A fortunate update on the transportation project haunted by political chicanery

Graphic by Elisabetta Paiano and Andrew Mrozowski, Managing Editor

A RECAP FROM LAST YEAR

We last wrote about the state of the Hamilton light-rail transit system project on Jan. 23, 2020. The proposed project involved the construction of an LRT line, extending from McMaster University to Eastgate Square along the Hamilton Street Railway B-line.

However, on Dec. 16, 2019, the Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney informed Fred Eisenberger, the mayor of Hamilton, that the provincial government had decided to cancel plans for the project.

The reasoning behind this cancellation was that the project would have cost over five times more than the previous Kathleen Wynne provincial government had implied. Eisenberger considered this a betrayal on the part of Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario provincial government.

The estimated cost for the Hamilton LRT project was revealed to range from $4.6 billion to $6.5 billion in a meeting between the Ministry of Transportation and the city of Hamilton. This is approximately five times that of the initial $1 billion Wynne promised Hamilton in May 2015 for the project.

The cost was later set at $5.5 billion, without any cost breakdown. According to a statement from Mulroney on Dec. 16, the estimated costs originated from a report by an unnamed expert third party. Kris Jacobson, then director of the LRT project office, noted that without context, the estimate from the provincial government was impossible to interpret and verify.

Andrea Horwath, NDP member of provincial parliament for Hamilton-Centre and leader of the official opposition, called onFord to reveal the third-party’s cost estimate. On Dec. 18, 2019, Horwath sent a letter to the auditor general of Ontario, Bonnie Lysyk, requesting an investigation and report of the rationale behind the LRT cost estimates provided to the public. The Auditor General’s report on the Hamilton LRT costs was set to be released by the end of 2020.

Despite the cancellation of the Hamilton LRT project, it was decided the initial $1 billion commitment from Wynne’s provincial government would be used for transportation in Hamilton, with the total funding being diverted to different infrastructure.

Exactly what infrastructure would be funded by the $1 billion would be at the discretion of a newly formed Hamilton transportation task force. Comprised of five respectable people who reside within the city, the task force was responsible for creating a list of transportation projects for the ministry of transportation to consider as alternatives to the LRT.

This list was due to the provincial government by the end of February 2020. Despite the cancellation of the LRT project and the creation of a task force to plan the diversion of the allocated funding to other projects, Eisenberger remained committed to the construction of the LRT.

WHAT NOW? 

More than a year later and the situation has greatly evolved. The Hamilton transportation task force made its recommendations on the allocation of the $1 billion granted to Hamilton by the Wynne government to the ministry of transportation on March 16, 2020. Mulroney later made the recommendations public for the sake of transparency.

“So basically it wasn’t an announcement per se, it was the province of Ontario following up. They said they would do an audit, they did an audit, they did a task force, the task force came back and said that higher-order transit was necessary for the city of Hamilton,” said Eisenberger.

The task force made a total of 15 recommendations. Some of the recommendations included: a “higher-order” transit system and an “intra-city” bus rapid transit or light-rail transit system along the A or B lines in Hamilton. This would resemble the previously cancelled project.

The task force made a total of 15 recommendations. Some of the recommendations included: a “higher-order” transit system and an “intra-city” bus rapid transit or light-rail transit system along the A or B lines in Hamilton. This would resemble the previously cancelled project.

LRT or BRT, the report said, would reduce congestion, bring economic uplift, thus bringing substantial benefit to the residents and businesses of Hamilton. This indicated the task force was still in favour of the Hamilton LRT project and recommended the province reach out to the federal government to acquire the funding required for the LRT project.

This recommendation came after Eisenberger spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a visit to Ottawa prior to March 2020 about the Hamilton LRT. According to Eisenberger, the federal government was willing to fund the Hamilton LRT project, but the provincial government had to officially ask for the funds.

“That task forced looked at all the transportation options and came back with the same conclusion that higher order transit was necessary for the city of Hamilton. It was the best investment and it was certainly aligned to LRT and since then, the Premier on several occasions, has came to make sure that Hamilton gets the appropriate investment in transportation and LRT is the one that he’s been advocating for,” said Eisenberger.

This turn of events indicated a sentiment towards revisiting the Hamilton LRT project. With that said, there were other recommendations in the Hamilton transportation task force report, including a cost estimate around all-day GO service. The recommendations from the task force were welcomed by Eisenberger as an indication the LRT project was still on the table.

The awaited auditor general’s report on the breakdown of the $5.5 billion estimate for the Hamilton LRT project was released on Dec. 7 2020. Lysyk determined that the original $1 billion commitment from the provincial government only covered the costs of construction and was based on a 2012 Environmental Project Report from the City of Hamilton.

Lysyk concluded in her report that the $5.5 billion estimate that led to Mulroney cancelling the LRT project was a more accurate estimate for the total costs of the project. Although Ford welcomed this news as vindication for his government, the auditor general’s report indicated that the city of Hamilton was misled on the actual costs of the LRT for years.

“The Ministry of Transportation was aware as early as December 2016 that the estimated costs for the project were significantly higher than its public commitment of $1 billion in 2015, which was only for construction costs. The increases were not made public or communicated to the City of Hamilton until fall of 2019,” said Lysysk in the report.

“The Ministry of Transportation was aware as early as December 2016 that the estimated costs for the project were significantly higher than its public commitment of $1 billion in 2015, which was only for construction costs. The increases were not made public or communicated to the City of Hamilton until fall of 2019.”

Bonnie Lysyk, Auditor General of Ontario

According to Eisenberger, the city of Hamilton and the province of Ontario have a signed memorandum of understanding which outlines how the project will proceed. In the event of budget constraint, it is documented that the provincial government would lobby at the federal level to gain more funding for the project.

“[The city’s] level of involvement is not at the highest order, but certainly awareness as to what direction [the province is] going [in] . . .  So true to that original [memorandum of understanding], [the provincial government is] following up with the federal government and as I understand it, they are warmly received. Now it’s a matter of discussions on who’s going to contribute what,” explained Eisenberger.

While the project is now set to conclude at Gage Park, Eisenberger plans to continue the project in phases.

“We’re not going to be tearing up everything from Eastgate to McMaster,” emphasized Eisenberger.

Currently there is no estimated time as to when the project will be completed. However, the mayor is looking forward to the benefits that the project will bring.

“The whole idea behind this project was to inspire new opportunities, to inspire new development, to inspire more people coming along that corridor to provide more business opportunities. More shops, more stores and more housing,” said Eisenberger.

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