Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath wants the province to release the confidential third-party review that concluded the cost of a light-rail transit line in Hamilton had ballooned to $5.5-billion and prompted the Progressive Conservative government to pull the plug on the project.
"Once again, it looks like [Premier] Doug Ford is making numbers up to justify his cuts,” Ms. Horwath, a Hamilton MPP and former city councillor, said in a statement on Tuesday. “I’m calling on Mr. Ford to release the so-called consultant’s report, and release an apples-to-apples comparison with all other LRT projects.”
Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney cited figures from the review on Monday, when she announced that she was killing the proposed 14-kilometre LRT, despite earlier promises from the government that it would go ahead. The reversal took Hamilton’s mayor and transit advocates by surprise. Faced with an angry crowd at a downtown Hamilton hotel, the minister cancelled a planned news conference out of safety concerns.
In an interview, the minister said the third-party review cannot be made public, in order to protect the “commercial integrity” of the province’s other public-private partnership projects on transit. She said she has released as much information as she could.
“We want to be transparent, and we always have been on this,” Ms. Mulroney said on Tuesday.
The project was originally estimated to cost $1-billion in 2014 dollars, but this figure included just capital expenditures, such as tracks and vehicles, and had not been updated. Ms. Mulroney’s new $5.5-billion price tag pegs those capital costs at $2.85-billion, including construction financing. But her larger total also includes other financing costs, expropriations and operating and maintenance costs – including $1-billion earmarked for the city to cover – over 30 years.
Three groups of companies were bidding on the public-private partnership project, with bids due in March of 2020 – when Infrastructure Ontario and Metrolinx, the provincial agencies overseeing the project, would see the private sector’s best guesses on what the line would cost. Those bidders will now be entitled to compensation for their costs, although no estimate was available on Tuesday.
Ms. Mulroney said the bidders themselves “were very concerned” about rising cost estimates, prompting the government to have the plans reviewed by an external consultant, whom she would not name. None of the bidders, which include prominent construction and engineering companies, would comment on Tuesday.
The government just okayed the similar Hurontario light-rail transit line in Mississauga, awarding a contract in October to a consortium to design, build, operate and maintain it, with a $4.6-billion price tag over its 30-year life. (Another $1-billion in maintenance and operating costs is to be covered by Mississauga, bringing the total cost to $5.6-billion.) The project was originally described as having $1.2-billion in base capital costs.
Asked why this project was approved and Hamilton’s killed, Ms. Mulroney said the Mississauga project was much further along, and the Hamilton LRT own bidders were raising concerns. She said her government will still dedicate the promised $1-billion to transportation in Hamilton.
Ms. Mulroney blamed the former Liberal government’s transportation minister Steven Del Duca – now running for his party’s leadership – for the low-ball $1-billion estimate, which her government also carried into its most recent budget.
In an interview, Mr. Del Duca dismissed the allegations, saying that comparing the estimated capital costs given when projects are first announced to numbers that include 30 years of financing and operating costs is misleading.
“I really and truly do not believe there is a single Ontarian left who trusts Doug Ford or his cabinet ministers when it comes to numbers,” Mr. Del Duca said. “They’ve decided to artificially inflate the numbers to fit their destructive narrative.”
Hamilton city councillor John-Paul Danko, a structural engineer by trade, said he doesn’t believe the government’s numbers: “It’s all just smoke and mirrors so that they can have an excuse to terminate this project and break a promise to the residents of Hamilton.”
With reports from Laura Stone
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