Scattered throughout Hamilton are scores of derelict buildings, the legacy of a cancelled transit plan that was, ironically, intended to help revitalize the city’s struggling centre.
The provincial government announced in December it was axing a light-rail plan for the city, claiming costs had increased massively. But it’s not quite dead, not just yet. In the face of local protest, the Progressive Conservative government appointed a task force that will recommend by the end of this month how best to use the $1-billion that had been earmarked for the LRT.
For supporters, this is an existential moment for the future of Hamilton. For opponents, it’s a chance finally to drive a stake through the heart of a project they’ve tried to derail for years.
Questions abound. If the panel says LRT is in fact the right approach, where would the money to pay the inflated bill come from? If it suggests more buses instead, what does that mean for development prospects in Hamilton? Were the Tories acting punitively toward a community that supported the NDP in the 2018 election and is home to Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath?
And what’s going to happen to all those boarded-up properties – homes, apartments and small businesses – that Metrolinx, the regional transit agency, bought thinking it needed the land to build a light-rail line?
“These for the most part are not high-income areas; these are marginalized communities and marginalized people,” said John-Paul Danko, a pro-LRT Hamilton councillor. “Imagine what you would think if you … [lost] your house on the premise of this project and then the project never happens. It’s just a huge slap in the face”
Hamilton has been promised light-rail transit for so long that the line was once supposed to be running for the Pan American Games, which happened in 2015.
Instead, the project inched along. It survived a key Hamilton council vote in 2017 and was a cornerstone of the 2018 re-election campaign of Mayor Fred Eisenberger. After Hamiltonians opted to return the mayor to office, Premier Doug Ford said: “If he wants an LRT, he’s gonna get an LRT.”
As recently as last April the provincial government had committed billions for the project.
But the curtain fell in mid-December, when Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney travelled to the city to announce that the project had become too expensive. It was a surprising move – government ministers rarely present bad news in person – and the day promptly turned chaotic.
Local residents and pro-LRT politicians sought to access the invitation-only news conference, which the minister’s handlers tried surreptitiously to move. In the end, Ms. Mulroney abandoned the event and left town without having spoken publicly. “The whole thing seems to suggest that they were completely taken aback by this large angry group of residents,” said Ryan McGreal, with the pro-LRT group Raise the Hammer. “That suggests to me that they didn’t realize how popular this project is in the city, and maybe they miscalculated politically.”
The outcry was sharp. The mayor called the cancellation “a betrayal” of the city. The local chamber of commerce revoked a speaking invitation for Ms. Mulroney. Months later, obscene graffiti directed at Mr. Ford has appeared in places along the LRT route, which has also been papered with posters supporting residents who lost their homes over the project.
The government argues that the price tag for the project had gone up more than five times, to $5.5-billion, but has refused to release the third-party assessment it said had produced the figure.
The original price tag of about $1-billion dates from a 2014 estimate and represented the base capital cost, for construction and vehicles. The new estimate included an increased capital cost of $2.85-billion and bundled in the cost of expropriations and other infrastructure, as well as 30 years of both provincial and municipal operating and maintenance expenses.
Christina Salituro, a senior aide to Ms. Mulroney, blamed the mess on the previous government. “The fact is the Liberals knew this project would cost billions of dollars more than was ever publicly communicated,” she said in an e-mail.
The previous Liberal government had, in 2018, before its election defeat, quietly approved a $3.66-billion budget for the project. But publicly, the $1-billion figure was still being used in Metrolinx documents as of late last year.
Metrolinx has spent about $185-million on the project to date and said earlier this month that it would reveal in the spring the cost to cancel it.
For supporters, the LRT has always been about more than transit.
It would provide better service on a key east-west route, yes, and free up buses now being used on the corridor to be re-deployed elsewhere in Hamilton. The effect, they argue, is that a downtown LRT would mean better transit all across the city.
But an LRT could also help spur development in a part of the city that struggles with social problems and vacant storefronts. Light-rail boosters, who have been watching the building boom that followed an LRT in Waterloo, hoped for the same kind of uplift in Hamilton.
Three years ago, as the LRT project approached a key council vote, Keanin Loomis, president of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, said the decision was a “crucible" moment for the forces of old Hamilton versus the forces of new Hamilton.” Now, he struggles to articulate how damaging it would be if the project isn’t revived.
“This [LRT] was a big reason why I decided to plant my flag in Hamilton,” he said recently. “There are thousands of people … who also became interested in the city because of, not necessarily light rail, but because of the ambition that it represented.”
With the project officially on death row, the best solution supporters can foresee is that the task-force review supports LRT and any extra funding needed comes from Queen’s Park or Ottawa.
Advocates also plan to keep up the pressure, arguing that LRT is the best transit option, while drawing attention to what they say is inequitable treatment. They point out that a light-rail line is going ahead in nearby Mississauga and Brampton even though its capital cost jumped by 50 per cent, to $2.1-billion.
With the Hamilton project in limbo, tenants remain in some of the properties Metrolinx purchased. But many other buildings sit boarded up and officially empty, though locals say there are occasional squatters.
In one case, Metrolinx partnered on an art project to make an empty storefront look more interesting. But most of the buildings are derelict and heavily chained. The brightly painted boards add a gaudy note but don’t prevent a heightened sense of blight.
Only the surviving signs hint at the roles they once played in their neighbourhoods: a laundromat, a Filipino grocer, a convenience store, a bowling alley.
Metrolinx says it purchased all the properties at fair market value, a value that would have reflected the assumption an LRT was coming. The agency says it hasn’t yet decided what to do with the properties.
“At some point, we’re going to have a rapid-transit dedicated corridor along that route,” said Mr. Danko, the councillor. “So [does Metrolinx] sell them back … and then, you know, some time in the future have to re-purchase them because we decided, oh, the LRT’s back on?”