Conservatives would pay for LRT if Hamilton wanted it: Ontario PC leader

Patrick Brown's comments in Flamborough Monday went against widespread speculation that a Conservative government would defund the project in 2018.
Patrick Brown, Ontario PC leader, and Arend Kersten from the Flamborough Chamber of Commerce talked LRT and other local issues at a chamber lunch. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It was a pledge that surprised just about everyone in the room.

We have to respect the fact that there's a commitment to LRT, and I would honour that.- Patrick Brown, Ontario Conservative leader

If the Conservative party wins the 2018 provincial election, Ontario party leader Patrick Brown says, it will still pay for Hamilton's $1 billion light rail transit (LRT) system — as long as that's still what city council wants.

Brown attended a Flamborough Chamber of Commerce lunch at the Dutch Mill Country Market on Monday.  One of the first questions he was asked was this: if the Conservatives form government in 2018, will Premier Kathleen Wynne's $1 billion pledge for an LRT system still stand?

Brown said it would, if council still wants it.

"It's incumbent on the province to be flexible about what the clear municipal will is," Brown said.

"But I think in this case, we have to respect the fact that there's a commitment to LRT, and I would honour that."

Patrick Brown, Ontario PC leader, says a Conservative government would honour Kathleen Wynne's funding commitment to Hamilton LRT if that's what local decision makers wanted. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Brown's comments went against months of city hall speculation that if the government changes in 2018 without Metrolinx shovels in the ground, the project will be a bust.

In the 2014 provincial election, then-Conservative leader Tim Hudak wasn't an LRT fan. But Brown said it's up to Hamilton.

"I respect the autonomy of municipalities, and if the mayor and councillors have stated very clearly that's what they want the provincial partnership to be, that's what it will be."

Council has voted numerous times over the years to ask the province for the full capital funding for LRT. Last June, Wynne announced the money.

Some councillors have expressed hesitation since then. They worry about Hamilton having adequate ridership numbers, among other issues. On Monday, Coun. Terry Whitehead of Ward 8 even released his own 58-page report to some criticism from the pro-LRT camp.

The Flamborough Chamber of Commerce lunch was attended by about 30 politicians and business people. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Brown said the main difference with his party would be that Conservatives would know where the money was coming from before they made the commitment. The Liberals planned to use money from the sale of Hydro One, he said, but some of that has been used to balance the budget.

We're very afraid of the implications for Flamborough taxpayers.- Arend Kersten, Flamborough Chamber of Commerce

The NDP, including leader and Hamilton Centre MPP Andrea Horwath, criticized the use of Hydro One dollars too.

"If you make a promise to the city of Hamilton, it should be funded," Brown said.

Arend Kersten, executive director of the Flamborough Chamber of Commerce, was surprised by Brown's comments. The Flamborough chamber has expressed numerous reservations about LRT.

"We're very afraid of the implications for Flamborough taxpayers," he said. Specifically, the chamber worries about the city and Metrolinx striking an agreement that puts local taxpayers on the hook for operating shortfalls.

"How can you move forward when you don't have a critical answer like 'How are you going to pay the difference?'" he said.

The city's light rail transit subcommittee meets on Tuesday. It will discuss the city's outreach plan to tell local residents and businesses about the project.