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All on board for light rail line

Committee wants city staff to chase funding from first Metrolinx budget.

By Rob Faulkner

Published in the Hamilton Spectator on October 21, 2008.

Hamilton has taken a united, symbolic step to show its support for light rail transit -- as long as Metrolinx pays for a new system.

The city's public works committee voted unanimously yesterday to let staff push Metrolinx to include an east-west light rail transit (LRT) line in the provincial Crown agency's 2009-13 budget.

It came amid concern from several councillors that the city should not pay for LRT, and that city staff must report back if Metrolinx will not be paying all capital costs.

"It represents a commitment by this council to light rail. That's clear. Our focus is not going to be bus rapid transit on the A and B line," said Mayor Fred Eisenberger, Hamilton's representative on the Metrolinx board.

Councillors backed a six-point recommendation that staff view as a shift from a focus on feasibility studies to a focus on implementation. Its main points include:

* Staff to work with Metrolinx to get functional design, detail design and construction of LRT on the east-west B line in the agency's 2009-13 budget. (Functional design looks at whether a project can be built; detail design looks at how to build, with enough detail that a job can go out for tender.)

* Staff to work with Metrolinx to get planning and design of the north-south A line LRT, up the Mountain, done in conjunction with construction of LRT on the B line.

* Staff to report back after the release of Metrolinx's final regional transportation plan, investment strategy and 2009-13 budget.

Staff say LRT is a system that can resolve expected gridlock in the years to 2031, improve the city's image and environment, and inspire the kind of economic growth that Hamilton craves.

"We keep saying we are ready to move forward. Today's unanimous vote really is one more step in proving our readiness, and moving to get shovels in the ground," said Jill Stephen, the manager of strategic planning who presented the report.

The priority for the city, and a shortlisted project for Metrolinx, is LRT along the east-west B-line between Eastgate Square and McMaster University. Staff estimate it will cost $650 million.

Staff plan to do a feasibility study of the A line, to run north-south, due to questions about which route it will take and which technology will suit the escarpment climb.

So far, the city has spent $270,000 of the $500,000 set aside for studies and outreach on rapid transit in the 2008 budget. The work has involved about one year of combined work by three staff.

Hamilton says it can have shovels in the ground for LRT by 2011; Metrolinx chair Rob MacIsaac has hinted that Hamilton funding will surface in the latter years of the 2009-13 budget, coming this fall.

In response to east-end Councillor Sam Merulla's question about Hamilton's future costs, public works general manager Scott Stewart said he expects Metrolinx to fund all of LRT's capital costs.

Details must be firmed up, Stewart said, to understand Metrolinx's reference to funding the "lion's share" or a "bare bones" system.