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Hamilton’s LRT dream hangs in the balance

For seven years, the Ontario government and the City of Hamilton have discussed it, studied it and planned it: a 14-kilometre light-rail line between McMaster University and Eastgate Square, passing through the heart of the industrial city.

Council has voted overwhelmingly in favour of it. Citizens have endorsed it in public consultations. City staff completed extensive design, engineering and environmental work 18 months ago. Provincial transit agency Metrolinx has been working steadily to sort out its technical details.

But the Liberal administration still has not put up the estimated $1-billion required to get the project built.

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Now, the LRT is shaping up to be one of the first major tests of Premier Kathleen Wynne's promise to end the province's history of dithering on transit. And the project's advocates say that, armed with her newly won majority government, she has no reason to delay.

"We're all set to go in terms of our position in Hamilton," said Councillor Brian McHattie, who is also running for mayor in the fall election. "It's time for the province to step up."

In an interview, Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca was non-commital. He said he hoped to announce "significant funding" for Hamilton transit before the end of the year. But he appeared to leave the door open to scrapping the LRT in favour of something cheaper and less ambitious – expanded bus service, for instance.

"I'm not in a position to specifically say right now," he said when asked if his government would build an LRT. "We're still in the process of going through the analysis."

Hamilton is looking to light rail in part to relieve overcrowding on its busiest transit corridor – where packed buses sometimes leave people behind at stops – and in part to help an inner-city renaissance. In recent years, new condominiums have sprung up, while artists and entrepreneurs have taken over historic storefronts. But there are still acres of empty lots and surface parking, and LRT supporters are counting on the train to encourage high-density, transit-oriented development to fill them up.

A study by the Canadian Urban Institute estimated the line would triple the amount of development along its length and deliver $81.6-million to city coffers in taxes and fees over 15 years. A Metrolinx analysis projected the LRT would create more than three times as much economic activity as a bus rapid transit line, and would provide a significantly faster ride.

"People could get around more quickly and it would have a great impact through our downtown," said New Democrat MPP Monique Taylor, who represents Hamilton Mountain. "It would increase our economic development by bringing new businesses in."

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Ms. Taylor, whose party campaigned on the LRT in last June's provincial election, accused the Liberals of "waffling" on the matter.

Not all locals are behind the project. Mayor Bob Bratina, who is not seeking re-election, has made no secret of his ambivalence about the line.

And Councillor Brad Clark, a mayoral candidate, favours instead getting a smaller sum from the province to improve the city's existing bus service. "We have to get our house in order, improve our [bus] transit and improve our roads and, in my opinion, get back to basics before we start talking about such luxuries as LRT," he said.

But the project's supporters say regardless of such differing opinions, the fact council has voted in favour of the LRT trumps all else. And they fear the province will use the reservations of some local politicians to wriggle out.

There is reason for their concern, given the Liberals' history of cancelling or changing transit projects for political reasons. Former premier Dalton McGuinty killed LRT plans for Sheppard and Finch avenues in Toronto to please Mayor Rob Ford, then later resurrected them at the urging of city council. Last summer, Ms. Wynne agreed to replace a planned Scarborough LRT with a more expensive subway extension after council flip-flopped on the issue.

For more than a year, the Liberals put off funding new transit projects as they tried to find the money and dealt with a minority government situation that often held up their agenda.

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Now, with a legislative majority that recently approved a $15-billion fund for the next wave of transit construction, proponents say Ms. Wynne must not delay funding Hamilton's LRT any further.

"They have a majority, they have a funding plan in place and they're still not giving us a straight answer," transit advocate Ryan McGreal said. "I would like to hope that with this unexpected mandate they will take this opportunity to move fast and not squander the next four years."

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