LRT is back on the table in Hamilton — but depends on the feds, province says

The province is reviving Hamilton's light-rail transit system (LRT) with a renewed $1 billion commitment to get the project going again — but it'll be drastically reduced, and is contingent on the feds stepping up too.

The province will contribute $1B, but needs $1.5B from Ottawa

Artist conception of LRT moving through Hamilton. (Metrolinx)

The province is reviving Hamilton's light-rail transit system (LRT) with a renewed $1 billion commitment to get the project going again — but it'll be drastically reduced, and is contingent on the feds stepping up too.

The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) will announce Tuesday afternoon that it's willing to spend $1 billion on the cost of capital construction for the system, which would run alternately down King and Main streets.

But the federal government still has to commit $1.5 billion to the project, which would take it from McMaster University to Gage Park.

"It's going to take all levels of government to make a meaningful Hamilton LRT project a reality," Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said in a statement. "Everyone is going to need to pitch in."

This new nine-kilometre route is shorter than the originally planned 14-kilometre route from McMaster to Eastgate Square.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger, a staunch LRT supporter, says he's "cautiously optimistic" that the project will happen.

"We're We’re not there yet, but we remain committed to working with the city, the province, LiUNA and other partners," says Catherine McKenna, with Fred Eisenberger in 2019. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

He says there's also interest from the private sector. He believes the full 14 kilometres will come to fruition, even if construction is phased. 

"My goal always has been, and will continue to be, to get it from McMaster to Eastgate Square," he said.

"If we need to do this in a phased approach, which was always the intent, we can work with that."

5 high-priority projects

The province will submit Hamilton LRT as one of five priority GTHA transit projects to the federal government for funding, The other priorities are the Ontario Line, Yonge north subway extension, the Scarborough subway extension and the Eglinton Crosstown West.

The requests will be submitted via the Investing In Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) Transit Program process.

"We have now rebounded from a cancelled project in December 2019 to a provincial priority project," Eisenberger said in a statement.

"I look forward to getting this project back on track working alongside our provincial, federal and private sector partners."

One potential private sector partner is the Labourers' International Union of North America (LiUNA), which is quoted in the province's release touting the jobs it says LRT will create.

LiUNA involvement

"Today's announcement recognizing the Hamilton LRT as a priority project is an optimistic step forward for getting shovels in the ground of this highly anticipated project," said Joseph Mancinelli, vice-president of LiUNA International.

"On behalf of LiUNA, we look forward to a promising partnership with the provincial and federal government as we work together to get shovels in the ground on mass transit priority projects across the GTHA."

As for the federal government, Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna is from Hamilton. She said in an email that she's supported the project from the outset, and has been encouraging the province for months to "come up with a serious plan."

Scott Paterson of T2 Utility Engineers scanned for and marked utilities and water and sewer lines in 2016 as part of the preliminary work for Hamilton LRT. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"LRT is the only project that is shovel-ready at a time when we need good jobs and as we build back better to build cleaner and more inclusive communities," she said. 

"We're not there yet, but we remain committed to working with the city, the province, LiUNA and other partners to get the public transit Hamiltonians deserve, creating good jobs and helping people get around in faster, cleaner and more affordable ways."

It's the latest evolution of a project that dates back to 2007, when the city first used a Metrolinx grant to do an environmental assessment.

Rocky journey

Then-Premier Kathleen Wynne announced $1 billion in 2015 to build the project, which at one point had a spur line that ran down James Street North to the waterfront.

In December 2019, Caroline Mulroney cancelled LRT, saying it had gone over budget and Hamilton couldn't afford it. Mayor Fred Eisenberger and LiUNA both said the figures were overblown, and LiUNA produced its own report saying the overrun was less than the province suggested.

Mulroney then struck a task force, which recommended either LRT or bus rapid transit (BRT). The province released the task force report Tuesday afternoon. 

A new estimate shows it would cost between $2.2 and $2.5 billion to build a line from McMaster to Gage Park.

Metrolinx, meanwhile, has purchased properties to make way for the line, and spent $162 million on the project so far.

Carrot on a stick

City council opinion on the project has been mixed. There have been numerous votes to move ahead with LRT, but some councillors were keeping an eye on the off-ramp, and have since expressed opposition to the project.

Among them is Coun. Brad Clark (Ward 9, upper Stoney Creek), a former provincial transportation minister.

This council still hasn't discussed whether to ask the Ford government to make LRT a transit priority, he said. He'd rather see $1 billion put into a transit plan that would benefit the whole city, "not just a couple of wards."

He also said the project makes even less sense now that there's talk of it stopping at Gage Park.

"That's a dramatic increase in costs, and it's going to serve a very small population compared to the original route," he said. "I just don't see the benefit."

Andrea Horwath, Ontario NDP leader and Hamilton Centre MPP, says LRT needs to happen with or without the federal government. 

'Promising and not delivering'

"Hamiltonians had enough of the Liberal government promising and not delivering, and now they've had enough of the Conservative government cancelling, stalling, delaying, and changing the LRT," she said in a statement. 

"Between the two of them, all they've managed to accomplish so far is crushing small businesses that were counting on this LRT, and making sure that a couple years' worth of inflation is tacked onto the price tag for this critical piece of our community." 

Having the route end at Gage Park, she said, "would cut out thousands and thousands of working folks and families in the east end who were counting on this LRT for work or school."

Steven Del Duca, Ontario Liberal leader, was involved in the first LRT funding announcement. The PC government, he said, should give Hamilton "the LRT they were promised."

"The people of Hamilton deserve an LRT from McMaster to Eastgate Square," he said, "and Doug Ford is shortchanging them."

Matthew Green, an NDP MP for Hamilton Centre, says if LRT doesn't happen, it will have been "probably the biggest land heist this city has ever had."

"The LRT has been the proverbial carrot on the stick for successive levels of government and municipal councillors."


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