As Hamilton City Council approaches the first full year of the new term, once again LRT will be a dominant issue, at least for part of the year. As it stands now, according to the schedule that Metrolinx is apparently still working towards; 2019 should see the selection of a successful consortium to build the project, and the presentation of an operating and maintenance agreement for the transit system. In other words, despite all of Hamilton city council’s various votes on the LRT project in the past decade, only in the coming year will they finally find out whether the system can still be built for $1 Billion or whether Hamilton taxpayers will have to ante up a portion of the cost. At the same they should learn the operating and maintenance costs for the system and any impact that may have on the annual subsidy for the rest of the city’s transit system. Behind that sequence of events some questions remain for which the Bay Observer has been trying to get answers. Two of these include:
- Are any of the three consortia shortlisted to build the LRT actually working on bids? A source familiar with the project says they are not, pending some kind of signal from Queen’s Park. Metrolinx confirmed this week that no bids have been received on an RFP that went out nearly 9 months ago. The uncertainty is increased with the fact that Hamilton’s LRT team was ordered to cease property acquisitions last fall, and contrary to reports otherwise, Hamilton was the only LRT project singled out in this manner. The Bay Observer has asked Metrolinx to clarify whether there is a deadline for receiving the bids.
- What will be the impact of LRT on the current taxpayer subsidy for HSR? LRT will eliminate or greatly reduce the revenue potential of three of the city’s most productive bus routes. The B-Line express and the University routes will be eliminated completely, and the King route—currently the highest revenue- generating of all the city routes, will take a meandering course on side streets parallel to the LRT. Combined, the three affected routes account for almost a third of the city’s 22 Million passenger fares each year. What will the loss of revenue mean for the annual taxpayer subsidy, currently over $30 Million?
The Auditor-General report last fall also threw into question the entire rationale for LRT in Hamilton and elsewhere in the GTA by suggesting there had been insufficient consideration given to the less expensive Bus Rapid Transit option. The report says that in 2014 Metrolinx undertook further studies comparing the relative benefits of Bus Rapid Transit and LRT for three projects—two in Peel region and Hamilton. Says Lysyk’s report: “We found that, despite the fact that the draft analyses clearly showed the need to further review whether it is appropriate to proceed with the LRT option for three of the four projects,(Hamilton being one of them) Metrolinx took no action to address the results of its analysis. It indicated that it discussed these results with the Ministry of Transportation in meetings, but it was not able to provide details of what was shared or discussed at these meetings.” Specifically with regard to Hamilton the report says Metrolinx’s 2014 re-evaluation “concluded that BRT is the highest performing investment option under a medium land-use-intensification scenario.” As a result, “Metrolinx recommended in late 2014 that an intermediate business case, considering the changing context and alternative options, be completed before an investment decision (about BRT or LRT) was made. However, Metrolinx did not do any further analysis before the Province committed to funding the LRT in May 2015.” The Bay Observer has asked Metrolinx to provide the 2014 reports comparing BRT to LRT.
All of these unanswered questions come against the backdrop of the Ford government pledge to allow the $1 Billion earmarked for Hamilton LRT to be used for other forms of infrastructure—a development that clearly has sent several members of council back to the drawing board. While the recent re-election of Mayor Fred Eisenberger is viewed by LRT supporters as a clear endorsement of the scheme, the election also showed the project is very unpopular with voters in half the city’s wards. In addition four of the sitting members of council opposed Eisenberger’ s re-election, and at least another four councillors who voted for LRT last year have walked back their support in full or in part.