One day after Premier Doug Ford’s government abruptly cancelled the Hamilton LRT citing cost concerns, Mayor John Tory said he’s confident the province will go ahead with billions of dollars worth of Toronto-area transit projects it has pledged to build.
Speaking to reporters ahead of a council meeting at city hall Tuesday morning, Tory said the province’s decision to scrap the 14-kilometre, 17-stop LRT marked a “sad day” for Hamilton.
But the mayor said he had spoken with Ford this past weekend and he believed the premier’s commitment to the Ontario government’s $28.5-billion GTA transit plan remains “absolute.”
“I think they’ve already made a very significant commitment to Toronto … and I’m optimistic that we’ll go forward and get that transit built,” Tory said, adding that in his view “an agreement is an agreement.”
Hamilton’s LRT plan was conceived under the previous Ontario Liberal government, and Tory said there is always a risk transit projects will be altered after power changes hands.
He said he had told the premier he wanted to advance Toronto transit expansion as far as possible before the end of the current provincial and municipal terms to guard against any future administration rolling back projects.
“I just believe this transit is so urgently needed in Toronto for economic, social and environmental reasons that we’ve got to go ahead and we’ve got to leave much less in the way of chance that somebody could for whatever reason change it going forward,” he said.
Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Callum Elder said the provincial Progressive Conservative government is “fully committed” to building the four projects in the GTA transit plan, which consists of the $11-billion Ontario Line, three-stop Scarborough subway extension ($5.5 billion), Yonge North subway extension to Richmond Hill ($5.6 billion), and a westward extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT ($4.7 billion). The province has agreed to build the projects without capital contributions from Toronto.
Elder said the previous Liberal government “misled the people of Hamilton and all Ontarians when they positioned the LRT as a $1-billion project.”
“We know now that this project was not and has never been a $1-billion project. If the Hamilton LRT was a $1-billion project, we would be building the Hamilton LRT,” he said.
On Monday, Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said the province was cancelling the LRT after discovering its cost had grown to $5.5 billion, a figure that includes construction, financing and 30 years of operations and maintenance.
The government typically doesn’t include long-term operating and maintenance expenditures in its cost estimates of transit projects. Doing so results in a significantly higher figure.
In the case of the Hamilton LRT, the city, not the province, would have been responsible for operating and maintenance costs, which the Ontario government estimated at $1 billion over three decades.
The province says it will still invest $1 billion in Hamilton transit. A new Hamilton Transportation Task Force is expected to report back before the end of February with a list of alternatives to the LRT.
Some members of Toronto city council weren’t nearly as confident as the mayor that the provincial government would follow through with its Toronto transit plans.
Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul’s) said that by “betraying the people of Hamilton,” the premier had demonstrated “that his word isn’t worth the paper that his agreements are written on.”
“There’s no reason to believe that Doug Ford will fulfil his commitment to move forward with the projects agreed upon with Toronto council here in our city, or with any city across Ontario for that matter,” he said.
Ontario NDP transportation critic Jessica Bell said in a statement Toronto transit users should be worried by the cancellation of the Hamilton LRT.
“Doug Ford promised Ontarians the Hamilton LRT would happen — now he’s cancelled it … People in Toronto need transit to be built right, and built now. But Ford’s legacy of broken promises means we should be asking what transit project he is going to cut next?” said Bell (University-Rosedale).
Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson University’s City Building Institute, said she couldn’t predict what the Hamilton decision would mean for the Toronto projects.
But she argued that while the provincial government is citing cost overruns as the reason for cancelling the LRT, such decisions are primarily political rather than financial.
She pointed to the Scarborough subway extension, a project whose cost has risen dramatically over time but still enjoys support from all three levels of government. The province has decided to build a more expensive three-stop version of the project than the one-stop proposal the city was pursuing, increasing the cost by an estimated $1.5 billion.
“The costs keep increasing on that, and yet there has been no effort to cancel that (by the current government),” Burda said.
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Although after being elected Ford’s government pledged to build the Hamilton LRT, the premier has thrown more political weight behind the Toronto projects, personally unveiling the proposal at a high-profile event in April.
The initial $1-billion estimate for the cost of the Hamilton LRT was derived from studies done by Metrolinx, the arms-length provincial agency now in charge of executing the province’s expansion plans.
Anne Marie Aikins, a spokesperson for the agency, declined to answer questions about its cost estimates for the project or the province’s new $5.5-billion figure. She referred questions to the provincial government “given this was their announcement.”