Hamilton's long-delayed LRT is finally pulling out of the station.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne on Tuesday committed up to $1-billion to build an 11-kilometre east-west light-rail line, adding one more project to her 10-year transit expansion plan and capping eight years of political wrangling.
The province will also extend the Lakeshore GO line from downtown Hamilton to a new station at Centennial Parkway in Stoney Creek.
"Decades ago, government investments in ports, canals and railroads helped bring Steeltown into an era of industrial prosperity," Ms. Wynne said at McMaster University, before a crowd that burst into sustained applause when she announced the LRT funding. "Today, we need infrastructure that drives Hamilton's economic prosperity in the 21st-century knowledge economy."
The LRT will run from McMaster to the Queenston traffic circle, passing through the central business district. A spur up James Street North will connect it to the new West Harbour GO Station. Construction on the LRT is scheduled to start in 2019, with the line opening in 2024. Work on the GO extension to Stoney Creek begins in 2017.
The city's original plan was to build the light-rail line as far as the Eastgate Square shopping centre. But the province decided to end it three kilometres short, at Queenston, and use the money saved to build the James North spur.
The LRT is expected to relieve pressure on Hamilton's busiest transit routes, where buses are packed during rush hour. It is also meant to speed along the revitalization of the city's downtown, where numerous artists, designers and other creative types have set up shop in recent years, attracted by low rents.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger said a light-rail system will "lead Hamilton to prosperity." Mayor Fred Eisenberger compared the importance of the LRT to Boston's famous Big Dig. "At the end of the day, when it was all done, people said 'Why didn't we do this sooner?'" he said.
The province first promised the LRT in 2007, but repeatedly delayed committing the money. It took a concerted push from citizens' groups in Hamilton, as well as the election of the pro-LRT Mr. Eisenberger last fall, to get the Liberals to make good on their pledge.
Hamilton's LRT is part of a $31.5-billion package of new transit lines and highway improvements Ms. Wynne plans to build over the next decade. Other projects include the electrification of some GO lines, and an LRT in Mississauga and Brampton.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who has been advocating for light rail since she sat on Hamilton city council more than a decade ago, said she was "excited" the project is finally funded. But she criticized the Liberals' decision to truncate the east end of the line and push the start of construction to 2019.
"This is an announcement we've been waiting for a long time in Hamilton, but it's about two kilometres short and about 10 years late," she said.
Progressive Conservative transportation critic Michael Harris said the Liberals are playing favourites by paying for 100 per cent of the construction costs in Hamilton, as well as for the Mississauga-Brampton LRT, after only ponying up one-third of the funding for LRT projects in Ottawa and Kitchener-Waterloo.
"Ottawa and Waterloo got the shaft, while Mississauga, Brampton and Hamilton are getting a full ride," Mr. Harris, a Kitchener MPP, said.
He also pointed out that the project will eat up the last of the government's transit dollars, meaning Toronto can kiss its downtown relief line goodbye.
Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca said the timelines are so long because the procurement process will be complex. Adding the spur line to the GO station, which wasn't part of the original plan, will also necessitate more design work and environmental assessments.
He contended that support for LRT in Hamilton will ensure the project moves forward.
"It's a time-consuming process, but I'd like to believe that we'll move it along as quickly as we can," he told The Globe and Mail. "I think it would be a very difficult thing for a future government to try to change its mind on."
Some details must still be worked out, such as whether the line will be operated by provincial transit agency Metrolinx or by Hamilton's local transit service. The province is also promising a covered pedestrian connection from the LRT to Hamilton's other GO station, on Hunter Street, but it is unclear exactly what that connection will be – whether an overhead walkway or something at ground level.
In his speech at the announcement, Mr. Del Duca acknowledged the impatience of local LRT proponents as the province took years to come through. As recently as three weeks ago, Ms. Wynne would commit only to building "rapid transit" in Hamilton, leaving open the possibility she would opt to fund something smaller, such as faster bus service.
"The Hamilton LRT will be a critical link – yeah, I said 'L,' " Mr. Del Duca said, to roars of laughter. "You heard me say 'L,' right?"