Hamilton seems poised to reject $1B, and it's 'a kick in the groin'
'If we turn down a billion dollars, that'll haunt me for the rest of my life'
One councillor called it a kick in the groin. Another said it's a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Another called it incredible. Surreal. Devastating.
That's what pro-LRT councillors say it's like to potentially throw away $1 billion. But those skeptical or opposed are feeling none of that pain. Many don't see the choice as throwing away that money at all.
If we turn down a billion dollars, that'll haunt me for the rest of my life.- Coun . Lloyd Ferguson
They insist that money will come back around somehow. That may be one of the most significant differences in how they see the choice they face.
Lloyd Ferguson, an Ancaster councillor who's been rallying for LRT, said Hamilton's 2011 decision not to build Tim Hortons Field on the waterfront still haunts him.
"If we turn down a billion dollars, that'll haunt me for the rest of my life," he said. But "unless something changes, (LRT) is going down on Wednesday."
One pro LRT councillor suggested the councillors delaying really want to kill it but don't want to take responsibility for doing so.
Sam Merulla, a Ward 4 pro-LRT councillor, said some councillors want to reject the project, but "they're afraid to. They don't want to wear it."
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"They just wish it would go away. It's not going to go away. It's only going to go away if they choose for it to go away, and if that's the case, they're going to have to live with the repercussions."
It was like someone kicked me in the groin yesterday.- Coun . Sam Merulla
That $1 billion price tag is weighing heavily on all 16 council members leading up to April 26. That's when they plan to decide — finally — whether to accept a design plan for the system, which will run from McMaster University to the Queenston traffic circle.
It's been a long road so far. Council has been talking about LRT for 10 years, and spent millions in Metrolinx money to design 30 per cent of it. Four years ago, city council voted to ask the province for the full capital cost of building LRT.
In 2015, Premier Kathleen Wynne followed through with a $1 billion announcement. But since then, council support has only softened.
Now council must send the design plan, which is an update to a 2011 environmental assessment, to the province for the project to move ahead. Wednesday was the second of two meetings, each running about 13 hours, where councillors deferred making a decision. They'll vote on it at an April 26 council meeting.
LRT skeptic Terry Whitehead of Ward 8 believes if council rejects LRT, the $1 billion will come back around.
We're so far beyond now what the original objective was.- Coun . Chad Collins
Whitehead has worked in provincial and federal politics. He said the province typically allocates money to cities using a per-capita funding model. If Hamilton turns down LRT, it may have to reapply for the money, Whitehead said. But it will be there.
"Anyone who buys into the fact that there's no money there if we turn this down is either being naive or does not understand how these decisions are made," he said.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger and Merulla says the opposite. It's "a no brainer" that Hamilton will lose the money, and end up paying for another city's transit project, Merulla said.
"They've said it," he said. "It's in writing. My contacts at Queens Park say the same."
On Whitehead's assertion, Ferguson has two words: "Prove it."
For the province's part, it has said the money is for rapid transit. Wynne said last year she thought the issue was settled, but whether Hamilton chose LRT or bus rapid transit (BRT), she wanted "a final answer."
This week, Wynne answered a reporter by saying "the money that is on the table for Hamilton is for building transit."
"There has been a discussion in Hamilton, as you well know, for years about BRT, light rail. We want to build transit in Hamilton to improve the quality of life for the people who live in Hamilton. I really hope we can come to an agreement."
Ted McMeekin, Liberal MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, told local media this month that the money would be sent to another city "within 30 seconds" if Hamilton turned down LRT.
That's a painful notion for Jason Farr, who represents Ward 2.
I don't know why this city has such big trouble with mega projects.- Lloyd Ferguson
"People are finally waking up to a potential billion dollar throwaway on an infrastructure project that we likely will never have another opportunity in our lifetime to have funded by the province," he said. "That's a cold reality here."
Asked whether the city should turn down a $1 billion project, Chad Collins of Ward 5 said immediate LRT was never the plan.
The Rapid Ready plan was to invest in transit in the short and medium term, he said, and eventually implement LRT. "We're so far beyond now what the original objective was."
Some councillors insisted they didn't delay it a week to kill the project. Wednesday's meeting ran 13 hours, Collins said. It was too late to make a decision.
Eisenberger is optimistic. Merulla and Ferguson are not.
I've said all along this was going to be a bumpy road.- Mayor Fred Eisenberger
"It was like someone kicked me in the groin yesterday," Merulla said.
Ferguson said council gets weighed down by "micro issues" without looking at bigger ones, like that it will ease the tax burden on the suburbs. Or that it's a project worth $1 billion.
"I don't know why this city has such big trouble with mega projects," Ferguson said. "We seem to get bogged down in them."
Eisenberger said he always thought LRT would be a bumpy road.
"This is a significant bump," he said, "but I'm not daunted by it."