The City cannot reasonably expect the province to pay 100 percent of the capital costs for light rail. Why is LRT important, and yet not important enough to warrant any City contribution?
By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published November 04, 2008
When I was in Copenhagen for a conference (a city that incidentally has excellent public transit, is pedestrian friendly and has lots of cycling routes), I saw the Hamilton Spectator's article on Metrolinx Chair Rob MacIsaac's comments, which I found quite disturbing.
It is possible that the Spec put a sensational spin on it, but to the extent that the report is correct, his comments run directly counter to Metrolinx's publicly stated position that the GTAH needs "transformational" change throughout the region, and that we can't wait to get started. Incremental improvement is not enough.
In fact, cities have been asked to think big and bold, and not just propose a better version of what they already have. This is what all the Metrolinx reports have said, and this is what senior Metrolinx employees told me in face to face discussions.
MacIsaac recently told the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce that Metrolinx would pay for the "lion's share" of the capital costs, and that the B-line was a good initial project.
If we take MacIsaac's comments to the Spec at face value, he has single-handedly changed the mandate and focus of Metrolinx. Instead of transformational change, he is simply helping cities with projects they would have built anyway. This is a radical departure from their publicly stated policy, and would definitely not fulfill the mandate given to Metrolinx by the provincial government.
It is quite possible that MacIsaac's message was simply that the City cannot reasonably expect the province to pay 100% of the capital costs. Perhaps he wanted to get this message through strongly to councillors who are insisting the City shouldn't pay a dime.
This is quite different from saying Hamilton doesn't 'deserve' a system, or that, despite their mandate, Metrolinx will just focus on Toronto.
Vaguely threatening statements like this only spook councillors just before they have to make an important decision on LRT, so I was relieved last week to learn that council voted unanimously to support the light rail bid.
Last Thursday, I dropped into the Metrolinx Open House for about 45 minutes. Although I wasn't there long, I spent most of the time chatting with John Howe, the Metrolinx general manager of investment strategy and projects, about the thinking of Metrolinx. This was extremely useful: we no longer have to guess about some aspects of Metrolinx's thinking:
If only transport were considered, then BRT might be the best choice, but by looking at the full benefits, Metroinx has a very good chance of choosing LRT. Development potential is a major consideration here. The City's (and HLR's) development potential argument is therefore the right strategy.
Finally, Howe (and Jason, another Metrolinx representative) implied that Hamilton Council's position of support for LRT "as long as the province pays for everything" is problematic. In fact, the caveat, if taken seriously, really weakens the City's case. Why is LRT important, and yet not important enough to warrant any City contribution?
The City pleads poverty, yet Metrolinx knows very well that they find money for roads, sewers, and all sorts of other infrastructure projects (not to mention major freeway projects in the past and the aerotropolis in the future).
In fact, I got the impression that Metrolinx may give Hamilton a BRT if it is not willing to put any money in itself (even if Metrolinx's own benefit analysis suggests an LRT is warranted).
The bottom line: the City's condition of zero City funding for LRT is a deal killer.
If this is simply the City's opening negotiating position, that's one thing. But then the City needs to communicate some flexibility. So far, that hasn't happened.
Everything I've heard suggests that Metrolinx is only looking for a minority contribution, something like 10 - 20%. This is still an excellent deal compared with what most cities around the world get from higher levels of government.