The PC Government's stance is essentially identical to the previous Liberal government, except the Liberals were explicit about the process for reviewing alternative transit infrastructure proposals.
By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published October 05, 2018
One positive outcome from this week's anti-LRT conference call is that we're getting a clearer picture of what Premier Doug Ford means by his promise that Hamilton can have the $1 billion in committed Light Rail Transit (LRT) funding for something else if we decide we don't want LRT.
Hamilton LRT rendering (Image Credit: Metrolinx)
Doug Ford's initial promise regarding Hamilton's LRT project was very clear:
"I support building the Hamilton LRT because the people (of) this great city deserve a working transit system. This is an investment that will create jobs, countless new jobs and stimulate economic development," Ford said in a brief emailed statement.
He showed that he understood perfectly well both the transit and economic development parts of the case for LRT, and was unequivocally committed to ensuring it got built.
However, soon after Donna Skelly expressed dismay at his strong support for LRT, Ford fudged, making a second vague pledge that Hamilton could "spend the money the way the people of Hamilton want to spend it."
This was presented in contrast to the then-governing Liberal Party's position, which was that if Hamilton canceled the plan, we would have to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new plan and funding request.
After the PC Party won the election and formed the Government, newly elected Flamborough-Glanbrook MPP Donna Skelly narrowed the scope of the funding commitment to Hamilton: "If they want to use it for LRT, it goes to LRT. But if they want to use it for something else, it can be used for other transit, enhanced transit, and approved projects."
It is not clear what "approved projects" means, but Skelly also insisted that Hamilton will still receive the LRT money if we decide not to cancel the project. "I don't know how much clearer to make this. We are not going to pull the funding on this." This reinforced Ford's original pledge.
And now this week's call with anti-LRT mayoral candidate Vito Sgro has narrowed the scope still further. A column in today's Spectator by Andrew Dreschel reports:
"The money will be used in Hamilton for LRT or the other form of transit that the city council chooses to follow and the infrastructure projects associated with it," Skelly said.
So, now it can't be just any infrastructure project, it must be a transit infrastructure project.
As Dreschel notes in the column, "Any infrastructure project. Transit or infrastructure. Transit and transit-related infrastructure. The message seems to be shifting underfoot."
The message gets even harder to interpret with a report from Samantha Craggs in CBC Hamilton, which quotes Skelly saying:
"No one has suggested there's a bank account sitting with $1 billion that the city can simply access," Skelly said. But whatever decision the city makes, the money will be there.
How can the money "be there" for "whatever decision the city makes" if they can't "simply access it"?
Either the full $1 billion is there for whatever infrastructure project the city wants, which means the city can access it, or it is not. If they can't simply access it, then it surely can't be there for whatever decision the city makes.
Until the Government spells out what they really mean, all Skelly seems to be saying is that the City can still apply for some other kind of transit infrastructure money even if they turn down LRT. But that there is no guarantee the province will agree to fund their projects, or that they will get the full $1 billion, which would mean somehow reserving that budget for Hamilton.
It's important to note here that the LRT funding plan does not include an upfront capital budget.
The Metrolinx procurement model is to contract the financing, construction, operation and maintenance of the LRT line to a selected consortium who will be responsible for financing the project. In exchange, Metrolinx is responsible for making regular payments to the consortium over the 30-year life of the contract. (The LRT infrastructure remains owned by Metrolinx.)
Let's recap what we've learnt so far:
The Conservative government will honour the previous Liberal government's $1 billion commitment to the B-line LRT unless Council changes its mind and decides they don't want it anymore. This promise has been repeated several times, and is crystal clear.
If Council does change its mind, the Province will consider other transit infrastructure requests. But it must be transit, not any other infrastructure request Council might dream up, like resurfacing roads, replacing sewers or building new freeway exchanges.
The Province is not actually reserving the full $1 billion for Hamilton. It merely commits itself to entertaining requests for other transit infrastructure projects Council might choose to submit. There is no guarantee it will spend the anywhere near $1 billion, or anything at all.
This is essentially the exact same position as the previous Liberal government, except that the Liberals were explicit about the process for reviewing alternative transit infrastructure proposals. So nothing has really changed about the LRT funding.
It would still be historically foolhardy to waste $137 million in public money already spent or committed, plus a decade of public engagement, planning and design and the good reputation of the City as a responsible place to live and invest in - all in the hopes of dreaming up some other transit plan that might be better than the one we have already spent so much time and care developing. And then hoping the Province agrees to fund it.
Even in the best case scenario, it would take years just to develop a transit plan to the level of detail where it is ready for a funding request - and that's assuming Council doesn't also spend years debating, grandstanding and infighting trying to figure out which ideas to pursue in the first place.
I'm sure the Ontario Government would be happy to let us have all the time we need to go back to the drawing board and fight it all out again, during which time they don't have to fund anything at all.
It's incredibly frustrating that yet another election is being fought over LRT, even though the City has been pursuing it as an official priority for over a decade - that's three municipal elections and three provincial elections.
The B-LRT has already been approved, is fully funded by the Province, and the new government insists they will continue to honour the funding commitment. This is no time to let ourselves get sidetracked by the divisive, misleading wedge politics of a single-issue obstructionist.
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