Ford's cost estimates used to cancel Hamilton LRT don't add up, NDP says

The leader of the Official Opposition says the numbers the province used to cancel Hamilton's light-rail transit (LRT) project don't add up to the numbers in a consultant report used to justify the cancellation.

Horwath says Ford 'made this stuff up,' while Ford says LRT would mean 'tax[ing] the pants off' people

Andrea Horwath, second from right, says the province should restart the Hamilton LRT project. She was joined Friday by, from left, Coun. Nrinder Nann (Ward 3), Hamilton Centre NDP MP Matthew Green, and Tim Potocic, founder of Supercrawl and Sonic Unyon Records. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The leader of the Official Opposition says the numbers the province used to cancel Hamilton's light-rail transit (LRT) project don't add up to the numbers in a consultant report used to justify the cancellation.

Andrea Horwath, Hamilton Centre NDP MPP, says a Turner and Townsend report the province commissioned shows LRT isn't as expensive as the province suggested. 

The report, which both the NDP and CBC News obtained through separate Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests, is heavily redacted. But Horwath says the numbers don't appear to add up to the $5.5-billion price tag Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney cited when she cancelled the project in December.

"The numbers are nowhere near what the ministry has claimed," Horwath said at the corner of King and Wellington streets today. The LRT system was scheduled to run 14 kilometres from McMaster University to Eastgate Square, travelling alternately down King and Main.

"It's very clear the minister of transportation and [Premier Doug Ford] pretty much made this stuff up."

The proposed route for Hamilton's LRT system as of October 2018. Ontario scrapped the plan on Monday, Dec. 17, 2019. (City of Hamilton)

Ford told reporters Friday morning that the project is still too expensive. The city would have to "tax the pants off" its residents to run LRT, he said.

"It's going to be up to the mayor to ask if you want a massive tax increase the likes of which has never been seen in Hamilton before," Ford said. "I want transit in Hamilton, but they need to get their numbers down pat."

Hamilton's LRT project has been in the works since about 2007. In 2015, the former provincial Liberal government said Metrolinx would spend up to $1 billion to build LRT. A third-party would design, build, finance, operate and maintain the system. 

The $1 billion was only for capital costs, whereas the $5.5 billion Mulroney cited would include 30 years of capital and operating costs.

Metrolinx had already spent $162 million on LRT when Mulroney abruptly cancelled it, saying the Turner and Townsend report showed costs had ballooned and taxpayers couldn't afford it. Mayor Fred Eisenberger questioned the validity of the numbers, suggesting the province inflated them to justify killing the project. 

Three companies were scheduled to bid in a request for proposals process that was supposed to close in the spring, although a private Metrolinx document shows bidders were getting cold feet because they feared the city and province would withdraw support. LRT proponents said the province should have waited until the bids closed before deciding to cancel it.

The province also put together an independent task force, which studied the issue and recommended high-order transit, which would be either LRT or bus rapid transit.

Horwath says the October 2019 Turner and Townsend report only shows $2.32 billion in capital costs, which includes escalation and contingency, and $818.8 million in operating, maintenance and life cycle costs. That's far short of $5.5 billion. 

Horwath said Ford should restart the project. "We still deserve LRT here in our city."

It would also be the perfect project, she said, to create jobs amid the COVID-19 economic slump.

Catherine McKenna, federal infrastructure minister and a Hamilton native, hasn't disagreed. She said in a recent Hamilton stop that LRT is the only local shovel-ready project available to create jobs and spur the economy. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says Hamilton residents can't afford the operating costs of LRT. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Matthew Green, Hamilton Centre NDP MP, confirmed Friday that "conversations are happening" at the federal level around Hamilton LRT.

Ford says Mulroney as committed to $1 billion in Hamilton transit spending, and is reviewing the task force recommendation.

But Ford, citing "a billion dollars of operating cost," doesn't think Hamilton can afford LRT.

"I'm not prepared to put the burden of the cost on the taxpayers of Hamilton," he said.

"I want to get transit for the people of Hamilton. They're in need of it. I want to support them. But I guess it's up to the mayor to ask the people of Hamilton: do you want your taxes to go up?"

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Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She often tweets about Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca


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