When Hamilton’s General Issues Committee meets next week they are being asked to ratify a memorandum of Understanding with Metrolinx regarding the Hamilton LRT, for which Mayor Fred Eisenberger says there “are no off-ramps.” When Hamilton council agreed to the last MOU, they were told they still had the option of accepting or rejecting the operating and maintenance agreement, so what has changed while nobody was looking?
The staff report provides a list of 13 items that it says require more detailed negotiations, top of which are the Train Operator Services Agreement and the Municipal Funding Agreement. If, as the mayor suggests, the vote is a point of no return, then council will approve the deal without any idea of the O&M costs—something they have been told since at least 2017 they would have.
One reason the Operating and Maintenance issue has not become clearer is because there is actually no way of knowing what the costs will be. Hamilton’s costs will be entirely dictated by ridership numbers. The estimates we have seen so far are predicated on an overall eight percent increase in HSR ridership plus the money that will be saved by taking 29 buses off the road from routes that will be displaced by LRT. But the latter calculation is a false one because it assumes there will not be a need to increase bus services to the fast-growing South Mountain and suburbs. In fact, Council has already approved a ten-year transit strategy that will do just that. The eight percent overall increase in ridership assumes the novelty of LRT will more than offset the ridership losses that will occur as it displaces the heavily used King, Delaware, B-Line Express and University routes—all among the HSR’s highest revenue-generating routes. And this comes at a time when the HSR has suffered a significant ridership drop due to the pandemic. The HSR will need to regain millions of riders who found another way to get around just to get back to pre-pandemic ridership levels.
And then there is the affordable housing mirage, offered up by Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, solemnly announcing that the $1.7 Billion federal contribution was “conditional” on the construction of affordable housing. The language in the MOU on that topic is hardly a ringing declaration –offering only “to work…to endeavor to determine” how affordable housing can be achieved; but at least it provided cover for a couple of councillors to vote for LRT while still holding themselves out as champions of the poor in our community. The LRT has already reduced the number of affordable housing units in Hamilton. It will get worse as the project proceeds.
Council should at least determine if there are in fact no off ramps, if it votes on this MOU, and ask how that happened.