At some point somebody has got to put their hand up and ask, “what the hell is going on with LRT in Hamilton?”
A story in the Hamilton Spectator Tuesday details efforts by LIUNA vice -president Joe Mancinelli in shuttling between the Federal Government and Queen’s Park trying to put together a funding formula to allow the Hamilton LRT to get built. The report suggests that LIUNA is prepared to put up an unspecified amount from its Pension fund, with the caveat that such a contribution will require a return on investment. Amazingly the story quotes Mayor Fred Eisenberger as saying “it would be inappropriate to comment on third party discussions we are not yet a part of.” Really? So who then, is authorizing Mr. Mancinelli in this pursuit on Hamilton’s behalf? As Clr. Chad Collins said at a meeting recently and reiterated in the Spectator, it’s not council. Council has been completely in the dark on this latest round of negotiations.
No longer LRT or Nothing
The last time Council was consulted on Hamilton LRT was in 2017, when they voted, after relentless outside pressure, to allow the project to proceed to an environmental study. At that time council was assured it would have the final say, when finally, it would get to see some hard numbers about what Hamilton taxpayers would have to pay for this scheme. At that 2017 meeting, several councillors indicated they voted to allow further progress on LRT, only because they were faced with “LRT or Nothing.” When the current government was running for office in 2018, they promised to allow Hamilton to decide how the $1Billion would be spent—a promise that has been repeated many times since.
Transit Technology has advanced
In the roughly dozen years since LRT was first raised as a possibility for Hamilton, there have been significant technological advances in public Transit. Bus Rapid Transit has gained significantly in popularity as communities search for more cost-effective and flexible transit solutions. There is now good research showing that there is very little difference in the economic uplift provided by BRT vs LRT. Electric buses, only a dream a decade ago, are being rolled out all over Canada, with the help of funding being contributed by Minister McKenna. So what really, is behind this obsession with one transit mode over others that are far more affordable and flexible than fixed rail and would give us so much more transit in Hamilton?
BRT received short shrift
From the beginning this project has been on two tracks—what council is hearing; versus what is really going on. The Bay Observer has described in previous articles the way public consultation was manipulated to dismiss Bus Rapid Transit as an option for Hamilton from the get-go. Essentially 150 respondents made that decision for us while nobody was paying attention.
LIUNA: Great corporate citizen
LIUNA has been a tremendously positive force in Hamilton. They were investing in downtown Hamilton, when nobody else was. Their advocacy on behalf of their membership, in training, safety and retirement security is impressive. They are a great corporate citizen. But can an individual organization in our community, no matter how community-minded, simply run away with a project like this and expect our elected council to just sit by and await the outcome?
Hamilton will likely have to contribute
Reading between the lines in today’s article, Minister McKenna says the Federal contribution will be capped at 40 percent. The article suggests the province will be asked to up its share from the $1Billion and beyond that, maybe to cover off the interest payments on the private sector share. One wonders what the political response will be in Kitchener-Waterloo and the City of Ottawa when they learn that while they were borrowing hundreds of millions, in the case of K-W and five billion in the case of Ottawa to pay their share of LRT. Hamilton somehow qualified for a free ride. It is appearing less likely that there is an LRT solution that will not involve a contribution from Hamilton. If Hamilton wanted to borrow money to build LRT they could do so on very favourable terms without going to third parties. The city’s credit is good. The question has never been where to get the money but whether the city was prepared to enter into debt for LRT, and the answer has been consistently no.
A better vision
Councillor Chad Collins is right to bring forward a motion asking the province to answer questions about this project. But council also needs to start digging in to understanding the possible alternatives to LRT that they can get for a $1 Billion dollar budget. Even in its last technical report, Metrolinx outlined an innovative BRT solution for Hamilton that would make use of both Main Street and King Street. They seemed to be trying to tell us something. The alternative is a truncated LRT line that replaces an existing well-functioning express and local bus network with a system that will require transfers at each end. (And, while we know politics does not enter into the equation–a system that only serves two NDP provincial ridings.)
LRT opponents have been dismissed as lacking vision. But maybe the real vision here is a transit system that covers the entire 15 wards—an exciting plan that involves cutting edge, flexible and green technology, including transit-on-demand—all new innovations that did not exist a decade ago; and which can be obtained within the budget that has been allocated. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s time for council to step into the spotlight and set up a transit sub-committee to start getting those answers from experts.