It looks like some political fence-mending will be required between Hamilton and Queen’s Park following Mayor Fred Eisenberger’s  meeting last month with Premier Wynne to discuss LRT funding. The meeting was billed as an attempt to get some clarity around the amount of cash the province was willing to give Hamilton to fund transit. What ensued, however, was a pair of sharply contradictory media scrums by the Premier and the Mayor that had Queen’s Park insiders shaking their heads.

Following his morning meeting with the Premier, Eisenberger emerged to leave reporters with the impression that the premier had once again committed to the full cost of the $811 Million LRT project. In a scrum the mayor said  “It was clear, it was unequivocal, I asked her multiple times, the answer was the same each and every time,” said Eisenberger. “The answer was the same: fully committed to 100 per cent funding for LRT.” The mayor’s declaration was met with surprise  by some at Queen’s Park, one source close to the meeting who told the Bay Observer, “usually it’s the party doing the funding that makes funding announcements.”

A few hours later at her own media scrum the Premier , when told of the mayor’s  interpretation that she had made a specific commitment to fund whatever LRT would cost, “well I’d be very surprised if the mayor said that in terms of a number because we had an explicit conversation about (the fact)  that we can’t land on a number because the work hasn’t been done.”

The premier pointedly refused to use the word LRT, instead referring to “rapid transit” throughout her remarks. She also introduced what appeared to be a new emphasis on the need for Hamilton’s transit plans to be fully integrated with the GO rail and bus system both at the new James Street North station and the future Centennial Go station in Stoney Creek. Such connectivity would be in alignment with the Rapid Ready transportation document produced by city transit staff in 2013. The Rapid Ready Plan endorses LRT but only after Hamilton’s conventional bus system first undergoes massive expansion aimed at increasing transit usage in Hamilton to levels that would justify LRT. At present Hamilton lags far behind other comparable Canadian cities in ridership per capita. Throughout her remarks the premier used the phrase “Regional Express Rail,” repeatedly; suggesting  there may be some consideration being given to make use of the eventual GO rail line through Hamilton to Stoney Creek as  at least part of  local transit option, much as Toronto Mayor John Tory proposes to use surface GO lines in Toronto.

Overall the premier appeared to suggest that full electrification of the GO system might take precedence over projects like Hamilton’s LRT. She made it clear that she is aware that Hamilton is far from unanimous on the need  for LRT both at the council table and in the public, saying; “there are people in Hamilton who are eagerly awaiting …as a priority—the Regional Express Rail and  there are people  in Hamilton eagerly awaiting the rapid transit as a priority,” adding, “this whole conversation has to take place within the context of the work we are doing on regional express rail, because that’s part of what Hamilton needs. Hamilton doesn’t just need the rapid transit within Hamilton city boundaries. Hamilton residents also need that connectivity with the Greater Toronto Area.”

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Whether in reference to the differing interpretations of the outcome of the meeting with Eisenberger  or not; the premier on more than one occasion, in a scrum that lasted four minutes, hinted Hamilton’s transit future would be best sorted out  at a senior  staff level, rather than by politicians, saying, “that discussion has to happen now between  our officials and the Hamilton officials.”

As it stands now, the government will release its list of first priority transit projects  in the next couple of months, and one source said, “I doubt Hamilton will be on that list.” Both Hamilton and Queen’s Park have blamed each other for a lack of specifics on Hamilton’s Transit future; although Hamilton did send the Rapid ready report to Queen’s Park in 2013 with a unanimous council resolution describing Rapid ready as “the City of Hamilton’s submission to Metrolinx in accordance with the Contribution Agreement between the City and Metrolinx.” What was missing in the council resolution, no doubt owing to the persistent perception then, that council remained 100% behind LRT; was a specific direction for staff to sit down and negotiate the implementation of the bus-first plan.

With the municipal election behind it, Council may now be better equipped  to get down to brass tacks on the divisive transit issue. The Bay Observer has surveyed councillors as to whether they would be willing to get behind the more immediately affordable Rapid Ready scheme and councillors, Aidan Johnson, Jackson, Duvall, Vanderbeek and Conley all expressed some interest in considering it more closely. In addition, David Dixon, Hamilton’s new Director of Transportation is expected to unveil a transit master plan soon. Without getting into specifics, City Manager Chris Murray said, “the presentation next month will provide greater specificity on the direction Council provided when it supported Rapid Ready.”  So clarity may finally be on the way. As the Queens Park source put it, “The province is not going to make a decision for Hamilton, figure out what you want and we will be there.”

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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