It was an all-day marathon, but out of it Hamilton’s General Issues Committee gleaned a few more nuggets of information about the Hamilton LRT project in a question and answer session with provincial transportation officials. In the end the expected vote on asking staff to develop a Memorandum of Understanding was deferred for two weeks to allow staff to provide council with more information.
Operating and maintenance $20 Million/yr
First the issue of who will get the LRT farebox was cleared up-it will go to the city. On the issue of the operating and maintenance cost of an LRT system councillors were told the annual cost in year one will be $20 Million. Asked why it was now $20 Million when provincial figures produced in 2019 showed $30 Million, Metrolinx President Phil Verster and James Nowlan, an Assistant Deputy Minister with MTO talked about the difference between allowing for inflation over the lifecycle of the project. The 20 Million will be the first-year cost to Hamilton only, they said.
HSR might not supply drivers
The guests talked about how the $20 Million could be reduced by deducting the farebox revenue and any savings obtained by the displacement of roughly 18 buses and drivers. But then council was told that HSR drivers may not end up operating the system as had been assumed after the 2017 debate where it appeared the matter had been settled. What was not addressed was the question of the revenue impact LRT might have on some of Hamilton’s top revenue-producing bus lines that will be displaced by LRT.
Verster described breaking the project into component parts and tendering separately on each portion as a way of mitigating the massive cost overruns that have plagued some of the other LRT projects in the province. The first component he said would be the replacement of the utilities under the route and he suggested that work could start as early as next year. With regard to utilities Verster made it clear that LRT would not result in a wholesale re-build of the underground utilities along the route, but only those utilities that needed to be moved or placed deeper. He also said that Metrolinx would only replace existing utilities—that Hamilton would have to pay the difference if they decided to enhance the utilities in any way by
Asked what would happen if the project ran over its $3.4 Billion budget, Nowlan confirmed that the cost overruns will be borne by the province. Councillor Chad Collins remarked that he thought the $3.4 Million was probably a low estimate given that it was developed in 2019 dollars.
Affordable Housing discussed
Councillor Tom Jackson, in a spirited round of questioning, wanted to know how the LRT can succeed without first implementing the BLAST express bus network. He pointed out that two previous transportation managers in Hamilton had prepared reports that said BLAST was a necessary precursor to LRT. He also questioned the fact that LRT has no connection to GO transit. In a speech following the question period Jackson talked about the amount of affordable housing that could be purchased with the more than $2 Billion in extra money that has materialized in recent weeks. He made specific reference to councillors Nrinder Nann and Maureen Wilson, both advocates for affordable housing but who have come down strongly for LRT. For her part Nann asked about the so-called “community benefits” that were discussed by Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna when she announced federal funding for LRT. Specifically she inquired about money for social housing, and the answer seemed to be there will be no cash out of the $3.4 Billion but maybe some of the land that Metrolinx has acquired for the project could be used as a site for housing.
Eisenberger: questions have been answered before
Mayor Fred Eisenberger suggested that the Memorandum of Understanding that council was being asked to approve was essentially the same document that council had approved in 2016 except for changing the dates. He stated as he has in the past that the questions councillors were asking had all been answered in the past. He tried to get Phil Verster to agree with him that unlike Bus Rapid Transit, LRT was shovel ready to which Verster replied, “I would not say there’s a huge difference in shovel-readiness,”–adding, “a BRT running on a busway–there’s less work to be done underground.”