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Provincial budget pledges 'rapid transit' for Hamilton - again

It wasn't the $1-billion announcement some had hoped, but there's still hope for light-rail transit (LRT) in Hamilton, even if there are still no clear answers.

Announcement could come within 2 weeks

Charles Sousa sits with Kathleen Wynne in the Ontario legislature.

It was another year, another provincial budget that mentions "rapid transit" for Hamilton. But those for and against light-rail transit (LRT) say Thursday's provincial budget leaves them with more questions than they had yesterday.

The provincial budget, presented by Finance Minister Charles Sousa, pledges money for "rapid transit" for Hamilton, which will be funded out of a $16-billion Moving Ontario Forward envelope for the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area. 

But it didn't mention a specific dollar figure, or the type of rapid transit. And while Minister Steven Del Duca will come to Hamilton soon — one estimate says it could be within two weeks — to discuss transit for Hamilton, some say they've heard it before.

"I don't think we're walking away from today's budget with any more information than we had yesterday," said Coun. Chad Collins of Ward 5.

I don't understand how all other communities have made submissions, and we've put in our submission and we still don't know.- Coun. Chad Collins

If the province has transit plans and a dollar figure in mind, he said, he doesn't understand why it won't say so.

Looking at the budget, he said, other communities had dollar figures next to their rapid transit projects. Hamilton didn't.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath, MPP for Hamilton Centre, says her party estimates there's $900 million to $1 billion left in the transit pot. 

If that's true, Collins said, "I don't know why they wouldn't just say 'here's $900 million for Hamilton.' I don't understand how all other communities have made submissions, and we've put in our submission and we still don't know."

The city wants $1 billion to build a 13-kilometre LRT line from McMaster University to Eastgate Square. It also wants about $302 million for HSR improvements, including $200 million for a maintenance facility on the Mountain.

Other communities in line for LRT have commitments in hand. Kitchener-Waterloo is currently building a line. The province announced a Hurontario LRT line earlier this week connecting GO stations in Brampton and Mississauga.

If that leaves $900 million, Collins said, that means there isn't enough money left for the whole ask. And Hamilton would have to prioritize. But that's no clearer than before.

Why has it been going on two and a half years now for the province to tell us what are they going to pay for and when they are going to pay for it?- Ryan McGreal, transit advocate

"In the grand scheme of things, we really can't take much away from today's budget in terms of what Hamilton's going to receive." 

Collins is against LRT. Community LRT advocate Ryan McGreal is in favour, and he shares the frustration.

"One of the things I'm confused about is why are we still confused," he said. "Why is it still not clear? It seems as though the province is stringing this out for as long as it possibly can and that would make any reasonable person suspicious.

"Why has it been going on two and a half years now for the province to tell us what are they going to pay for and when they are going to pay for it?"

Some theorize that council itself is contributing to the confusion. Council submitted its LRT ask in 2013, specifying that the province had to pay the full capital costs. 

It's a ping pong game.- Andrea Horwath, NDP leader and MPP

"Maybe there are worries that if the province doesn't make the commitment to fund the entire capital cost of the LRT then the city's not interested," Horwath said. 

"It's a ping pong game. The city is saying 'we want to know the money how much money is earmarked.'" The province, meanwhile, "is saying the city hasn't told us what it wants to build.

"That's why everyone's confused. Because it's confusing."

Mayor Fred Eisenberger isn't worried. Del Duca will come to Hamilton in the coming weeks, he said. And questions will be answered.

As for what Hamilton wants, that's been clear since February 2013 when council passed its Rapid Ready report, which asked for the full capital funding of LRT, he said.

We can't afford any more delays. We must build.- Charles Sousa, finance minister

"Our position to the province has been LRT and a $300-million ask for bus transit as well, including a bus storage facility. My understanding from Minister Del Duca that that's the request they're working from and I don't think that's varied at any time. I don't think there's any confusion."

An announcement is imminent, and it will clear up Hamilton's transit questions, said Ted McMeekin, Minister of Municipal Affairs and MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale. 

Sousa pressed the need for transit in his speech on Thursday, saying the province will invest $16 billion in the GTHA and $15 billion. The additional money will come from the province selling its share of Hydro One.

Gridlock is costing $11 billion per year in the GTHA, Sousa said.

"We can't afford any more delays. We must build."

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