Doug Ford's $1.3B Hamilton campaign promise means more wild times for LRT: mayor

Hamilton's mayor says it will be a wild year for light rail transit (LRT) now that Ontario PC leader Doug Ford says the city can have $1.3 billion no matter what happens. Opponent Ted McMeekin, meanwhile, says Ford "doesn't understand accrual accounting."

'I'll leave it to others to determine how likely it is,' mayor says of Hamilton getting $1.3B

Ontario PC leader Doug Ford says he'd give Hamilton $1.3 billion for infrastructure whether it wants LRT or not. Others are sceptical this would happen. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Hamilton's mayor says it will be a wild year for light rail transit (LRT) now that Ontario PC leader Doug Ford says the city can have $1.3 billion no matter what happens.

Fred Eisenberger says he's always thought of LRT as a roller coaster. Now Ford says if his party wins the June provincial election, he'll give Hamilton the LRT money anyway, even if it's to fix roads, bridges and potholes.

That has some speculating that LRT will be a municipal election issue this October. But Eisenberger says this is no surprise.

"I've always believed this to be a roller coaster, and it will continue to be until shovels are in the ground," he said.

"I'm (just) focused on getting the project done."

St. Catharines MPP Jim Bradley, Mayor Fred Eisenberger of Hamilton and MPP Ted McMeekin from Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale broke ground at the future Confederation GO station site in February. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Years in the making, Hamilton LRT has been a political football since 2015. That's when Premier Kathleen Wynne, a Liberal, announced the $1 billion LRT project, as well as a GO station on Centennial Parkway. The province is building both. Ground has broken on the GO station, while Metrolinx has spent about $100 million on LRT so far.

The Liberals have said the money has to be used for rapid transit, and Hamilton would have to resubmit a proposal. Ford differentiated himself this week, saying he'd give Hamilton money even if it didn't proceed with LRT.

"Unlike the Liberals who said LRT or nothing, a PC government will sure Hamilton will get the money for transit or infrastructure," he said in an email.

"I'm always in favour of public transit, but as someone who has sat on a city council, at the end of the day, it's the people who know best what the priorities of the city are.

"I will wait to see what council decides, and if they decide against the LRT, under a PC government, the funding will stay with Hamilton."

The city is looking at bringing in Indigenous art from across Canada for its LRT stops. (Metrolinx)

Donna Skelly, a Flamborough-Glanbrook PC candidate and city councillor who opposes LRT, says that's "a huge game changer."

"I think it will be probably the most important issue going to the polls in the fall."

Eisenberger says council has already decided. It cast a crucial vote last year on an updated environmental assessment for the project, which runs from McMaster University to Eastgate Square. Metrolinx and the city have had a joint LRT office for about two years. Metrolinx is the lead agency.

With no LRT, the mayor said, $100 million would "be thrown away."

About a year after Ford left Toronto city council, that city cancelled a Scarborough LRT project and had to repay Metrolinx about $75 million. Skelly doesn't think that would happen here. The province has sway over Metrolinx, she said.

This model shows what Hamilton's LRT system would look like. (Metrolinx)

"It's still a government agency."

As for the money going to bridges and roads, Eisenberger is skeptical. The province is financing the project, he said. The money would have to be borrowed.

He also doubts other municipalities would stand by while Hamilton got $1.3 billion in infrastructure money.

"They all have infrastructure deficits," he said. "They all have challenges to affordable housing.

"It's an interesting concept. It's never happened before. I'll leave it to others to determine how likely it is."

'He makes Flipper look like a goldfish'

The Liberals have said the money can be used on rapid transit. Ted McMeekin, Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale Liberal MPP, said Ford "doesn't understand accrual accounting."

"He makes Flipper look like a goldfish," McMeekin said.

"A couple of days ago, he said 'It's a Hamilton issue. I'll let Hamilton decide.' Then he went off the deep end and said 'Call your councillor or mayor and tell them you reject LRT.' That's a reckless thing to say at this point in the game."

"He paints himself as a responsible fiscal person but sees nothing wrong with writing a blank cheque for $1.2 billion."

The NDP is in favour of LRT. Leader Andrea Horwath, Hamilton Centre MPP and former city councillor, is a long-time supporter.

About the Author

Samantha Craggs

Reporter

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca