Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray says he doesn’t want to “insert” himself into a contentious debate over whether Hamilton should build light-rail transit (LRT).

But he weighed in anyways, extolling the economic benefits of the technology in front of dozens of decision-makers on Friday during a lunchtime talk organized by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce.

Murray, a Toronto MPP and former mayor of Winnipeg, said LRT, more than bus rapid transit, improves property values and attracts new business development, along the corridors it serves.

“You get the highest [return on investment] out of LRT,” Murray said in a speech at Sarcoa Restaurant, showing those in attendance development projections for the area surrounding a planned Ottawa transit stop.

However, Murray stopped short of pushing light-rail transit for Hamilton. He said it’s up to councillors, in consultation with citizens, to decide which form of transit will be best for the city’s high-traffic thoroughfares.

“I don’t want to insert myself into a local debate,” he said.

Recent squabbles over LRT

Murray’s careful comments come just after a series of public dust-ups over the future of transit in Hamilton. 

Two provincial Liberal candidates co-wrote an op-ed that ran earlier this week in the Hamilton Spectator arguing that a proposed LRT running from Eastgate Square to McMaster University would be too expensive for the city. 

The letter prompted Councillor Brian McHattie to write a note on city letterhead to Premier Kathleen Wynne. He reiterated council’s February 2013 vote affirming LRT as the preferred transit option for the B-Line corridor.

Mayor Bob Bratina, who has long been ambivalent about the LRT plan, slammed the Ward 1 and contender in October’s mayoral election for taking it upon himself to reach out to the Liberal leader.

“Since the councillor is a registered candidate, it would have been more appropriate had he sent that on his own letterhead as his own submission,” Bratina said on Monday.

On Friday, Murray said the Hamilton Liberal candidates won’t be punished for their comments and that he hopes to discuss with them the future of transit in the city.

“You don’t send people from Hamilton to Queen’s Park to represent Queen’s Park to Hamilton, it’s been said,” Murray told reporters after his speech.

“These are people who are going to express their views. We’ll have a good dialogue.”

'He quite rightly put the ultimate decision the shoulders of council and the people of Hamilton.'—Mayor Bob Bratina

“It’s always a fine line with politicians and I think he actually walked it beautifully today,” said McHattie of Murray’s comments.

“He made his points about the need to be visionary and think about building beautiful infrastructure. But he didn’t go over the line and say ‘You city, here’s what you should do.”

The mayor was in attendance on Friday for Murray’s speech and said the transport minister gave an “excellent presentation.” 

“He quite rightly put the ultimate decision the shoulders of council and the people of Hamilton,” Bratina told CBC Hamilton on Friday.

James North GO station announcement

In addition to speaking on the need for governments to invest in infrastructure, Murray was in Hamilton to tour the construction site of the future James Street North GO station.

Glen Murray tours James North GO site

Murray, right, along with Hamilton MPP Ted McMeekin, centre, and Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr, tours the construction site of the future James North GO station on Friday. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

The province, he said, has awarded a $44-million contract to Mississauga-based firm Kenaidan to build the new transit hub, which is scheduled to open in 2015, in time for the Pan Am Games.

When the station opens, Hamilton will see two more GO train trips on weekday mornings and afternoons.

“This is not just good for people riding GO service,” said Murray. “It’s going to be good for all of you motorists out there. The roads will be less congested and we won’t need as many cars out there.”

But Murray said the province cannot deliver all-day GO service to Hamilton until after the Pan Am Games because the province needs to buy and rehabilitate additional tracks that run between Burlington and Hamilton — measures that, he said, will cost many millions of dollars.