Ontario thaws Hamilton LRT real estate dollars

Written by John Thompson, Canadian Contributing Editor
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Canada’s Province of Ontario government on March 28 agreed to release funding to complete property acquisitions for Hamilton’s planned light rail transit system, following a freeze implemented in 2018. The halt to property acquisitions had been made, allegedly, as part of Ontario’s efforts to reduce a multi-billion-dollar budget deficit.

The announcement was made following a meeting at Hamilton City Hall between Mayor Fred Eisenberger and Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek. The Mayor had been attempting to arrange the meeting for months, but had been continually been put off by the government of Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

The resumption of property purchases sends a clear signal that the LRT project is proceeding, ending doubts caused by the government’s freeze, and other delays caused by maverick city councilors. This means that the three consortiums shortlisted to build and operate the line will be able to proceed to finalize their bids, a costly process. They have been granted an extra six months to do so, beyond the original deadline of April 2019.

Construction of the 14-km (8.5-mile) line should begin in early 2020; some preliminary work, such as soils testing, has been completed.

The “elephant in the carhouse” is Ontario’s insistence that it will not finance the project beyond the originally approved total cost of C$1billion. However, the Canadian federal government has indicated that it might make up any shortfall, which would not be known until the bids are in and analyzed.

The last hurdle is the signing of an operating and maintenance agreement between the city and Metrolinx. The city Council, which over the years has been divided on the entire LRT issue, is adamant that Metrolinx will be responsible for all such costs, apart from station snow clearance, if needed.

Prior to the recent announcement, there had been concern among LRT proponents that the province was attempting to cancel the project. Premier Ford, as has been widely reported, is not an LRT supporter, but gave his support to this project because he needed Hamilton’s votes to secure his election. That said, his hand may have been stayed by the fact that $114 million has already been spent, chiefly to buy 50 structures that require removal, about two-thirds of the total. An additional 390 partial purchases are also necessary; in some cases, these are narrow slices of frontages along the route.

In any case, the Hamilton LRT project is moving forward. The city whose bus transit system is still called “Hamilton Street Railway” should actually have one again by the mid-2020s.

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