The city will ask Metrolinx to let its transit authority, HSR, operate and maintain Hamilton's pricey new LRT system.

But those closest to LRT warn it's a risky move that will mean spending more time and money on a project that already has a tight schedule.

'I don't buy the fear, doom and gloom that this is going to take it off track.' - Matthew Green, Ward 3 councillor

City councillors voted 9-4 Wednesday to ask Metrolinx to let HSR operate and maintain the system. This comes even though the agency is already shortlisting consortiums willing to design, build, finance, operate and maintain it.

Matthew Green, Ward 3 councillor, dismissed the idea that this would delay the project. This is just a starting point for negotiations, he said.

"I don't buy the fear, doom and gloom that this is going to take it off track."

Green said he supports keeping the route from McMaster University to Eastgate Square public, and that using a public-private partnership effectively privatizes it.

The city "needs to negotiate from a position of strength and solidarity."

"I'm very comfortable playing football," he said. "I've got my helmet on and I'm all strapped up."

'I'm bound and determined to keep the schedule, but it's getting increasingly difficult to do that.' - Paul Johnson, LRT head with the city

Paul Johnson, the city's LRT project head, said the concept would mean more control, but also more financial risk.

It would also make it harder to start construction by 2019.

"I'm bound and determined to keep the schedule," Johnson told the city council committee. "But it's getting increasingly difficult to do that."

Keep Transit Public rally

The Amalgamated Transit Union says public-private partnerships - the model proposed for LRT - have been expensive and inefficient in Ontario. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

That worries Lloyd Ferguson, an Ancaster councillor and construction industry veteran who wants LRT. This is "opening a huge can of worms," he said.

He fears for the project's future if another provincial party gets elected without a signed contract in place between the city and Metrolinx.

'I suspect what's motivating my colleagues is they've been opposed to LRT all along and they're looking to put another chink in it.' - Lloyd Ferguson, Ancaster councillor

The city also risks taking on costs it hadn't anticipated, he said. "It's a whole different expertise than running a bus."

"I suspect what's motivating my colleagues is they've been opposed to LRT all along and they're looking to put another chink in it. To those in favour of LRT, why take the risk?"

No one could answer Wednesday what happens if Metrolinx says no. Andrew Hope, the agency's head of the Hamilton LRT project, said Metrolinx will have to discuss the request with the province.

Green's motion came after a Keep Transit Public campaign by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 107, which rallied outside city hall Wednesday morning. Public-private partnerships, they said, have been a problem in Ontario. 

Everyone on council agrees LRT jobs should be unionized. So why not have it be ATU members working for another agency?

Eric Tuck, Local 107 president, said it's difficult to unionize after the fact. ATU members, he said, operate LRTs across North America, he said. "It's nothing new to us."

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As for LRT itself, its future appears increasingly inevitable. Metrolinx has started buying property, which even anti-LRT councillors have called the point of no return. The city still has to sign a master agreement.

Last week, the project cleared another hurdle when the province approved an updated environmental assessment.

Wednesday also marked the return of Coun. Robert Pasuta of Ward 14, who has been off since December after a pair of serious farm injuries.


Matthew Green's HSR motion

WHEREAS, the City of Hamilton's public transit service, the Hamilton Street Railway (HSR), has been running transit in Hamilton since 1873;

WHEREAS, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 107 has language in their collective agreement with the Hamilton Street Railway (HSR) that their members will operate any new transit in the city of Hamilton;

WHEREAS, transit is an essential public service that should remain under public ownership and operation;

WHEREAS, the Metrolinx procurement process for the new LRT line excludes the HSR from bidding, as it cannot finance, build or design the new LRT;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED:

That staff be directed to advise Metrolinx that the forthcoming operating and maintenance agreement between the City of Hamilton and Metrolinx for LRT should include the Hamilton Street Railway as the party responsible to operate and maintain the new LRT line, and any other future transit expansion, in the city of Hamilton.

In favour:

Matthew Green (3), Sam Merulla (4), Tom Jackson (6), Donna Skelly (7), Terry Whitheead (8), Maria Pearson (10), Arlene VanderBeek (13), Judi Partridge (15), Jason Farr (2)

Opposed:

Aidan Johnson (1), Mayor Fred Eisenberger, Lloyd Ferguson (12), Robert Pasuta (14)