Ontario’s Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk says she is going to examine the cost estimates that Metrolinx and the government have put forward for several LRT project’s including Hamilton’s now-cancelled LRT. It will be good to have an independent third party examine these numbers because Hamiltonians have been operating under a false assumption for years that there was any way this project could be completed for $1 Billion dollars. According to Transport Minister Caroline Mulroney, her officials discovered that escalating costs for the Hamilton LRT were known to her predecessors in the Wynne cabinet, and yet nothing was said to alert anybody on Hamilton Council—at least not as far as we know…so far. Without that knowledge Hamiltonians have been engaged in a feckless debate over a project that might have been killed years ago had the true cost been known. The Bay Observer has submitted the cost estimates released Monday to a transit expert who told us the $2.8 Billion price tag might be a little high, but not by much.
For its part, Mulroney’s office made a dumb mistake in presenting the price tag at $5.5 Billion. Not that the final cost won’t be in that range, when interest and 30 year operating costs are taken into account; but simply because the construction cost of $2.8 Billion—almost triple the original estimate of $1 Billion –was more than enough to justify cancellation. There was no need to gild the lily and it has created an opening for critics to poke holes in the government’s estimates.
Time will tell, but anybody hoping that the Lysyk review will get Hamilton LRT back to a billion dollars will probably be disappointed. Lysyk has had Metrolinx on her radar screen ever since she issued a report last year that criticized Metrolinx for its failure to give adequate consideration to Bus Rapid Transit in three communities, including Hamilton. The Bay Observer has written frequently on how BRT was tossed from consideration a decade ago as a result of a public consultation process that was stacked for LRT.
Taken together, Lysyk’s move to dig into the books at Metrolinx along with the government’s cancellation of Hamilton’s LRT, suggest there are bumpy days ahead for the transit agency. Caroline Mulroney’s distrust of Metrolinx was evidenced by the fact that the commissioned a “shadow tender” into the Hamilton project in an effort to find out what the costs really amounted to. The suspicion is that Metrolinx has become obsessed with LRT for LRT’s sake, as many in Hamilton appear to have done, and the agency is no longer capable of objectivity on recommending appropriate transit solutions, if indeed it ever was. The whole scenario is reminiscent of a century ago when Sir Adam Back proposed to build electric interurban commuter railways all over southern Ontario. A few were built including three that passed through Hamilton, but they were all out of business within 15 years.