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Are We On a Slow Train to Nowhere?

After years of futzing around on a matter that has already been studied to death, the Ontario Government may end up simply running down the clock on Hamilton's best chance at a decent transportation spine.

By Ryan McGreal

Published in Raise the Hammer on Feb 1, 2010

Just what on earth are Metrolinx and the Ontario Government doing these days?

Metrolinx, the arms-length regional transit body the Ontario Government created just a couple of years ago in a fanfare of enthusiasm and excitement, seems to have ground to a halt in terms of actually carrying out its transformative mandate.

With an initial endowment of $11.5 billion from the provincial government and the hope of matching federal funds, Metrolinx was founded (as the Greater Toronto Transit Authority) in 2007 to drag the Greater Toronto Area's regional transit system into the 21st century - kicking and screaming, if necessary.

The Ontario Liberals actually campaigned for re-election in 2007 with the promise of "two light rail lines across Hamilton" - an east-west line running along Main and/or King and a north-south line running along James and Upper James.

Metrolinx swooped into Hamilton in October 2008 to host an open house and stakeholder workshop that drew 140 Hamiltonians - the highest turnout outside of Toronto.

We learned that Metrolinx was undertaking a Benefits Case Analysis (BCA) of the east-west rapid transit corridor that would recommend a preferred technology based on triple-bottom-line criteria (economic, social, environmental) favourable to a decision recommending light rail rather than buses.

Metrolinx staff were supposed to present the BCA to the Metrolinx Board in July, 2009, after which Hamilton Rapid Transit staff could present it to City Council in September to make a decision on building a light rail system.

Progress Grinds to a Halt

At the same time, however, the Ontario Government decided to replace the Metrolinx Board of mayors and regional chairs from GTA municipalities with an appointed board of transportation planners and project management specialists to take parochial local politics out of the mix and speed things up.

Pressure to shake up the Metrolinx Board came to a head after the organization's investment strategy failed to make any decisions on securing long-term funding streams for the $50 billion, 25-year Regional Transportation Plan beyond the original provincial endowment.

Potential revenue sources like highway tolls were considered too politically risky - even though the purpose of creating Metrolinx was to distance regional transportation planning from parochial politics.

The new Board was announced in June, 2009, but it appeared to consist mainly of patronage appointees with very little experience and background in regional transportation planning. Most of the appointees came out of high tech manufacturing, corporate and commercial law, publishing and communications, culture and tourism, human resources, mortgage financing and securities.

After that, time seemed to stop for the B-Line BCA. The July deadline passed without a report. That deadline was pushed back, and pushed back again, and pushed back yet again, with no comment from Metrolinx staff but behind-the-scenes reports of an organization in churn after taking control of GO Transit.

I've been told that the BCA was completed months ago but there has not yet been an opportunity to present it to the Board.

Reinserting Politics

The latest deadline for public release of the BCA is February 19, 2010. However, the report will not include any funding commitment from Metrolinx.

Any provincial funding decision must come from ... the Ontario Government. You know, the political body that formed Metrolinx as an arms-length body to take politics out of regional transit funding and planning decisions.

With the Province deep in the red and backpedaling away from new spending (even going so far as to float the idea of selling off public assets), politics may climb back into the driver's seat when it comes to long-term transit funding.

After eight months of futzing around on whether to recommend light rail in Hamilton, to be followed by months or years of additional studies on a matter that has already been studied to death, the Ontario Government may end up simply running down the clock on Hamilton's best chance at a decent transportation spine.

Given the manufactured controversy over LRT in the Hamilton Spectator and the tepid support from Council, there's a terrible chance that this whole thing could just fizzle out and Hamilton could end up stuck where it is today: an underwhelming hinterland overseen by underperforming custodians.