Hamilton LRT project comes to the end of its tracks
Graphic by Elisabetta Paiano / Production Editor
On Dec. 16, 2019, Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney informed Fred Eisenberger, the mayor of Hamilton, that the provincial government had decided to cancel plans for Hamilton’s light-rail transit system, which was set to begin construction in 2020. After Mulroney called for a press conference to deliver the cancellation news in Hamilton, she cancelled it due to safety concerns linked to the large crowd that had gathered for her announcement. Instead, Mulroney issued a statement and cited impractical costs as the reason for the LRT’s cancellation.
“. . . The [LRT] project will actually cost five times more than the previous [provincial] government led us all to believe,” said Mulroney in her statement.
The proposed corridor was set to extend from McMaster to Eastgate Square, amounting to a new 14 km system.
Prior to this termination, Eisenberger says that the provincial government had given no indication that the project would be cancelled or that a press conference was to be called [on Dec. 16, 2019]. He also claims that on April 10, 2019, Premier Doug Ford had sent Jeff Yurek, the previous Minister of Transportation, to Hamilton to confirm that the provincial government would support the LRT’s construction.
Eisenberger considers Ford’s failure to follow through a betrayal.
“You said Nov. 28, 2018: ‘When people democratically elect someone, if he wants an LRT, he’s gonna get an LRT,’ adding ‘that’s democracy,’” said Eisenberger in an open letter to the office of the Premier.
In May 2015, Premier Wynne promised the city of Hamilton $1 billion to fund capital costs of the LRT project. In September 2019, a meeting between the Ministry of Transportation and Hamilton revealed that the preliminary project budget for the LRT, including both capital and non-capital costs, ranged from $4.6 billion to $6.5 billion. The provincial government sent a new estimate to Eisenberger days before the Dec. 16 press conference; this new estimate puts project costs at $5.5 billion.
Eisenberger and his team had questions regarding the new Dec. 12 estimate, which they never had a chance to raise.
According to Mulroney’s Dec. 16 statement, the $5.5 billion estimate came from a report by an “expert third party”.
Kris Jacobson, director of the LRT project office, broke down the difference between capital and non-capital costs. Hamilton has a memorandum of agreement with the provincial agency Metrolinx, where the province is responsible for upfront capital costs. This includes lifecycle costs for the LRT system, such as from construction, purchasing trains and replacing tracks. On the other hand, Hamilton would have been responsible for non-capital costs, such as day-to-day operations and general maintenance of the corridor and stations.
Jacobson noted that without any context, the provincial government’s $5.5 billion estimate is impossible to interpret and verify.
“There’s a lot of options and methodology that are used to develop these numbers that we don’t know . . . so to us, they’re just numbers,” said Jacobson.
Andrea Horwath, the Member of Provincial Parliament for Hamilton-Centre and leader of the official opposition, held a press conference at Redchurch Café + Gallery, a business along the proposed LRT route. She called on Premier Ford to come forward with the third-party’s detailed cost estimate.
“The bottom line is Mr. Ford’s making up the numbers to justify this cut. So, show us the numbers, show us the report and give us an apples to apples comparison with the other projects that are ongoing right now in our province,” said Horwath.
The Hamilton LRT was estimated to cost $5.5 billion for the 14 kilometre corridor. Similar projects in other jurisdictions include the Hurontario LRT in Mississauga, which is estimated to cost $1.6 billion for an 18 kilometer corridor; the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, which is estimated to cost $12 billion for a 19 kilometre corridor, 10 kilometres of which are underground; and the ION LRT expansion in Cambridge, which is estimated to cost $1.4 billion with an 18 kilometre corridor. All of these projects have gone over their original cost estimates. Yet they continue to receive provincial funding.
Horwath highlighted that Metrolinx has spent taxpayer money buying land and creating documents necessary for the procurement process. Metrolinx is now in possession of the stretch of land that would have been the LRT.
Horwath also publicly criticized Donna Skelly, the Member of Provincial Parliament for Flamborough-Glanbrook and the only Progressive Conservative elected in Hamilton.
“There’s no doubt [Skelly] didn’t support [the LRT] as a city councillor, but as I said that’s not the will of the people of [Hamilton]. They voted for a pro-LRT mayor and Ms. Skelly . . . Mr. Ford should respect the right of our municipality to plan its own future and to determine what transportation infrastructure is the best for Hamilton,” said Horwath.
On. Dec. 18, Horwath sent a letter to the Auditor General of Ontario, Bonnie Lysyk requesting the office investigates the rationale behind the LRT cost estimates provided to the public under the Liberal and Provincial Conservative governments.
“The public deserves to receive honest and reasonable cost estimates when assessing the value of public transit projects that cost billions of dollars,” wrote Horwath.
In her reply, Lysyk stated that, as part of an ongoing audit, her office is currently examining Metrolinx. She also declared that she would examine cost estimates for projects such as the LRT.
According to Skelly, the Auditor General’s report will likely be released by the end of 2020.
For Skelly and her government, the cost was too prohibitive, not only for the province but also for municipal taxpayers. Evidence for this claim is limited to Mulroney’s Dec. 16 statement, in which she claims that, over the 30 year lifespan of the LRT project, taxpayers would have paid $1 billion.
According to Skelly, the provincial government believes the previous Wynne Liberal government was aware that the LRT could not be built for the $1 billion promise, but had informed neither the mayor nor city council.
“I see it as a smart and responsible decision because my priority, and the priority of our government, is to ensure that we respect taxpayers and their hard earned dollars, and money was being spent on a project that should never ever have seen the light of day,” said Skelly in response to the Mayor calling the LRT cancellation a “personal betrayal.”
The provincial government’s initial $1 billion commitment to the LRT project will be diverted towards Hamilton’s transportation infrastructure.
Skelly believes the commitment provides an incredible opportunity towards the city, specifically when examining the Hamilton Street Railway bus system.
While $1 billion is not enough to finish the LRT, it will be up to the Hamilton Transportation Task Force to determine where this funding should be allocated.
This task force will be comprised of five non-politically affiliated community members, four of which will be decided by the province and one by the city of Hamilton. Their primary role will be to create a list of transportation projects for the Ministry to consider as viable alternatives to the LRT, due by the end of February 2020.
It has been suggested that the Laborers International Union of North America, a pro-LRT labour union, will be involved in some capacity.
Mayor Eisenberger remains committed to the LRT and continues to urge the provincial government to reconsider their decision.
“I’m hopeful but not confident that [the project will be reinstated], but we’ll do everything we can to try to set that kind of change,” said Eisenberger.
Jacobson and his team leading the LRT project also do not see this as the end.
“Who knows what the future holds for LRT in Hamilton . . . here is a commitment to funding transportation and transit improvements in Hamilton, which is a positive. So there is something that’s going to come from this. What is it? That still needs to be determined,” said Jacobson.
The state of transportation in Hamilton will remain in the air until the task force reports to the Minister of Transportation.
The Silhouette reached out to Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney for an interview about the Hamilton LRT project being cancelled, but the Minister declined our request.