If Hamilton wants light rail transit (LRT), it should prepare to pay for it through methods such as highway tolls, a gas tax or a vehicle licensing fee.

That was the message delivered at a Metrolinx public forum Tuesday night by Gary McNeil, president of GO Transit.

The Golden Horseshoe plan involves $34 billion in transit improvements, which could amount to $130 billion in economic benefits and 900,000 new jobs over the next 20 years, McNeil said.

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The plan is invest $34 billion in transit in the Golden Horseshoe over the next 20 years, generating $130 billion in economic benefits, GO Transit president Gary McNeil told the audience. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

But residents have to be willing to pay for it.

"The funding at the provincial level is not there," McNeil said after his presentation.

"We continue to knock at the federal government for additional money. We continue to knock at the doors of municipalities. But everyone is saying they really can't tap into their traditional methods of raising money. We have to look at other ways."

Some of those other ways could include a parking toll or fuel tax, or some sort of sales tax such as the one implemented in Los Angeles to pay for transit there, he said.

Full provincial funding unlikely

Hamilton councillors are still hoping the province will agree to fund the project 100 per cent, said Coun. Brian McHattie at Tueday's meeting. But that's unlikely.

"I strongly believe that's not going to be the case. I don't think there's any surprise with that," he said.

City staff will present an LRT plan at a general issues committee meeting on Feb. 25. That plan will be for an LRT system and other transit improvements across the city, he said.

Tuesday's meeting was one of a dozen Metrolinx is holding in Hamilton and Toronto. The goal is to get residents' input on what sort of system they would like to see, what impact it would have on their everyday lives and — perhaps most importantly — how they would be willing to pay for it.

Dawn McIlmoyle of the Stinson neighbourhood said she's prepared to pay.

"Sign me up for a sales tax, or some tax taken out on public transportation," she said. "Put a tax on my Presto card. I'll pay it if it means the system will be a little better."

Saving people time

To be successful, Hamilton's rapid transit has to be faster and easier so more people will use it, McIlmoyle said. With the current system, commuters sit in buses that crawl through downtown traffic congestion.

"You can add buses and that's great, but you're not saving people time," said McIlmoyle, a New York City native who was a daily user of that city's transit system. "In this day and age, when people are working 50 hours a week just to pay the bills, that half hour spent commuting is a half hour they're not spending with their kids."

Paul Jakubicek, a Locke Street resident, doesn't take public transit but would still be willing to pay towards improving it. If the transit system were faster and more convenient, "I would try to take it more," he said.

"I'm willing to pay through a gas tax or something like that," he said. "I recognize the fact that we need increased funds. I'm really interested to see what people who come out to a meeting like this would be interested in paying."

Tuesday's meeting was at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. The next meetings are Feb. 16 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Dundas Town Hall and March 7 from 10 a.m. to noon at McMaster Innovation Park.