Province will fully fund LRT capital costs, mayor says

Premier Kathleen Wynne has committed to fund the full cost of LRT in Hamilton, Mayor Fred Eisenberger says. But is the premier fully on board for LRT or just rapid transit?

The city’s report proposes a 13-kilometre light rail transit line

This picture was posted in Kathleen's Wynne Twitter account Monday afternoon following her meeting with Hamilton mayor Fred Eisenberger. From left: Eisenberger, Wynne, city manager Chris Murray. (Twitter @Kathleen_Wynne)

Mayor Fred Eisenberger says Premier Kathleen Wynne has committed to fully funding the capital cost of light rail transit (LRT) in Hamilton.

But in a press conference Monday afternoon, the premier stopped short of specifying that she meant LRT, and wouldn't give a dollar figure.

Eisenberger said in a later afternoon press conference that Wynne's office approved him saying publicly that Ontario will commit to LRT in Hamilton, particularly as it ties in with regional GO transit. 

But when the premier answered media questions an hour previously, she held off on using the "L." 

"We've committed to the capital cost for Hamilton, absolutely," she said Monday in her press conference after the meeting with Eisenberger. "But I'm not going to put a number on that because we don't know what that number will be."

Eisenberger met with Wynne on Monday morning, and met with Transportation Minister Steve Del Duca Monday afternoon.

We remain committed to fully funding the capital costs of a Hamilton rapid transit project.- Patrick Searle, Ministry of Transportation spokesperson

"The premier as well as Minister Del Duca…both confirmed their commitment to 100-per cent capital funding for LRT," he said. 

The next step, he said, is his proposed citizen engagement panel that will help decide the future of LRT. The city will meet with the province in the next couple of months to discuss a time line.

Wynne didn't nail down a dollar figure, he said, because it will vary according to the design. But the commitment was firm.

"We did clarify the message that we were going to deliver to the media with the premier before we left and it’s consistent with what I just told you."

City manager Chris Murray agreed.

"In the next couple of months, we're going to hear more specifically from the province in terms of their schedule in terms of when projects will unfold," Murray said.

"But in terms of the question that council has asked for many months, 100-per cent funding for the capital costs of B-line LRT, we heard that that is the plan."

Rapid transit game changer?

It was a day of excitement, confusion and scraps of information shared and debated over social media regarding the question Hamilton has waited years to have answered. 

"This really clarifies the issue for Hamilton," said Ryan McGreal, a local transit advocate who called it "a game changer."

"If Premier Wynne has been correctly quoted saying that, this is an exciting new development. One of the arguments against LRT has been the province hasn’t really committed to full capital funding."

Eisenberger hopes to strike his citizens' panel in the next couple of months. Without it, he said, he worries that council won't vote for LRT.

That's the case for Coun. Chad Collins of Ward 5, who doesn't want LRT even with full capital funding. Investment in GO Transit is a safer bet, he said, and he worries about the implications of LRT funding on improvements to the rest of the transit system. 

"I would suggest there are more strategic investments the city can make than to put all their eggs in one basket," he said.

Part of province's $15 billion?

The city’s Rapid Ready report proposes a 13-kilometre light rail transit line from McMaster University to Eastgate Square. Metrolinx estimated the capital costs to be $1 billion in 2013.

The province has committed $15 billion over 10 years for transit projects in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area. That includes the electrification of the GO service, which some suggest will take up the lion's share of the money. Wynne did take pains to indicate Hamilton's RT had to be looked at in conjunction with the regional transit plan.

Eisenberger says he has no reason to think that Hamilton's share won't come out of that $15 billion.

The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) is "fully funding the capital costs of a Hamilton rapid transit project," an MTO spokesperson said in an email on Monday. It did not specify whether that meant LRT or just rapid transit in general.

"We continue to work closely with Metrolinx and the City of Hamilton to move forward with a rapid transit plan that makes sense for the people of Hamilton and the entire Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA)," Patrick Searle said in an email.

We need to find out if council is still on board to go on to the next phase.- Coun. Sam Merulla

"We have been very clear that we remain committed to fully funding the capital costs of a Hamilton rapid transit project, and currently Metrolinx and the City of Hamilton are working closely together on outstanding technical questions."

In light of Monday's news, Coun. Sam Merulla of Ward 4 will bring a motion to city council to reaffirm its commitment to LRT. "We need to find out if council is still on board to go on to the next phase."

He remained skeptical of the LRT funding news on Monday.

"The devil is in the details," he said. "We don't have a time frame. We need to put this in perspective. At this point, no cheque has been signed. Right now it's simply 'at some point,' and that's not good enough for me."

Eisenberger said he would rather Merulla's motion come after the citizen engagement process.

The province has flirted with saying it would fully fund LRT before, said McGreal. 

Rapid transit, but with the L?

Last year, Del Duca met with councillors and talked about full funding but used the more generic term "rapid transit," which could also mean bus rapid transit (BRT). The Liberals also pledged two rapid transit lines in Hamilton in a 2007 media release during a provincial election campaign.

Wynne and then-Transportion Minister Glen Murray also mentioned full funding during the last election campaign.

City has a history of 'snatching the defeat from the jaws of victory'

City council unanimously supported the Rapid Ready report in 2013, which mentions improving transit leading to eventual LRT. But some councillors have been vocal against light rail in the last year, and last week, voted to remove a two-kilometre transit lane from downtown Hamilton.

McGreal doesn't put it past council to walk away from LRT anyway.

"This is a city and this is a council that has a long history of snatching the defeat from the jaws of victory," he said.

But "I see this as a really exciting opportunity for all those councillors who said 'we support transit' but voted against the bus lane to support LRT."

The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce applauded Wynne's words in a media release Monday. The membership isn't unanimously pro-LRT, but the chamber is in favour of the project because of the potential economic benefits.

"The chamber and its membership applaud the leadership shown by Mayor Eisenberger and Premier Wynne in championing a project that will completely transform this historic city and form the foundation of Hamilton’s future economy,” said Keanin Loomis, chamber president, in the release. 

Eisenberger also discussed U.S. Steel and affordable housing during his half-hour meeting with Wynne.


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