The city has approved an updated design plan for Hamilton's $1 billion light rail transit (LRT) project, and even council's biggest LRT opponent now says the project is a done deal.

'It continues to divide the community by giving that false hope.' - Chad Collins, Ward 5 councillor

Councillors voted Wednesday 10-5 to submit an updated environmental assessment (EA) to the province that will be for a line extending all the way from McMaster University in the West to Eastgate Square shopping mall in the east. 

That means all the elements of the project will move forward — negotiating the purchase of at least part of more than 200 properties, finding someone to design, build and maintain it, and proceeding with a master agreement the city will sign later this year.

It was an emotional meeting with tears and, in some cases, giddiness. It was a night of resignation for LRT opponent Chad Collins of Ward 5, who voted in favour of the EA because he said the project is basically unstoppable now.

"Oh yeah," Collins said when asked if he thought LRT is a done deal now. 

Jason Farr

Jason Farr, Ward 2 councillor and LRT advocate, listens to arguments during the LRT debate Wednesday. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

He knew the EA would pass, he said. That means Metrolinx will keep acquiring properties along the B line and spend millions more.

'I've never been so happy to be proven wrong in my life.' - Aidan Johnson, Ward 1 councillor

Pretending LRT isn't happening now is just "giving people the false hope that somehow we're going to stand in the way of this thing, and we're going to affect change and even prevent it. 

"It continues to divide the community by giving that false hope."

Still, LRT supporters feared the project would die Wednesday. If council didn't approve the EA, they said, it would effectively be "death by delay."

Aidan Johnson, a Ward 1 councillor in favour of LRT, was jubilant afterward.

"Tonight was full of beautiful and unexpected surprises," he said.

"The truth is last Wednesday, I thought LRT was toast. I have been proven wrong. I've never been so happy to be proven wrong in my life."

'Last Wednesday, I thought LRT was toast.' - Aidan Johnson

The vote came after the province said the system would go from McMaster University to Eastgate Square with the same timeline and price tag. That was the original plan, but in 2015, the province announced LRT from McMaster to the Queenston traffic circle.

Late Wednesday, Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca issued a letter saying the province will include Eastgate Square in the $1 billion plan. Ted McMeekin, Liberal MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, said the plan is for the Eastgate addition to not add to the budget or time line. That means there may be a need to find savings in other part of the plan.

Del Duca issued a statement immediately after the vote saying he was "pleased to see members of council taking another important step forward on this historic project.

The province and Metrolinx will work with the city "to move forward with a rapid transit plan that makes sense for the people of Hamilton" and connects to a regional transit network, he said.

Ted McMeekin

Ted McMeekin, a Liberal MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale who helped broker Hamilton's LRT funding, listens intently as council debates. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"We would also explore ways to reduce costs to accommodate the (Eastgate Square) extension within the original allotment. By collaborating with our municipal partners, we can and will get it right."

'No matter what I do tonight, there will be outrage.' - Arlene VanderBeek, Ward 13 councillor

It was an emotional night for Terry Whitehead, a Ward 8 councillor who's been one of LRT's most vocal skeptics. He also pushed over the last week for Eastgate Square to be included. He even moved Wednesday's motion to approve the EA contingent on Eastgate Square being included in the plan. Mayor Fred Eisenberger seconded that.

Whitehead cried as he talked about the importance of doing what's right and not what's popular. This debate has "weighed heavily on every councillor," he said afterward.

He's on board with LRT now, he said. "With Eastgate now in the plan, it is defendable."

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson, the city's head of the LRT project, listens as council debate the future of the plan. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Arlene VanderBeek of Ward 13 in Dundas acknowledged the heat too as she voted in favour. 

"No matter what I do tonight," she said, "there will be outrage."

Judi Partridge of Ward 15 was undeterred. She and four others were opposed.

"I'm disappointed we couldn't leverage that billion dollars to look at a more fulsome transit system" that serves more areas, Partridge said.

Chad Collins, Sam Merulla

Chad Collins and Sam Merulla - one against LRT, one for - discuss LRT Wednesday. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Metrolinx staff will spend the next few days amending the EA to include Eastgate Square, said Andrew Hope, Metrolinx's director of the Hamilton LRT project. Then it will be submitted to the province.

The agency will then short list bidders to design, build, operate and maintain the system via a public-private partnership, a bid that could be awarded this summer. Those bids will determine what modifications are required to have enough money to include Eastgate Square.

Council will then vote on a master agreement this fall. That agreement, Hope said, will be legally binding.

Eisenberger predicted more debates ahead.

"This is going to continue to be a bumpy road," he said. "These major transformational projects instill a fear in people."


How they voted

In favour of the EA

Mayor Fred Eisenberger, Aidan Johnson (Ward 1), Jason Farr (2), Matthew Green (3), Sam Merulla (4), Chad Collins (5), Tom Jackson (6), Terry Whitehead (8), Lloyd Ferguson (12), Arlene VanderBeek (13)

Opposed

Donna Skelly (7), Doug Conley (9), Maria Pearson (10), Brenda Johnson (11), Judi Partridge (15)

Absent due to illness: Robert Pasuta (14)

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC