Friday will be a pivotal day in the Hamilton’s quest for light rail transit (LRT), as the mayor talks to the province in a closed-door meeting about the city’s priorities.

Will the province walk away finally clear about what the city's position is? Will the city walk away with a funding commitment for its LRT option? Will bus rapid transit (BRT) emerge as the best bet for funding? Or will the province get conflicting messages from city officials? 

At the meeting, Mayor Bob Bratina and at least two councillors will talk transit funding with Steven Del Duca, Minister of Transportation.

The province has been saying that it wants to hear from Hamilton on whether it wants LRT or BRT. That has frustrated some LRT advocates, who say the city has a clear position and needs to hear about provincial funding commitments. Hamilton's proposed LRT system would run about 13 kilometres from Eastgate Square and McMaster University. 

Friday’s meeting, scheduled for 10 a.m. in the mayor’s boardroom at city hall, will be the start of that.

It’s a closed-door meeting between the mayor’s advisory group — a group formed in 2011 to convey a uniform transit message to the province — and Del Duca.

Coun. Sam Merulla has questioned the legality of the meeting being behind closed doors. 

"I have an aversion to attending a potentially illegal meeting," he said. 

"I don't think it is too much to ask public officials to not conduct public matters ‎in secret."

Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark, meanwhile, says it's a usual practice. And it's not a "secret meeting," he said, but a meeting that falls within the city's bylaws and the Municipal Act.

"I am very pleased about the meeting," he said. "It is a normal course of business for a minister of the crown to meet privately with a mayor and city officials."

Here's what we know about the meeting:

Who will be there

Steven Del Duca — Del Duca is a Vaughan MPP and Minister of Transportation. He's brand new to the portfolio and there is little indication what his approach is to this file.

Ted McMeekin — McMeekin is the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale. McMeekin is in favour of LRT.

Mayor Bob Bratina — The mayor will be at the meeting, his chief of staff confirms. But some LRT advocates, such as Coun. Brian McHattie, are worried about the message he sends to the province on the issue. Bratina is a fan of BRT first, with LRT possibly following in later years.

Coun. Scott Duvall — Duvall is a Mountain councillor for Ward 7 and a member of the mayor’s advisory group. Duvall said Wednesday that he’s pro LRT if the province fully funds it. If not, “I’d have to look at it again.”

Coun. Russ Powers — Powers is a Dundas councillor. “I will not forego the opportunity to meet with Ministers Del Duca and McMeekin on whatever issues they and the mayor wish to discuss,” he said Wednesday. Powers voted in favour of LRT with full funding last year but has since spoken against LRT.

Coun. Brian McHattie — McHattie is a mayoral candidate and fan of LRT. He is not a member of the advisory group but said he plans to attend Friday's meeting.

Coun. Brad Clark - Clark, also a mayoral candidate, says the advisory group invited him to attend. And as the current deputy mayor, "I have accepted the invitation." Clark also introduced the 2011 motion to form the advisory group, and "it is being used appropriately in this circumstance."

Who won’t be there

The general public —because it’s an advisory group and not a formal committee of council, the meeting will be private. Del Duca will speak to the media after the meeting.

Coun. Sam Merulla — Merulla is a member of the advisory group, but won’t attend the meeting because it’s not public. The Ward 4 councillor says he got a legal opinion saying it “could not be concluded definitively that the meeting is legal.” Instead, he’ll only come to the press conference.

MPP Monique Taylor — Taylor, who represents Hamilton Mountain, says she asked to attend the meeting but was told she could come to the public portion after it.

What is at stake

Money, lots of it, and the future of transit in Hamilton—which for some spills over into an actual vision for the city's future. In this year’s provincial budget, the province allocated $15 billion for transit in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area, including “rapid transit” for Hamilton.

But when quizzed on whether that meant LRT or BRT, McMeekin and the province said it was up to Hamilton city council to say what it wanted. That continues to puzzle many in the city as it has a confirmed position: City council committed to LRT with full provincial funding in February 2013, but if the province doesn’t foot the bill of more than $800 million, most councillors won’t vote in favour of it.

How we got here

LRT discussions in Hamilton date back to at least 2007. Some of the milestones are as follows:

In February 2007, the city completed a transportation master plan, and that June, Metrolinx developed MoveOntario 2020, an initiative to improve transit across the GTHA. In November 2008, Metrolinx completed a regional transportation plan called The Big Move, which included five rapid transit corridors in Hamilton. 

In February 2010, Metrolinx did a benefits case analysis for the B-line, and the city did a planning, design and engineering study from March 2010 to summer 2011. In February 2013, city council passed its Rapid Ready plan, which advocated realigning Hamilton’s transit system to get ready for LRT. Provincial funding remains a key outstanding issue.

Who else is talking

A local ad hoc group called Hamilton Light Rail is rallying support ahead of the meeting. Through social media and the website hamiltonlightrail.ca, the group is collecting testimonials from people in favour of LRT, said advocate Ryan McGreal. It’s gathered about 120 since Monday.

The group has also compiled a package with summaries of the city’s feasibility studies and letters of endorsement from citizens and business owners, McGreal said. It sent them to Del Duca, McMeekin and Premier Kathleen Wynne this week.

“It’s hard to know what’s going to happen in a private meeting, but we’re trying to establish a context that this is a program that’s well supported,” he said.

LRT vs. BRT: the cost

On the surface, BRT — basically a dedicated and separated road network for buses — is a more immediately affordable option. A 2010 Metrolinx report estimates BRT would cost $218 million to build compared to $829 million for LRT, or $605 million for a more phased-in LRT approach. BRT would cost about $4.8 million in incremental operating costs, versus LRT at $12.5 million per year.

But LRT offers much more in economic benefits. Incremental fare revenues of BRT are lower. It also estimates that LRT will save 3,449 tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2021 compared to 970 tonnes saved by BRT. Building BRT would employ 990 person years compared to 3,729 person years for LRT.

LRT will also bring more jobs and more assessment, it says.

Ted Gill, a former Hamilton-Wentworth senior regional transportation manager, disputes the Metrolinx report. He encouraged councillors in May to take a harder look at BRT, which he says would have equal economic spinoff.