Mayor wants to offer more buses to Mountain in bid to get LRT support

Mayor Fred Eisenberger will move a motion next month to put buses freed up by LRT on the Mountain and suburbs. All Mountain councillors have expressed reservations about LRT.

Olive branch offered as LRT supporters look to address reservations

The design has LRT running in the same lanes as cars on James Street North. (City of Hamilton)

Hamilton's mayor is offering an olive branch to Mountain councillors uncertain about light rail transit (LRT).

Next month, he'll push for any buses freed up by the new system to go to helping serve the Mountain and the suburbs.

Rather than debating whether to move forward or not, let's just deal with the specifics.- Mayor Fred Eisenberger

Fred Eisenberger said Wednesday that he'll ask city council to redeploy buses currently running along King Street to run on the Mountain or the suburbs instead instead. 

It's a move designed to quell the fears of Mountain councillors who say they're uncertain about Hamilton's planned $1 billion LRT system. It's hard to sell to residents, they say, without ways to explain how their wards would benefit. 

Until now, HSR transit head David Dixon says it's unlikely those buses will be redeployed. Eisenberger wants the city to reconsider.

"Rather than debating whether to move forward or not, let's just deal with the specifics" of their concerns, said Eisenberger, who'll bring it forward on June 1.

Too much 'we don't know yet'

June will be a busy month for LRT decisions at city hall. Also in June, councillors will likely vote whether to accept the $1 billion from the province, which the city can only use for LRT.

I'm not prepared to lay down in front of the project and say 'over my dead body.' That's not where I'm at.- Arlene VanderBeek, Dundas councillor

They were going to vote on that Wednesday, but the mayor and others have been meeting with uncertain councillors and trying to address their concerns.

On Wednesday, city staff presented a design plan for LRT to city council's general issues committee. That design includes a new bridge over Highway 403 and King Street becoming one lane through the International Village.

The plan also includes 13 stops from McMaster University to Queenston traffic circle, and five along James Street North to the West Harbour GO station, or the waterfront if budget permits.

Keanin Loomis, Hamilton Chamber of Commerce president, says most of Hamilton's major employers want LRT.

Councillors quizzed Paul Johnson, the city's head of the LRT project, for about five hours. Questions ranged from LRT's anticipated economic uplift to what happens to the route's fare revenue.

"I'm having a difficult time with the number of times questions that are asked and the response is 'we don't know yet,'" said Arlene VanderBeek, Dundas councillor.

We just keep working on until that day comes when we hear 'stop working.'- Paul Johnson, the city's head of the LRT project

"I'm not prepared to lay down in front of the project and say 'over my dead body.' That's not where I'm at. I really want to see this city do well and I really want to see this project work, if it's going to work."

Council has voted many times since 2008 to ask Ontario for full capital dollars for LRT. Last May, Premier Kathleen Wynne complied. Metrolinx will build the system with city input.

Just keeping working until they're told to stop

"We just keep working on until that day comes when we hear 'stop working,'" Johnson said.

Also at Wednesday's meeting, Hamilton's Chamber of Commerce president Keanin Loomis said most of Hamilton's major employers – about 85 out of 100 – want LRT.

"I'm confident to represent them today and say they are supportive of LRT," he said.

But Coun. Donna Skelly of Ward 7 said the chamber doesn't speak for many small business owners who risk losing their livelihoods during five years of LRT construction.

Public sector isn't at risk

Loomis said the chamber has never surveyed its 1,000 members, which he said includes most major employers and "progressive" businesses. But none have resigned over the chamber's pro-LRT stance.

Skelly said most of Hamilton's top 10 employers are public sector, such as universities and hospitals. They're not the ones who risk closure. Many of the small business owners she's talked to, she said, don't want LRT.

Matthew Green, a Ward 3 councillor and LRT advocate, said there's always turnover when it comes to small business. Businesses would close even if LRT construction didn't happen, he said.