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Director of Hamilton’s LRT surprised by cancellation amid report bidders ‘dropped out’

Artist rendering of proposed Hamilton LRT trains running along King Street West.
Artist rendering of proposed Hamilton LRT trains running along King Street West. City of Hamilton

The man who was tagged with strategically overseeing Hamilton’s now-defunct LRT says bidders wavering on engaging in such a large multi-national project is “not unusual.”

Project Director, Kris Jacobsen, says news about bidders pulling back in the process — as revealed in a Toronto Star article on Monday night about a risk-assessment update — is not uncommon.

“They’re complex,” Jacobson told Global News. “If you take a look at the consortiums that are put together to actually bid on these projects are made of a number of different firms, multinational firms, multidisciplinary firms could have, you know, anywhere from three to five major partners.

READ MORE: Ontario government cancels Hamilton LRT project, mayor calls announcement a ‘betrayal’

“So to have bidders at various stages through the procurement either be more active or less active or have partners that are actually getting swapped out and changed with other partners is not uncommon.”

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Jacobson says Metrolinx never gave him any indications that they potentially were pulling out of the city’s LRT project — which was inevitably announced on Dec. 16, 2020 — due to problems with the procurement.

“That was never an indication that that was given to us by Metrolinx. And quite frankly, again, on these types of projects, having partners that are either more engaged or less engaged or going through a process of swapping out partners for new partners is very common,” said Jacobson.

Hamilton LRT project derailed as province claws back funding
Hamilton LRT project derailed as province claws back funding

The Progressive Conservative government nixed Hamilton’s LRT in mid-December, citing a third-party consultant’s report which said overall costs had ballooned to an estimated $5.5 billion — a price that Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said the province simply “couldn’t afford.”

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The LRT project was once a priority of Metrolinx’s regional transportation plan for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) expected to improve the city’s transportation choices, bring a “smaller carbon footprint to the city,” and link to a network of the province’s transit lines to bring “seamless regionwide services for travellers.”

In April of 2018, Requests for Proposals (RFP) to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the LRT were issued by the province to Mobilinx, CityLine Transit Group and Ei8ht Transit.

Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, told Global News that there were already “challenges” with the bidding process she says were “developed by the previous government” prior to the Doug Ford government taking office.

READ MORE: Ontario government cancels Hamilton LRT project, mayor calls announcement a ‘betrayal’

Clark said that prior to the procurement cancellation, the short-listed bidders “stopped actively” participating.

“The disclosures this week reaffirm the previous [Liberal] government was not transparent with Ontarians and Hamiltonians, and privately, expected the true costs of the LRT procurement would be nearly $3.7 billion.”

Clark went on to reveal that a “major construction company” tied to one of the three bidders in the consortium “pulled-out altogether.”

In his six-plus years working on the project, Jacobsen says the only time he believes bidders “might have put their pens down” on the procurement process was when the Doug Ford government implemented a spending freeze on the salaries of public service managers and decided to cut Toronto city council in July of 2018.

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“I think if you take a look at that, and then some of the uncertainty surrounding the municipal election, if you were a bidder on the project you would probably be a little nervous about whether or not the project was going forward as well,” said Jacobsen.

Ministry of Transportation task force

With the LRT cancelled, the focus turns to the $1-billion funding promise for transportation and transit infrastructure made by the Doug Ford government on Dec.16 2019.

READ MORE: Ontario auditor general to probe Hamilton LRT project costs

The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) confirmed to Global News on Monday that properties previously bought by Metrolinx for the now-defunct LRT project — estimated to have cost $150 million — would not be counted against the December funding commitment.

Queen’s Park says a task force will prepare a preliminary list of transportation projects that can qualify for the funding and complete it by the end of February.

“The task force will commence with five unpaid positions, ” Clark said. “It will include four community representatives from the Hamilton region identified by the Government of Ontario.

Clark said the City will get an invite to have representation on the task force and that the province is open to all ideas that meet the targeted $1-billion budget, which could range from highway expansion projects to express bus projects to a lower-cost LRT.

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When asked whether any of the decisions from the task force would be binding, Clark said that the decision would be the MTO’s alone.

“The task force will provide advice to the minister of transportation about transportation projects that can be delivered quickly using the $1 billion committed,” said Clark.

West/Central Mountain Councillor John-Paul Danko says the province’s idea of a task force represents the “worst kind of token community involvement.”

Danko believes Hamilton taxpayers and other municipalities across the province should be concerned about the direction the province is taking on how the $1 billion is going to be spent.

“The idea that unelected, unaccountable community representatives cherry-picked by the province to determine how a billion dollars is going to be invested in their communities, I think that’s unprecedented,” Danko told Global News.

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