Hamilton

$1B in Hamilton transportation money should still be spent on LRT or BRT, task force says

A task force the province set up to determine how it should spend $1 billion previously earmarked for Hamilton light-rail transit says the province should still spend the money on LRT or bus rapid transit.

The province appointed the task force after it cancelled Hamilton's LRT project

This Metrolinx rendition was an illustration of Hamilton's now-cancelled LRT project. (Metrolinx)

A task force the province set up to determine how it should spend $1 billion previously earmarked for Hamilton's cancelled light-rail transit project says the province should still spend the money on LRT or bus rapid transit.

The Hamilton transportation task force told Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney Thursday that its preference is for "an intra-city higher-order transit project" along the A line and B line, similar to the B-line LRT project that was already in progress when the province abruptly cancelled it in December.

"The task force's general recommendation is to invest the $1 billion in higher-order transit, because these projects are expected to bring substantial benefits to the residents and businesses of the City of Hamilton," the report says. 

LRT or BRT, the report says, would reduce congestion, operate on its own right-of-way and bring economic uplift.

Metrolinx had been working on a Hamilton LRT project since 2015, when the previous Kathleen Wynne government announced $1 billion for the capital cost of building the system. Mulroney cancelled the project late last year, saying there were cost overruns that made LRT unaffordable.

The task force seemed to disagree, recommending the province reach out to the federal government and the private sector for help in funding the project. The group worked in an advisory capacity, and the province has the final say. But Mayor Fred Eisenberger, a staunch LRT supporter, said the report shows that "LRT is still very much on the table."

"It doesn't surprise me that LRT has come out on top," he said, "because it's come out on top in every evaluation that's been done to date."

Keanin Loomis, president of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, said the recommendation takes the city back to debates from previous years.

"We're back to where we were 10 years ago when we had that discussion on BRT versus LRT," he said.

Andrea Horwath, Hamilton Centre NDP MPP and Official Opposition leader, said Premier Doug Ford should reverse his cancellation of Hamilton LRT now, and work with the city and Ottawa to get the project built. 

Cancelling it and establishing a task force, she said, hindered a project that would be that much farther ahead.

"It's not surprising that the task force made the recommendations they made because this is what we've been saying over and over again."

Not everyone saw the report as a ringing endorsement for LRT. Chad Collins, Ward 5 (Centennial) councillor, said the recommendations in the report present various options, including a cost estimate around all-day GO service.

Would council support it?

"I'd be very surprised if council would continue to support a project that's way over budget," he said. 

"We'll see what comes next. It's a waiting game again."

Mulroney said in a media release that she's releasing the task force report in the interest of transparency.

"I am pleased that we are one step closer to ensuring that the province's commitment of $1 billion in capital funding is invested in realistic and affordable transportation projects in Hamilton," she said.

The task force, which included city manager Janette Smith and pro-LRT union Laborers' International Union of North America (LiUNA), included 15 recommendations.

'Intra-city' higher order transit

The first was for "higher order" transit, the second for "intra-city" BRT or LRT. Another recommends the province ask for federal money to help build the rapid transit system, which Ottawa indicated before the COVID-19 pandemic that it was willing to do if the province asked.

The task force also recommended the province look at reducing the cost of LRT by looking at "alternative delivery models and alternative financing structures and sources, and used the Canada Infrastructure Bank as an example. It also suggested a phased-in LRT project if money is short. It also said BRT would require a wider right of way.

Joseph Mancinelli, LiUNA president, warned in a Thursday statement that "the work does not end here."

"LiUNA strongly encourages all levels of government to continue to work together with industry partners and discuss next steps to make this much-needed transit project a reality," he said. 

The LRT project, and its subsequent cancellation, pre-dated the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created massive economic upheaval. Horwath said building LRT would create jobs, which is what Ontario will need post-coronavirus.

Pandemic will slow the process

"Once we come out of the pandemic," she said, "this kind of project is exactly the kind of thing we need to get people working and stimulate the economy."

Eisenberger made the same point.

He said the pandemic will likely "slow the final decision-making process," and rightfully so.

"The pandemic is everyone's priority, and that's where all the time and attention needs to focused," he said. 

"I imagine there will be periphery work being done on this going forward, in both the provincial and federal and the private sector, but it's not the highest priority. The pandemic is."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

With files from Dan Taekema

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