Special Report: Light Rail

Another Four Months Down the Drain

The debate about whether the HSR should operate the LRT was an important one to have. The problem is that it should have happened two years ago.

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 20, 2017

Four months ago, Hamilton City Council abruptly hit the snooze button on the Hamilton Light Rail Transit (LRT) project with a last-minute request to have Hamilton Street Railway (HSR), the city's local transit service, operate and maintain the LRT system instead of the consortium that will be selected to design and build it.

The typical Metrolinx procurement model for rapid transit projects is to select a consortium that will design, build, finance, operate and maintain (DBFOM) the system. The Request for Qualifications (RFQ) that Metrolinx completed in the first half of this year was based on this model.

Metrolinx President Phil Versters wrote a response to the City saying Metrolinx would be willing to take operations (but not maintenance) out of the contract and re-issue an RFQ for a design-build-finance-maintain (DBFM) contract, but strongly recommended against this. It would add another four or five months to the procurement time, and it would put the City on the hook for all operational costs, responsibilities, risks and liabilities.

For a council that has been single-mindedly opposed to anything in this LRT project that might expose Hamilton ratepayers to additional risk, taking on LRT operations was a non-starter. Add the recent crisis of chronic absenteeism and daily missed bus routes, and the idea of having the HSR take over LRT when it can't even manage local bus service becomes absurd.

Two Options, Basically the Same

So at a special meeting on Monday, in which Councillors formally received the response from Metrolinx, they were faced with two just feasible choices about how to move forward, neither of which involved the HSR operating LRT.

The first choice, articulated in a motion by Ward 1 Councillor Aidan Johnson, was to resume the procurement process that was put on hold four months ago and to request that Metrolinx support the unionization of LRT workers.

The second choice, articulated in a motion by Ward 3 Councillor Matthew Green, was to resume the procurement process that was put on hold four months ago and to request that Metrolinx support the unionization of LRT workers, but to express that request in the form of a demand.

(Thankfully, Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead's desire to keep HSR operation of LRT on the table had no traction whatsoever from his colleagues.)

Despite the City solicitor advising that Council can only make requests of Metrolinx, not demands, Council voted to "require" that LRT operations and maintenance workers be organized by Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 107, the union that represents HSR workers, and to adopt the same pay, benefit and pension commitments that are in the collective agreement with the City.

Successor Rights

Councillor Green's rationale for this demand is that ATU Local 107 is asserting a claim to "successor rights" under the collective agreement to represent the workers for any fixed route transit service in Hamilton.

Whether such successor rights would apply to an LRT line built and owned by a Provincial Crown Agency is an open question. When Councillors heard from the City Solicitor on this matter, they did so in camera so we don't know what they were advised.

We do know that even though Councillor Johnson's motion was defeated, it still received votes from six council members, including Mayor Fred Eisenberger. So we can surmise that Councillors likely heard that the matter is uncertain in some way.

In any case, when Green's motion passed, it did so with the support of every councillor present except Lloyd Ferguson of Ancaster. And as the City solicitor advised publicly, the demand is actually just a strongly worded request.

Important Discussion Came Too Late

I want to be fair to Councillor Green, whose August motion created this four-month delay in a procurement process that Council ended up accepting anyway: the debate about whether the HSR should operate the LRT was an important one to have.

The problem is that the debate should have happened before Council voted in February 2016 to agree to the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with Metrolinx that spelled out the procurement process. It was at best poor leadership and at worst sheer recklessness for Council to wait until a year and a half after signing the MoA, and months after Metrolinx had already finished the RFQ, to pop the lid on this can of worms.

And this was after Council already wasted two months with its ridiculous convulsion over whether to approve the mandatory Environmental Project Report Addendum, which Council themselves directed staff to prepare after the Province approved Council's request for full capital funding on the city's LRT plan.

Consistent Failure to Lead

Their consistent failure to lead on this file from day one has already cumulatively squandered years of progress. At one time, staff were seriously talking about having LRT up and running in time for the 2015 Pan American Games.

We are now six months behind the current schedule and there is no way a contract will be signed before the June 2018 Provincial election, or even the October 2018 municipal election.

This project has been in development for a decade, has already been approved repeatedly by the City and Province, and should have been locked down by now. Instead, it will once again become a divisive and exhausting election issue at both the provincial and municipal level.

Indeed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this potential for mischief is precisely why so many anti-LRT councillors voted in August to approve Green's motion to have the HSR operate LRT in the first place. (Indeed, Ward 7 Councillor Donna Skelly was still at it on Monday, musing that we might be able to use the billion dollar funding commitment for other projects. Ugh.) Four months of delays later, we can say: mission accomplished.

And after all of it, we end up with exactly the same procurement process - only half a year behind schedule.

Benefits Agreement

One bright light that did come out of Monday's meeting was the second part of Green's motion, which requests to have up to two members of the Hamilton Community Benefits Network, a new non-profit with a mandate to seek community benefits for new investments in the city, participate in the LRT procurement to ensure that marginalized communities in Hamilton benefit from new training, apprenticeship and job opportunities.

I applaud Councillor Green for including it in Monday's vote and taking a proactive approach to ensuring that Hamilton realizes the maximum benefit from this once-in-a-lifetime investment.

It really should have been a standalone motion by itself, but I'm glad that at least something constructive came out of this four-month excursion into political silly season.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted December 20, 2017 at 22:18:38

"this four-month excursion into political silly season" may cost us the BLine LRT, but what the hell! I'm sure another $1 billion gift from the Province will come along some day.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted December 25, 2017 at 15:18:34

This project has been in development for a decade, has already been approved repeatedly by the City and Province, and should have been locked down by now. Instead, it will once again become a divisive and exhausting election issue at both the provincial and municipal level.

The Progressive Conservative Party's election manifesto supports Hamilton's LRT. So at least at the provincial level, this is not a divisive election issue.

Spoiler alert: I've written an article for publication in RTH looking at the effect of the PC election manifesto upon Hamilton.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 27, 2017 at 14:14:22 in reply to Comment 122299

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By thomasbuckley (registered) | Posted January 12, 2018 at 06:25:22

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Comment edited by thomasbuckley on 2018-01-12 06:27:13

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