With Premier Wynne’s announcement that Hamilton will indeed get an LRT system, the focus in Hamilton is rapidly shifting to questions around the total funding envelope, the 10 year master Transit Plan, and the impact that will be experienced by businesses and residents along the route.
Ironically the decision to fund LRT came relatively quickly after years of fencing between Hamilton and the Province; once Hamilton Council approved a plan that so far is not being funded—the 10 year buses-first master plan introduced by transit boss David Dixon earlier this year. Along with a request for $300 million to develop the bus expansion scheme, was a direction from council that authorized City staff to negotiate directly with Metrolinx staff on the entire transit issue and it was these negotiations that led to the Kathleen Wynne announcement of LRT funding late last month. The other game changer was a clear declaration by the premier last winter that LRT funding would hinge on the system being connected to the West Harbour GO station as part of the province’s focus on Regional Express Rail. To make that a reality it was necessary to lop almost 3 Kilometers off the east end of Hamilton’s LRT to free up funds for the James Street spur.
The province has placed a clear priority on GO, thus the announcement that GO will proceed with a Centennial Parkway station that will be in operation before LRT is on stream. The Centennial station is seen as a possible nod to Niagara’s request for improved GO service. The long-awaited extra rail from the Freeman Junction to Hamilton– a necessity for increased GO service into Hamilton and beyond– is making good progress.
Hamilton City Manager, Chris Murray says the, 10 year bus-oriented Master Transit plan needs to be front and centre in the LRT planning process, in order to ensure that transit improvements affect all parts of the city, not just the King-Main corridor. It is important to note that council earlier this year favoured the Master Plan over LRT by a margin of 12 to 4 and as Chad Collins suggested, a straight up or down vote on LRT would likely have been negative if it had been forced. While sources with the Ontario Government suggest that buying buses for Hamilton is not on because it would trigger a spate of similar requests province-wide; Chris Murray points to Transportation Del Duca’s comment that the province will try to be “creative” in helping the Master Plan as a hopeful sign. “I consider the $1Billion announcement as a vote of confidence for Hamilton,” Murray said, noting that Hamilton is the only community of those receiving LRT funds that is not building the system primarily to relieve congestion. He reiterated his long-held view that cities like Hamilton are facing a demographic Tsunami; and that we need economic development to support an aging population. “We also need improved transit across the city as the province implements cognitive testing for aging drivers. This will result in more elderly people becoming dependent on transit, and many of them live on the mountain,” Murray said.
The LRT funding announcement raises questions about the role for the Mayor’s proposed citizen panel and another committee promoted by Councillor Sam Merulla. With the question of “whether” LRT settled as well as the routing; the committees may end up turning their attention to issues like area rating for transit, and how to deal with the construction phase where many businesses will be negatively affected by the construction disruption. The committee that was struck in 2007 consisted largely of LRT supporters who at that point were pressing for a service with no connection to the GO system. People close to file suggest that the panel needs to be truly representative of the entire community and needs to have the resources to look at the implementation of LRT using evidence-based metrics, not the hoop-la that surrounded the original community consultations. Another unresolved issue is cost sharing. In making last month’s announcement, the minister used the phrase “up to” a billion dollars which seemed to suggest a hard cap on funding. It leaves open the question of what the final price tag might be in 2019-to 2025 dollars when the money will actually be spent. Also unresolved is how much it might cost to relocate underground utilities which Queens Park sources suggest will not be included in the provincial allocation.