With millions invested in preliminary research on a light-rail transit system in Hamilton, the City is under pressure to move the project forward.
Over the past five years, Hamiltonians, councillors and McMaster representatives have been making the case to the province for LRT in Hamilton.
LRT would provide train access every two or three minutes to downtown Hamilton. The system is expected to benefit local commuters and frequent users of the B-line bus route. As part of a downtown renewal plan, LRT also has the potential to draw more students to the core of the city.
Recently, Mayor Bob Bratina has come under heavy scrutiny by community members for not pursuing the initiative more aggressively.
Complicating matters further, Dalton McGuinty’s resignation last week as leader of Ontario’s Liberal Party means LRT supporters likely have to wait even longer for action.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now. I wish I could say this could happen very soon, but with the economy and Ontario’s political situation, I don’t think we’re going to hear back definitively from the province until 2014,” said Brian McHattie, Hamilton city councillor for McMaster’s ward.
Given the amount of time and money already spent on the initiative, many are seeking clarity on whether LRT is on track to happen.
So far, evidence suggests there are significant social and economic benefits to justify having light-rail transit in Hamilton.
According to a 2010 operational review by the HSR, bus ridership in the east-west direction that LRT would encompass was roughly 13,000 per day.
“The B-line is by far the busiest line we have in the city,” said McHattie. “Sometimes you’ll see buses pass by their stops because they’re too full. LRT would be able to carry many more passengers, and it would be faster.”
To date, $9 million has been invested in preliminary research to make the case for LRT. The province has designated $3 million for a required Environmental Assessment.
Estimates for the cost to build the LRT B-line are much higher, ranging from $900 million to $1 billion.
“Initially, and until they say otherwise, the province has earmarked $2 billion a year for 25 years for the MoveOntario plan,” said councillor Jason Farr. “That’s all we know at this point.”
In September 2011, City Council requested full provincial funding on two LRT lines in Hamilton.
Other cities in the GTA are also pursuing provincial funding on LRT systems. Toronto recently secured full capital funding from Metrolinx for its $6 billion Eglinton-Scarborough cross-town LRT, prompting many to insist Hamilton deserves the same treatment.
“In October 2011, Metrolinx said we were ahead of the pack,” said Farr. “Since then, we have heard they may be looking at alternative funding sources, and that could be anything – it could mean creating a new tax specific to the MoveOntario initiative or to Hamilton’s LRT plan.”
“It doesn’t mean LRT is dead, though – it does not mean that,” he said.
In August of this year, Ontario’s minister of infrastructure and transportation Bob Chiarelli finally confirmed that the City would have to raise a portion of the funds on its own.
It is uncertain how much Hamiltonian taxpayers will have to pitch in.
This uncertainty prompted Mayor Bob Bratina to express hesitation in a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Stoney Creek earlier this month.
Bratina said he was reluctant to move ahead with LRT plans before funding details are released.
Councillor McHattie said the City intends to join the Chamber of Commerce’s LRT taskforce committee, on which McMaster University has representation. He added that the Council would also be interested in working with the McMaster Students Union.
Last year, the MSU launched a “We need LRT” campaign. Former VP (Education) Alicia Ali and SRA representative Chris Erl brought forth a motion to amend one of the MSU’s transit policies. A two-line edit to the policy reads that the MSU supports the LRT initiative in Hamilton.
Students were asked to give feedback by tweeting with the hashtag #WeNeedLRT whenever they missed a bus or were unsatisfied with HSR service, and about 100 tweets were tracked up until September.
Since then, several additions have been made to HSR bus service to McMaster.
“We haven’t heard as many complaints on social media about missed buses in the morning,” said Huzaifa Saeed, current VP (Education) of the MSU, who worked with the City’s transit department in the summer to increase HSR service to the Ancaster Meadowlands.
Saeed says he hasn’t abandoned the LRT initiative, but needs student backing from the SRA and interest from the student body before he could push for LRT on behalf of McMaster students.
“I think the momentum [in the LRT campaign] has died down at the city level, and the province isn’t saying anything yet.”
If LRT were to be implemented down the road, Don Hull, director of transit at the City, said the system “would likely replace some of the bus network we have near McMaster, most notably the B-line. It would call for the restructuring of [HSR] service.”
But that is a long way off – ten to fifteen years ahead, said Hull.
“We’re currently working on a fall report for Council that would provide details of how LRT could be implemented,” said Hull.
Over the past few months, work has also been done to determine a preferred site for a transit terminal on campus, and a recommendation has been made to locate it near the parking lot at Cootes Drive and Main Street.
“That work is continuing,” said Gord Arbeau, director of public and community relations at McMaster. “McMaster is a supporter of the LRT initiative and will continue to work with the City to make a case for this investment.”
Aside from the MSU’s endorsement of LRT and a short-lived student campaign last year, there has been little student feedback on a major transit initiative that would connect McMaster to the rest of Hamilton.
The Ontario Liberals’ plan to give a 30 per cent discount on tuition may end up costing some students a little bit more.
The Liberals’ election promise, which offered a 30 per cent decrease in the cost of tuition to students from households earning less than $160,000 per year, may be followed by a rise in the overall cost of tuition starting next year.
The current framework that dictates tuition fees expires at the end of the 2011/12 school year.
“Universities can’t really withstand having no new revenue, because they’re going to spend $420 million on this new grant,” said Sam Andrey, Executive Director of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.
Whether tuition increases at the current rate of five per cent per year is still to be determined.
Andrey said OUSA is advocating for a lower increase rate, but that no increase at all is unlikely.
“We know changing [the tuition increase rate] to something lower is on the table. That’s something we’re going to be advocating for.”
“With the 30 per cent reduction, I think there is a very low appetite on the part of the government to compensate an outright freeze.”
The plan to offer students a tuition discount is set to take place in January, but much of the details of how it will be implemented and distributed is currently pending confirmation.
Residents of Ontario in full-time, first entry programs (excluding law, medicine and graduate programs) will be eligible to apply for a tuition break for the winter semester, but the process of how and where students apply has not yet been determined.
Andrey said for the winter 2012 semester only, approved students will likely receive a cheque equivalent to 30 per cent of tuition, and that a true 30 per cent discount on tuition won’t start until 2012.
“In all likelihood, it will be something like an $800 cheque for most students,” said Alvin Tejdo, OUSA’s Director of Communications, of the 30 per cent discount in January.
Tejdo said many students could potentially be caught unaware of the cheque’s availability. “It’s going to be really important to tell people to apply for it,” he said.
The process by which students’ financial means are approved – determining whether their household earns less than $160,000 – is yet to be established.
The slow implementation of the remaining details is partially due to the change in governing officials. After the Oct. 8 election, Glen Murray became the new Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, replacing John Milloy. There are also new education critics to be appointed in the opposition.
Andrey said other changes coming to Ontario campuses in the coming year include increasing the availability of mental health and the construction of three new campuses in the Greater Toronto Area, with the site still to be determined.