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Public backing for LRT hinges on tax hit

The city is still waiting to find out if its plans for rapid transit, preferably light rail (LRT), will be selected by Metrolinx this fall. It will also learn its expected share of the tab.

By Nicole Macintyre

Published in the Hamilton Spectator on Sep 15, 2009

Hamiltonians support rapid transit - as long as it doesn't cost them too much.

The city's latest public consultation with about 1,100 residents reveals nearly 80 per cent are in favour of the $650-million project if local taxpayers are expected to pay less than 5 per cent.

Support drops to 70 per cent when the city's cost jumps to 15 per cent. Enthusiasm begins to plummet when the expense increases to 20 per cent or more.

"Cost is the biggest factor," said Jill Stephen, director of strategic and environmental planning.

The city is still waiting to find out if its plans for rapid transit, preferably light rail (LRT), will be selected by Metrolinx this fall. It will also learn its expected share of the tab.

Observers have estimated the city's cost at around 15 per cent, but there's been no official indication. Metrolinx chair Rob MacIsaac has stated the agency plans to fund "bare-bones" transit lines and cities would be "prudent" to put money aside.

Several councillors have tied their support to the city's cost.

Downtown Councillor Bob Bratina said it's clear the city should be prepared to invest capital dollars.

"Anyone who thinks we're going to get a free LRT, forget it," he said, noting transit projects in other cities have been divided into thirds between government levels.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger said he's confident Metrolinx will pick up the "lion's share" of the cost, "well in excess of 75 per cent."

Nicholas Kevlahan, co-founder of the citizens' group Hamilton Light Rail, cautioned against putting too much weight on the survey results, noting it's difficult to gather informed opinions until the real costs are known. At this point, he suspects it only shows residents don't want their taxes to increase.

He added that Metrolinx has announced it will own and control rapid transit systems, suggesting they will pick up most of the cost.

"They're really taking ownership."