Just another normal day at Hamilton City Hall this was not. Actually, it wasn’t even at City Hall. Ontario’s Minister of Transportation, Caroline Mulroney, was in the Steel City on Monday to announce that the Government of Ontario was pulling $1 billion to build light rail transit (LRT), but she didn’t even get a chance to deliver the bad news because she was hustled out of town under police escort.
It was announced earlier on Monday that Mulroney would be making an announcement at the Sheraton Hotel at 2:30 pm. Many assumed that the announcement would have something to do with the funding for the LRT, which was promised by the previous Liberal government, but there was was no overt signal from the Doug Ford Tories that they were going to reverse that. Until…
With that breaking news, several protestors, as well as two city councillors, showed up at the hotel to make their displeasure known. According to the CBC, Mulroney was moved to a government building across the street, and Mayor Fred Eisenberger was given a briefing by Mulroney. Eisenberger ended up delivering the news at the Sheraton on her behalf, but, according to the Hamilton Spectator, they tried to move the announcement to the Ellen Fairclough Building and limit access to just members of the government and media. That impromptu venue was cancelled too.
“What kind of a democracy is this where a major undertaking like this for our community, we all show up here and the minister isn’t even respectful enough to come talk to people directly?” said Lynda Lukasik, the executive director of Environment Hamilton.
“My constituents demand answers and my job is to give them that information,” said Ward 8 Councillor John-Paul Danko. “For the minister to come to Hamilton and not be prepared to face the public or face council, that’s just ridiculous.”
Eisenberger didn’t mince words either. “The message to the world is that Ontario is an unreliable partner,” the mayor said in a statement posted long after Mulroney had left town. “Ontario is not a place where you can do business because of the Ford government. Ford’s message to the world is take your business elsewhere.”
“No other projects have been quashed,” Eisenberger added. “Although the Mississauga and Toronto projects are more expensive than advertised, they are going ahead. This is a betrayal by the province to the City of Hamilton. This will not only hurt Hamilton’s economy, but Ontario’s economy.”
According to Mulroney and the provincial government, the Hamilton LRT has been “quashed” because the combined operating and capital costs of the LRT will be $5 billion over 30 years. The Province under the Liberals had pledged $1 billion for capital costs, but there was some concern about who might pick-up the tab if construction costs went over budget.
For instance, it was revealed in 2017 that the Ion, the LRT project in Kitchener-Waterloo, had gone $50 million over budget for a combined cost of $868 million; the Province ended up covering half of the overrun. Ion is comparable to the Hamilton LRT project, which was planned to be 14 kilometres in length compared to 19 kilometres for the Ion.
Still, what’s curious in the case of Hamilton is the question of how the Province came to the conclusion that the project is going to cost $5.5 billion. For one thing, provincial officials told the Toronto Star that the Liberal government had estimated that the total cost of the project would be $3 billion, which is a number that’s never been disclosed to the public. Having said that, any amount cited for how much the project will cost is still just an estimate.
“The true cost of the project would have been finalized when the request for proposals (RFPs) were delivered in March 2020,” said Eisenberger. “Estimates are estimates. Talking about numbers ahead of the RFP is malpractice.”
In that same statement, Eisenberger seemed to confirm the $3 billion number saying that Mulroney and Metrolinx told him that, “the estimated cost of the LRT project have nearly doubled since they shared their recommitment and bench mark numbers.” So where did the extra $2.5 billion come from? Mulroney didn’t offer specifics later at Queen’s Park, but she was adamant that cancelling the Hamilton LRT was a matter of numbers.
“We aren’t trying to kill the project,” she said to the CBC. “We worked very hard to find a way to move forward, to be able to deliver on it. But it’s clear the numbers we inherited misrepresented the true cost of the project.”
Again, that’s not exactly clear since there were not yet hard numbers on the project. Mulroney did say that the government will still grant $1 billion in transit funding to Hamilton, and a task force has been established to determine the best course for spending that money in order for transit to be, “delivered quickly and in a fiscally responsible manner.” That report will come back by the end of February.
Still, some people are in the mood for a blame game.
“[W]e’ve seen this time and time again over the last 18 months: Doug Ford makes stuff up to justify deep cuts. It’s a betrayal — especially after Mr. Ford and Conservative MPP Donna Skelly repeatedly told Hamiltonians that they’d build this LRT,” said Hamilton Centre MPP, and Official Opposition leader, Andrea Horwath in a statement.
The statement was also released on behalf of three other Hamilton area NDP MPPs: Paul Miller (Hamilton East-Stony Creek), Sandy Shaw (Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas), and Monique Taylor (Hamilton Mountain). That leaves Donna Skelly, the MPP for Flamborough-Glanbrook, as the odd woman out, and when it comes to the LRT that’s a position she’s not unfamiliar with.
Back in 2018, as Doug Ford was campaigning for Premier, he said that if the “majority of the people” want an LRT in Hamilton, then they will get it. That was in April, and in that October’s municipal election, Eisenberger, who’s long been an LRT proponent, handily won re-election with 54 per cent over his main competitor Vito Sgro, whose candidacy was decidedly anti-LRT. In fact, before the election, Sgro took part in a telephone town hall with fellow anti-LRT politicians Liberal MP Bob Bratina, and Skelly.
During the campaign, as Ford was making promises that favoured the LRT, Skelly said that, “We are not honouring the Liberal government budget because the Liberal government budget will bury this province.” CBC reported that at Monday’s announcement, it was Skelly that wanted to proceed with the announcement even as everyone else was concerned that the situation at the hotel was “going to escalate” if they did.
As for the Liberals, Steven Del Duca, who was the Minister of Transportation that originally approved the funding for the LRT, joined Horwath in saying that this was the plan all along. “From the first day he was elected, Doug Ford has been searching for a way to kill the Hamilton LRT. Now, he has achieved his mission at great cost,” Del Duca said in a statement.
“Ford said the deficit was billions higher than it actually was and then used that as an excuse to deliver deep cuts to autism services, education, environmental protection and much more. Transportation is his latest target,” Del Duca added. “In 18 months, Doug Ford has had three transportation ministers and yet it seems that they’ve all been asleep at the switch. They continue to be rudderless and have no plan, and the people of Hamilton and the people of Ontario deserve better.”