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Divided city council leaves uncertain fate for Hamilton LRT

An artists rendering of Hamilton's LRT project. The federal and provincial governments have offered $3.4 billion to build the 14 kilometre line. Metrolinx

There’s no decision yet as to whether the city will accept $3.4 billion in federal and provincial funding to build a 14-kilometre light rail transit (LRT) line from McMaster University to Eastgate Square.

City Councillors were expected to vote on a motion Wednesday that would direct staff to work with Metrolinx and the province on a memorandum of understanding for the project.

Instead, members of the general issues committee deferred Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger’s motion until June 16, when they hope to know more about the financial impact of day-to-day operating and maintenance costs.

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James Nowlan, Ontario’s assistant deputy minister for the ministry of transportation appeared virtually before councillors and estimated those operating and maintenance costs at $20 million annually.

“Those costs are gross costs,” Nowlan said. “There is a net cost which is when you take off the farebox revenue that would be provided to the city.”

Read more: Feds, province confirm $1.7 billion each for Hamilton LRT

Ancaster Coun. Lloyd Ferguson has asked for a report from finance staff on June 16, outlining how much further the impact could be reduced by retiring buses on the east-west corridor and eliminating incentive programs that encourage downtown investment.

“To move this thing along,” said Ferguson, “we have to be able to tell our taxpayers what they’re on the hook for — what this means to every ward.”

“If all those savings are added up, does that mean we can get this system with no additional operations and maintenance costs?” asked Ferguson. “I will not support directing an MOU to be prepared between Metrolinx and the city until I know the answers to these questions.”

Click to play video: 'Caroline Mulroney speaks about Hamilton LRT cancellation' Caroline Mulroney speaks about Hamilton LRT cancellation
Caroline Mulroney speaks about Hamilton LRT cancellation – Dec 16, 2019

Ferguson’s vote may eventually prove critical to the fate of the LRT project, since there appeared to be an almost even split on council during Wednesday’s discussion.

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Mayor Eisenberger, a consistent LRT supporter, stressed “the urban sprawl piece, the ability to redevelop the inner core of our city on existing and renewed infrastructure, that is really the biggest economic benefit that comes with this entire project.”

“Those people who’ve invested in the last 10 years in downtown Hamilton,” agreed Ward 2 Coun. Jason Farr, “I’d say 95 per cent of it is from LRT supportive investors.”

Read more: Hamilton LRT a part of Ontario’s pitch for federal transit funding

“Our ridership is nowhere near that point of supporting an LRT,” countered Ward 6 Coun. Tom Jackson. “We must build a case first by increasing ridership on conventional transit.”

“I just think about what we could do with that $3.4 billion, if given the chance to choose,” added Jackson. “That amount of money could build a bus rapid transit system, coast to coast to coast in our city from Winona to Flamborough, from the lake to the airport.”

Nowlan repeated on Wednesday that the federal and provincial government’s matching $1.7-billion funding commitments are specific to LRT, saying “that is the project that the province with the federal government has identified for this investment.”

Nowlan also stated that the province would like to have a memorandum of understanding in place this summer, or “as soon as possible,” so it is able to move forward with a goal of starting construction in 2022.

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City councillors have been given assurances that the province will be responsible for any construction cost overruns and “life-cycle maintenance.”

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