Local transit supporters will watch Thursday’s provincial budget with anticipation that it will be a “potential milestone” for light rail transit (LRT) in Hamilton.

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals have said they’ll make nearly $29 billion available for transit funding in the coming years, along with other “revenue tools” in Thursday’s budget. About $15 billion will be for transit in Toronto and Hamilton.

“It’s a potential milestone,” said Coun. Brian McHattie, an LRT supporter. “I say potential because we simply have no idea.”

Local transit activist Ryan McGreal hopes that means money for the LRT line, which would run from McMaster University to Eastgate Square.

“The worst thing that could happen for us right now is for the funding envelope to be opened and there’s no money set aside for Hamilton,” he said.

“But this is it. Assuming the Liberals put out a budget the NDP can hold their nose and vote for, this is our transit allocation for the next several years.”

With each year, the cost is growing

Transit advocates and city council have hoped the province would fully fund LRT for years. The city included LRT in its Rapid Ready transit plan it submitted to the province, and passed a motion saying it supported LRT if the province paid all of the capital costs, estimated in 2011 to be about $800 million.

Last week, a Hamilton Chamber of Commerce task force urged the city to consider “value capture” ways of funding LRT if Hamilton is required to kick in a share. Such funding methods involve capturing any economic upswing created by LRT, and using that to help pay for it.

Thursday’s budget could include full or partial LRT funding, president Keanin Loomis said. It’s hard to predict.

“I hope it’s 100 per cent because that’s certainly council’s position, and that would make things easier,” he said.

Wynne has said that she would divide available transit money into two envelopes: $15 billion for transit in the Toronto-Hamilton area and $14 billion for transportation infrastructure such as roads and bridges for the rest of Ontario.

Even with money, LRT still at least a decade away

Whatever it means for LRT in Hamilton, “we’re going to have to have a long and thorough and informed discussion at council,” McHattie said.

But Coun. Chad Collins of Ward 5 isn’t convinced Thursday’s budget will ultimately mean anything for LRT.

With each year that passes, the amount of money required for the project swells by about two per cent, he said. With land acquisition and design ahead, it would likely be 10 years before a ribbon was cut on LRT, he said, and would cost more than $1 billion by that time.

“Whatever election or budget promises are made tomorrow…it may not get us closer to operating a system or cutting a ribbon on a system,” he said.

“It’s hard to talk about it, but we’re well over a decade away from even coming close to offering a new system for the people in this community.”

Poverty reduction needed before LRT

Collins hopes to see infrastructure money for roads and bridges on Thursday.

Tom Cooper, head of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, hopes to see boosts to affordable housing and subsidized child care, and contributions to a poverty reduction strategy.

He wants to see money for transit, he said, but he’s not sure it’s best spent on LRT.

“One of the things that has been missing from the dialogue is the affordability issue,” he said.

“Our members living with the experience of poverty look at the LRT line as something that would be impressive to have in the community. But when there are close to 20,000 people going to food banks and there’s not enough money to provide adequate social assistance, questions pop up, and rightfully so, about where we should be investing our money.”

The budget will be tabled at 4 p.m.