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Hamilton councillors debate how to use $1-billion from cancelled LRT

Protesters disrupted a planned news conference on December 16, the day Hamilton's LRT project was cancelled by the provincial government. Don Mitchell / Global News Radio 900 CHML

Now that Hamilton’s LRT has been cancelled, councillors are debating what steps the city ought to take going forward.

A staff report presented to the city’s general issues committee on Wednesday contained very few details about the province’s transit task force — aside from the fact that it will have five “non-elected community members” and that it’s expected to make recommendations to the Minister of Transportation by the end of February.

Staff say they’re still waiting for answers to questions about funding allocation, project eligibility and the role of city council in deciding how the $1 billion from the province will be spent.

“Admittedly, there’s not a whole heck of a lot of information in the report because we don’t have a whole heck of a lot of information, but we provided for you what we do know at this point in time,” said Jason Thorne, general manager of the city’s planning and economic development department.

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It was the first time Hamilton politicians were able to publicly discuss the LRT cancellation since it was announced by Ontario’s Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney in December.

Several councillors asked staff questions about the actual cost of LRT, citing the province’s reason for cancelling the project — which was that overall costs had ballooned to an estimated $5.5 billion.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger said the only way to know the true cost would be to go through the procurement process.

“Then we would have had actual numbers,” said Eisenberger. “Not somebody else’s estimates, or interim estimates, or high-level numbers — we would have had actual estimates, actual numbers on what the bidders had put on the table at that point in time. And it was always assumed that there may be some additional costs.”

It remains unconfirmed who exactly will be appointed to the transit task force.

City manager Janette Smith said she has asked the province about council’s role when it comes to terms of reference, membership, or submitting information to the task force, but she has not received any answers, nor any information about when answers might be provided.

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Ward 9 Coun. Brad Clark said he’s “astounded” that the province hasn’t asked for council’s input, and also “astounded” that council hasn’t taken the initiative to provide input.

“I guess I’m really nervous that if we sit back and do nothing and we don’t provide direction or input to the task force, then we really don’t know what they’re going to use the $1 billion on in Hamilton,” said Clark. “And at the very least, we should be providing them some latitude in terms of where we believe the money should be used.”

Clark also warned his colleagues against making disparaging comments against the province, adding that it could lead to bridges being burned.

“Sometimes when we’re very emotional and very agitated, we say things in haste that have ramifications that are longstanding in a cabinet room,” said Clark. “We have hundreds of millions of dollars in discretionary funding that we need from the province of Ontario.

“The province of Ontario does not need Hamilton. We need them.”

Eisenberger said the only way forward at this point is to work with the task force and whoever is appointed to deliver recommendations for how the money is used.

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“Now there’s a point in time where we need to look to the task force and say, task force, you make sense of this entire analysis that’s been done here for many, many, many, many years now, and hopefully come up with a recommendation that serves the city overall in the best way possible and maximizes the investment coming to the city of Hamilton, in one manner or another.”

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