HSR AND LRT: Push to have city transit operators at helm of light-rail line has some councillors jittery about delays
Delay over HSR question could put the light rail in the maw of party politics
As with all things LRT, Hamilton councillors are divided over what impact their request to let HSR operate and maintain the system may have on the project’s timelines.
If the entreaty causes a major delay in awarding the building contract to a private sector consortium, some fear the project will be cast into the maw of next year’s provincial election — a dream scenario for LRT opponents.
Lloyd Ferguson, who voted against the motion, sees it as a real “risk” that sends a message of uncertainty to provincial politicians and potential project bidders alike, not to mention playing into the hands of anti-LRT councillors. “Indecisiveness is always dangerous.” Matthew Green, who expertly stickhandled the motion through Wednesday’s 9-4 committee vote, disagrees.
“I don’t believe any government coming in is going to throw this project out the door. We’re too far down the line.”
There’s no question the spectre of the June 2018 provincial election has haunted the project from the start.
Last year, city manager Chris Murray even made awarding the LRT contract before the election one of his performance goals.
The reality is councillors may be asking Metrolinx to let city HSR workers manage LRT, but effectively it’s the provincial government which will decide yea or nay.
As a provincial agency, Metrolinx plans, develops and provides advice on big regional transit projects, but the decisionmaking remains in the paws of the politicians who control the purse strings.
That’s why Andrew Hope, Metrolinx project director for Hamilton, will soon be consulting with the province over next steps, assuming Wednesday’s vote is ratified by council on Aug. 18.
There’s no question in Hope’s mind the project’s timelines could be jolted.
After all, Metrolinx is already screening three applicants who are interested in building the $1-billion system based on the original procurement model set out in a request for qualifications (RFQ) earlier this year.
If the province approves the city’s HSR request, Hope says another RFQ will need to take place, which will take about four months from start to finish.
“The RFQ that went out originally was very clear on what the procurement model is going to be used for the project, which was to design, build, finance, operate and maintain. If we’re going to be changing the model now, it’ll change the composition of the applicant teams that are responding to the RFQ. You may not have an operator anymore. So we would have to reissue the RFQ.”
The current goal is to select a consortium by the spring of 2018 and have a contract signed by that June. So clearly adding another three or four months to the schedule might leave the contract up in the air when the province goes to the polls.
But is that really such a big deal anymore? Doubtless, LRT will be an issue for some local candidates, but the positions of the party leaders are clear. The Liberals and New Democrats wholeheartedly support the project and Conservative Leader Patrick Brown says he’ll abide by council’s wishes.
Sam Merulla for one doesn’t put much stock in Brown’s position. “Regardless of what people are saying, I don’t believe Brown would be supportive of a Hamilton LRT line.”
Green has a different take. Some $50 million has already been spent on the project. By the time the election rolls around, the total will have jumped by many millions more. Green argues if the Conservatives are elected and try to scrap the project, they’d wear it the same way the Liberals did the infamous gas plant cancellations.
Then again, this whole thing could be immaterial. The Liberal government may very well tell Metrolinx to stick with the existing procurement model and just get on with it. Either way, let’s hope Merulla is reading the tea leaves right. He doesn’t believe we’ll have to wait very long for an answer.
“They have way too much invested now. They’re motivated. They’re ready to get this thing out and signed, sealed and delivered before the election.”