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Memo reveals over-hyped LRT prospects for Hamilton

Public and council were unaware of behind the scenes skepticism at Queens Park

A February 2010 staff memo to then Mayor Fred Eisenberger suggests that contrary to what the public was being told, senior Queen’s Park officials were far from enthusiastic about committing funds for LRT in Hamilton. In fact they were not even prepared to commit to the Light Rail Transit mode over Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The memo was drafted at a time when Hamilton Council was being urged to “get on board” for LRT, in an aggressive public relations campaign. Instead the staff memo suggests there was an apparent difference of opinion between Metrolinx—the LRT proponent, and senior bureaucrats at Queen’s Park who would have to come up with the funds for Hamilton. The memo described a telephone conversation between Hamilton staff and  Metrolinx Vice President John Howe where he acknowledges that BRT would perform better than LRT according to an analysis recently completed, but that LRT can be made to come out on top if more emphasis is placed on the city-building aspects of LRT. However Howe also cautioned that the disparity in the cost of the two systems “could be a barrier” to LRT. He also warned that a funding commitment was at least a year away. With the Pan-Am games still 5 years away, Howe discussed the possibility of a  “phased” LRT route that would connect downtown Hamilton to McMaster and which could be ready in time for the Games; but the memo added that Queen’s Park “will not be pressured into transit decisions.” The conversation ended on an optimistic note with Howe promising that he would try to sell the shorter LRT option to his board.

However, two days later the picture had changed significantly. In the interim, Howe had held a meeting with representatives of the Premier’s office and the head of Infrastructure Ontario, who were the ultimate deciders on any transit project, and the result was not encouraging. He was told flatly that the government “was not inclined to have a recommendation go forward regarding mode (BRT or LRT) for Hamilton and that they were reluctant to make a hard financial commitment.” He also said that rather than being in a competition with other Ontario cities for rapid transit, as was being circulated publicly, that actually Hamilton  was “in competition with the rest of the Province’s fiscal plan,” in other words that Hamilton’s needs would have to be ranked against all infrastructure needs across the province, not just transit. Also in doubt was the widely-held notion that Hamilton would receive 100 percent provincial funding for the project. For the first time Howe suggested that Hamilton might have to look at contributing up to 1/3 of the project costs as had been done in Ottawa and was being proposed for Waterloo. Howe suggested rewriting some of the studies to give LRT and BRT a more equal footing in the evaluation of benefits. But the memo suggests  Hamilton staff were concerned that  it was too late to try to reintroduce BRT after  it had been rejected so early in the public consultation process in Hamilton. Metrolinx had earlier provided Hamilton with $3Million to study LRT—a move that was interpreted in Hamilton as a signal that the city could expect ultimate approval of LRT. But Howe suggested  that the contribution was not being viewed that way at Metrolinx. Despite Very clear skepticism at Queen’s Park  regarding LRT for Hamilton Rob Prichard, the  Metrolinx Chair appeared in Hamilton a few weeks after the staff memo was written telling an audience that LRT for Hamilton would probably be Metrolinx’s “ next big announcement.”

The memo became a source of controversy when it was revealed the document was handed over to the Clark campaign by the mayor’s office after the Clark camp filed an FOI request, but before the FOI office had issued a ruling. Peggy Chapman, Mayor Bratina’s Chief of Staff says such release of documents is normal practice.  Setting aside the manner in which the memo was released, the document  shows a reality about LRT that was significantly at odds with what was being portrayed in public. A total of $9 Million was spent on studies promoting LRT, staging open houses and other forms of civic engagement including $6 Million contributed by Hamilton. Nonetheless, in his current campaign Fred Eisenberger is recommending another round of public engagement on the LRT question.


About John Best

John Best had enjoyed a lengthy media management career, in television and radio and now print. As Vice President, News at CHCH in Hamilton, John oversaw a significant expansion of the news operation. He founded Independent Satellite News, Canada’s only television news service providing national content to Canadian independent TV stations. John is a frequent political commentator on radio and television, a documentary producer and author of a book and numerous articles on historical and political subjects. John is a past recipient of the New York Festival’s award for writing in the International TV category.

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