Coun. Green pushes for new LRT deal for HSR
Could it stoke divisive debate again?
After a couple of months of smooth sailing, Hamilton’s LRT project is suddenly back in uncertain waters.
Coun. Matthew Green is proposing that the light rail system should be run by the HSR — the city-owned transit service — instead of a private company.
Green wants councillors to ask Metrolinx to ensure that HSR is identified as the operator and maintainer of the $1-billion provincially funded LRT system in a yet-to-be-signed final operating agreement.
In essence, that would mean reopening the memorandum of agreement the city signed with Metrolinx, which spells out the roles and responsibilities of both parties, including the competitive bidding process for hiring a private consortium to design, build, operate and maintain the LRT system.
Green, who’ll bring forward his motion July 10, says the intent is to discuss other operating options before it’s too late and to show support for Amalgamated Transit Unit (ATU) Local 107, whose members operate HSR buses.
“Public transit is a public service and Metrolinx’s current process only provides for bids in a privatized system,” Green said in a release.
“With this motion I’m looking to include options that our public system stays public for everyone.”
But Coun. Sam Merulla fears the motion will reopen the LRT debate, potentially jeopardizing timelines and even the project itself.
“Poking the bear at this point is not in anyone’s best interest except for those opposed to the project,” Merulla said.
“We’re at the 11th hour; we’re imminently away from the request for proposals being issued; this is not the time or place to jeopardize what we’ve accomplished to date.”
Metrolinx has already issued a request for qualifications for private bidders to build and operate the system and expects to go to market with formal requests for proposals later this summer.
The provincial transit agency argues private operators are better equipped to run light rail systems in cities with no previous experience operating rail lines. Obviously HSR — Hamilton Street Railways — used to be in that position but not for decades.
Green’s motion dovetails with a campaign by ATU Local 107 to “keep transit public’ and provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s support for putting HSR in charge of the system.
The motion also comes barely two months after council voted 10-5 to stay the course with the project after a nick-of-time provincial agreement to extend the line from McMaster University all the way to Eastgate Square instead of the Queenston traffic circle.
Merulla says he’ll back Green’s motion if it’s a “symbolic gesture” to show support for the HSR union, but if it’s a serious attempt to reopen negotiations with Metrolinx and the province, he sees it as “non-starter.”
“I need clarity on this. I will be asking for it to be tabled for a staff report. I need to understand the implications of supporting it.”
Mayor Fred Eisenberger could not be reached. But Paul Johnson, the city’s LRT project co-ordinator, says staff will be listening very carefully to the debate.
“If we do end up having to speak to Metrolinx about this, I know they’ll want to be very clear what our position is.” No kidding. As Johnson notes, the rules of engagement indicating the project was going to be funded by the province but designed, built, operated and maintained by private interests was laid out at the beginning of the process, including in the March, 2016, memorandum of agreement between Metrolinx and the city.
Surely it’s kind of late in the game to reopen discussions with Metrolinx and the province.
Johnson also notes that council has already strongly signalled that they want staff and Metrolinx to explore ways that ATU members can be involved in the daily operations of the LRT system.
“We’ve already started that work as a result of our conversation with committee and council previously, and that work continues as well,” Johnson said.
In other words, council is already pushing to keep LRT jobs in the hands of ATU members.
But Green’s motion seems to go well beyond trying to protect workers.
If, as it appears, it’s about the city of Hamilton operating and maintaining the LRT system through its transit division, that’s a whole new conversation.
If passed by council, it would not only delay the project immeasurably, it could expose the city to serious financial risk if Metrolinx and the province for some reason went along with it.
Merulla argues that because council has already approved the memorandum of agreement, the motion would be a reconsideration, which would require a two-thirds majority to pass.
If it does, Green suggests this will be an opportunity for all those councillors who say they support transit, HSR and the ATU to show their “faith and belief.”
Of course, it might also be a perfect chance for holdout critics to put a spoke in the project’s wheels.