Can Hamilton afford LRT?

Metrolinx estimates the cost of 14 kilometres of light rail along Main Street and King Street to come in around $1 billion. Some councilors don't see how the city could afford it.

Metrolinx wants Hamilton LRT to be part of their "Big Move" proposal. But can the city afford it?

Metrolinx estimates the cost of 14 kilometres of light rail along Main Street and King Street to come in around $1 billion. Without a major (or complete) capital investment from the province, some councilors don't see how the city could raise the funds.

Thursday's announcement outlining Hamilton LRT as a "high priority project" didn't include specifics about how the transit package would be funded. Metrolinx is set to unveil that strategy in June 2013.

Ward 5 Coun. Chad Collins said he's not prepared to blindly support this project, and was hoping to see "big funding" alongside the "Big Move."

"From the very start of the LRT and BRT discussions, we made it quite clear that we fully expected the province to fund 100 per cent of the capital costs, as they've done with a number of GTA transit initiatives," Collins said.

The first phase of Metrolinx's regional transportation projects in Toronto is already in progress and has been 100 per cent funded to the tune of $16 billion through the initial Metrolinx envelope.

"Now is the time for Metrolinx and the province to dispel the myth that there are two sets of funding parameters for Ontario municipalities," Collins said. "The myth that there's a funding schedule for Toronto that wholly compensates their city for their capital requirements, with other less beneficial scenarios applied to all other municipalities."

"Hamilton cannot afford to fund this project without a full commitment from Metrolinx, and the province."

Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla echoed that statement, and called the expectation of a one third commitment from the city on the project a "non-starter."

"We at present have a $2 billion infrastructure deficit and 20 per cent poverty rate," Merulla said.

Coupled with $120 million a year in provincial downloading pressures and a manufacturing job crisis, a chunk of funding coming from the municipal level just isn't feasible, Merulla says.

City council's next step in the process is receiving a staff report in late January as required by Metrolinx.

"I anticipate that council will approve the design and send it along to Metrolinx as required," said Ward 1 Coun. Brian McHattie.

"The funding decision is still some distance down the road for us," he said.

Unlike his council counterparts, McHattie didn't completely balk at the idea of the proposed Hamilton project being a one-third scenario from all parties — municipally, provincially, and federally.

But, he says, Hamilton's "ability to pay" given local income levels is different from places like Brampton and Mississauga. "We would wish to pay less than one third," he said.

Still, Collins, McHattie and Ward 2 Coun. Jason Farr were all supportive of the idea of an LRT system being built in Hamilton.

"As it stands now, roughly 60 per cent of transit users are traveling east to west in the lower city," Farr said.

"The ridership is there."