Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation has cancelled Hamilton’s 17-stop Light Rail Transit project.
Provincial Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney was to make the announcement in a Monday afternoon press conference at the Sheraton in the city’s downtown but backed out just before the arranged start time.
The reversal comes after Premier Doug Ford’s government promised to move ahead with the transit project during the 2018 election.
In a statement, Mulroney says she met with Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger Monday afternoon and informed him the Hamilton LRT project “will not be proceeding.”
“It is frustrating news, but the stark fiscal reality is that the project will actually cost five times more than the previous government led us all to believe,” Mulroney said in the statement.
Mulroney claims the former Liberal government under Kathleen Wynne was not upfront about the true cost of the LRT.
“For years, the Wynne government promised to cover 100 per cent of the capital costs of the Hamilton LRT and spend $1-billion,” Mulroney said, “However, when our government assumed office, we learned the previous government was privately expecting the total cost of the project to exceed $3 billion.”
Mulroney went on to say that the true estimated cost of the project was more in the neighbourhood of $5.5 billion.
“It is clear that the previous Liberal government misled the people of Hamilton and all Ontarians when they positioned the LRT as a $1-billion project.”
Premier Ford echoed Mulroney’s assessment in an interview with Global News on Monday and said don’t blame his government.
“Unless the mayor comes up with a way of finding another $3.6 billion on the backs of the people of Hamilton, they are going have to come up with another project,” said Ford.
“Not our fault, they can look at the previous government and ask them why they lied. Why the Liberals lied and why they didn’t have the proper numbers.”
Mulroney says the province will honour a $1-billion capital commitment to transportation infrastructure investments in the city and create the Hamilton Transportation Task Force.
The Task Force will report to Mulroney before the end of February with a preliminary list of alternative transportation projects that can be delivered quickly and in a fiscally responsible manner.
The province says details on the task force will be publicized later in December.
Mayor Eisenberger says the project’s cancellation is a “betrayal” of his city.
“Devastated for the employees that are part of Metrolinx, you know, just before Christmas being virtually unemployed as of tomorrow or today,” Eisenberger told Global News.
“The single largest climate change initiative and investment in the city that would generate more affordable housing and more density and improve public transportation has now been set aside based on estimates, which I think is outrageous.”
The mayor says now that the LRT is dead, people affected immediately are Metrolinx employees specifically hired for the project and city employees that were paid by Metrolinx to work on the project.
Eisenberger was worried when he first learned of Mulroney’s presser from 900CHML early on Monday morning during a guest spot on the Bill Kelly Show.
“I’m just shocked. I’m stunned. I just can’t believe that. First of all, they’re holding a press conference without letting us know about it,“ Eisenberger said.
However, Flamborough-Glanbrook Conservative MPP Donna Skelly told Global News on Monday that she had touched base with Mulroney about the presser and was told that every effort was made to reach out to Eisenberger and that the province kept getting push back.
“She said, no, every effort has been made to coordinate a meeting with the mayor. And for some reason, it wasn’t received. They could not coordinate,” said Skelly.
The mayor said he did meet up with the minister a couple of months ago and was told by Mulroney that the province expressed some concerns about some estimates that they had done.
“Actually the first meeting, they wanted me to sign a nondisclosure agreement about any conversations we were going to have. I refused to do that. I can’t be put in a position where I cannot share information with my counsel and my community,” said Eisenberger.
Eisenberger says the only indication they got from the province that there may be issues with the LRT is when they showed him a “one-pager” on projects in the province that had recently seen costs escalate.
“We said, you know, ‘we can’t make any decisions based on this. We need additional information, provide some detail and tell us who and who’s making these estimates.’”
NDP leader Andrea Horwath — who went to the Sheraton for the announcement Monday — also referred to the Ford government’s decision to drop the LRT project as a “betrayal.”
“We’re going to go backwards instead forward,” said Horwath. “The premier has gone back on his word which means his word isn’t worth anything.”
Horwath believes the numbers the province is quoting were just “picked out of the clouds” and that the government doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
“We’ve seen other projects around the province, LRT projects, some of them are longer than Hamilton’s length and some are shorter but they are all around the same ballpark number as what our LRT was slated to be.”
Former Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca accused Doug Ford of searching for a way to kill the Hamilton LRT the first day he was elected.
In a statement on Monday, Del Duca said Ford had “achieved his mission at great cost,” and that his three transportation ministers were “asleep at the wheel”
“Today, after months of wasting everyone’s time, Doug Ford and Caroline Mulroney continue to make their planning up as they go along,” said Del Duca, “In 18 months, Doug Ford has had three transportation ministers and yet it seems that they’ve all been asleep at the switch. They continue to be rudderless and have no plan, and the people of Hamilton and the people of Ontario deserve better.”
The mayor says it’s hard to elaborate on what the $1 billion could be used for as he said he didn’t get confirmation that could be used for public transit.
He said for the foreseeable future, he sees Bus Rapid Transit as the “clear” option, which would be similar to the express bus service already on the B-line today.
In early December, the city’s project director, Kris Jacobson, revealed the LRT was on course with Metrolinx, saying it had bought two-thirds of the 90 full properties needed to build the 14-kilometre line from Eastgate Square to McMaster University, along the King-Main corridor.
Three consortiums that have been chosen to bid for construction of the Hamilton LRT were putting the finishing touches on their proposals, according to Jacobson.
Work on the line was expected to start in 2021.
A report, presented by Jacobson on Dec. 4, also showed that Metrolinx has spent $162 million on the project to date. Much of that related to the purchase of properties.