need to approve once a consortium is selected to design and build the line. A 2010 Metrolinx report stated the extra operating cost associated with LRT would be $12.5 Million per year; and that figure did not address the financial impact of removing several of the HSR’s highest revenue-producing lines from service. Currently the taxpayer subsidizes the HSR by over $30 Million a year. The Bay Observer has contacted Mayor Eisenberger’s office asking the following questions:
- Has there been any indication from QP officials about the final price tag on the Hamilton project, We have heard it could end up being in the $1.3-$1.5 Billion range. And that the province will not increase its $1Billion commitment.
- Does the mayor favor holding the affirmation vote that is being discussed, before knowing the final price?
- If there is a requirement for Hamilton to pay a share would the mayor still be recommending that we proceed with the project or might he consider other infrastructure uses of the funding?
At press time The Bay Observer had not received a response.
Premier Doug Ford and Flamborough—Glanbrook MPP Donna Skelly have repeatedly stated that the province is open to using the $1 Billion earmarked for LRT for other infrastructure options. Sources at Queens Park have told the Bay Observer that even before the recent announcement of the GM closure in Oshawa, the new government favours supporting initiatives that support permanent jobs. Skelly is Parliamentary Assistant to the Ministry of Economic Development and Jobs; but to date, Skelly says no one on Hamilton City council has reached out to her to ask for more clarification. “I will be happy to respond to a formal request for information in writing, and take it up with my colleagues to provide answers,” she told the Bay Observer. Brad Clark, newly re-elected to Council for Stoney Creek mountain agrees; “The devil is in the details, and we don’t have the details,” said Clark, “What we don’t have answers for is what if the cost of LRT is $1.3 Billion…will Hamilton be expected to pay the difference? And if council decides to use the money for other infrastructure, what kinds of projects will be eligible? Only then can council make an informed decision. City Council needs to seek a project update from the provincial government through our local MPP, Donna Skelly.”
Should council decide LRT is too expensive and opt for other infrastructure projects, one possible initiative might be the acceleration of the full servicing of Hamilton’s Airport Employment Growth District (AEGD) at an estimated cost of $125 to $150 Million. A major development was recently announced for the precinct, and the city’s economic development plans call for the AEGD to play a significant role in providing the tens of thousands of jobs that will be needed to support Hamilton’s future growth. The servicing of the Airport Employment lands could trigger heightened interest in reviving the Niagara-to-GTA corridor, which was mothballed by the McGuinty government despite reports it would be urgently needed by the 2030’s. The Federal government could be a possible funding partner in that initiative under its recently-announced strategy to promote international trade corridors.
On the transit side, implementing the BLAST system serving all parts of the city, and especially ramping up service to the mountain and suburbs, would run to about $100 Million exclusive of a new maintenance facility. The province also needs to address the lagging extension of all-day GO train service to the West Harbour and beyond to the proposed new Stoney Creek GO station. The latter project would not only serve Stoney Creek but would open up a new commuting option for Niagara Residents and the Elfrida growth district which is expected to add 80,000 residents in the coming decade.
LRT proponents insist the project has been “studied to death” and that depending on who is counting, Council has voted for the project dozens of times. But in fact there has never been a detailed study comparing LRT to Bus rapid transit– the latter of which was rejected on the strength of 151 comment cards from two open houses in 2008. Council’s various votes on the topic were taken without the benefit of any detailed capital or operating cost figures. In 2019 Council will finally see the numbers.