Imagine knowing since 2018 that Hamilton could have a billion dollars to spend on transit and other transportation infrastructure and doing absolutely nothing to explore the possibility. A billion dollars to spend—something no other community in Canada is being given—and yet nada out of this city council. We can’t count the number of times Doug Ford repeated his pledge to allow the $1Billion to stay in Hamilton, but nobody seemingly bothered to take him up on the offer, even on a what-if basis. So now we have the humiliating spectacle of a government-appointed citizen panel trying to figure out how to deploy the funds. You would have thought that council could have struck a sub-committee to work with staff to draw up a shopping list of possible projects for consideration. If they had gotten on with the job in 2018, we could have seen an orderly process with full involvement of council and the community. Even if the government had not cancelled the LRT when it did, it would have been prudent to develop a plan B; after all, many councillors were waiting to see how much Hamilton would have to pay for operating and maintaining the LRT, and many of them were pretty sure the number would be ugly enough to kill the project.
Was it fear of offending Fred Eisenberger and LRT supporters on council that any Plan B dare not be broached? Most of these councillors had no compunction about censuring, and obstructing Bob Bratina when he was mayor, why the timidity now? Or were there external forces exerting pressure on councillors? Whatever the case the taxpayers had a right to expect at least a basic level of competence and spine from their elected representatives. By meekly having the car keys taken out of their hands at the eleventh hour when perhaps the most monumental single decision in Hamilton’s history was needed, they have let down the community. Even when the government made it official in early December that they were killing LRT there was still enough time to pull together a project selection process, something that might have signalled to the government that this municipal government was capable of controlling its own destiny. But instead there was silence. Nobody tried to meet with our government representative, MPP Donna Skelly to discuss options. Maybe she frightens councillors. It was not helpful that Eisenberger had been warned months before the announcement that the costs of LRT were a concern and chose not to share it with anyone—apparently because he didn’t believe the numbers, because that would have provided more time for council to come up with a plan.
But here we are, spectators to a critical time of decision for our city. Councillors who want to criticize the fact that the Task Force will do its business in camera, need to look in the mirror. They brought this on themselves. The door was wide open for a year and a half for meaningful dialogue about infrastructure alternatives and they failed us. Thank goodness that they somehow managed to pass the Rapid Ready and BLAST transit proposals in the midst of all the LRT hoopla, because at least the Task Force will have that to consider.
For its part the Ford government should never have re-opened the door to the possibility of LRT. They cancelled it because it was not affordable. They should have taken the heat and left it at that. The handling of the announcement and its aftermath is the reason for the senior staff shakeup in Transport Minister Mulroney’s office. The Chief of staff now is Deb Hutton who was a take-no-prisoners force when she was chief of staff to Mike Harris. To those who think the federal government can revive LRT—know that the Canada-Ontario Infrastructure program requires an equal municipal contribution. If the construction cost for Hamilton LRT is approaching $3 Billion, it means Hamilton’s share will be somewhere around a billion dollars. Imagine the outcry in Kitchener and Ottawa, who paid their share, if somehow an exception were to be made for Hamilton. On top of having to come up with roughly $30 Million a year for debt servicing, Hamilton taxpayers would also be on the hook for roughly $30 Million a year for operating and maintenance according to government estimates. Whether we like it or not we will have to rely on the wisdom and judgment of the Task Force. Our city council left us no choice.