There was a surprising amount of swagger in Thursday’s announcement that Ottawa and Queens Park are going to turn heaven and earth (and $3.4 Billion in other people’s money) to push LRT on Hamilton. Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna who hosted the virtual affair, after making sure everybody knew she was just a Hamilton girl after all, kicked the meeting off by making it clear that the Hamilton LRT only came about as a result of a shakedown of Doug Ford. She said the Toronto subway and LRT projects that were announced by the feds and the province on Tuesday were contingent on Ford coming up with another $700 million for the Hamilton LRT. It’s not all that surprising that such horse -trading goes on in deals of this magnitude; but it was little surprising to see McKenna rub Ontario Transport Minister Caroline Mulroney’s nose in it on the video call. Absent from the video conference were Flamborough-Glanbrook MPP Donna Skelly and Hamilton East-Stoney Creek MP Bob Bratina who have made no secret of their opposition to the project.
McKenna said there were social contract “conditions” attached to the deal, because every precious federal infrastructure dollar that gets spent must provide “multiple outcomes,” and that affordable housing “needs to be part of this.” Affordable housing has been used as a carrot for various mega-projects since the 1976 Montreal Olympic stadium which was supposed to cost $134 Million but came in slightly over budget at $1.1 Billion ($4.5 Billion in today’s dollars) and hasn’t had a permanent tenant in 16 years. The Minister was unable to answer whether the city would be expected to pay for the affordable housing, but did mention CMHC; in which case the “condition” is on her own government-nobody else.
It appears Hamilton council will still have to vote on the operating and maintenance part of the deal, and Mayor Fred Eisenberger said he was sure that the increase in the Hamilton tax base that would result from LRT would more than offset any O&M costs, apparently whether it be the $5 to $6 Million annual cost that he has been suggesting or the $30 Million that Metrolinx has estimated. There were little hints, however that there might be a way of working around council. Caroline Mulroney talked about the Building Transit Faster Act which allows EA’s and LPAT challenges to be bypassed in transit projects. She didn’t say it would or could be used to circumvent council, but she mentioned it in response to a reporter’s question about council’s role. It begs the question of whether, as Doug Ford’s part of the deal, he has only to put up the extra cash, which he has done, or whether it is also his task to muscle the deal through Hamilton Council.
None of this addresses the issue of what might have been the better transit solution for Hamilton. McKenna bluntly said that if Hamilton wanted any transit that was not LRT there would be no federal cash; ignoring the fact that it wouldn’t be needed—nor for that matter would Doug Ford’s extra $700 million. To those who really care about scarce infrastructure dollars, it might be purposeful to figure out how many affordable housing units could be bought for the instant $2.4 Billion the two senior governments have suddenly materialized. McKenna reminded us that LRT is really about providing transit for people with no other option. Whether those same people will be able to afford to live along the route, or even in Hamilton, is apparently a discussion for another day.