Tijana Martin
Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney, seen here on Nov. 4, 2019, claimed in a statement that the previous Liberal government’s $1-billion budget figure low-balled the project’s cost.

Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney has cancelled plans for Hamilton’s downtown light-rail line citing rising costs, a decision that angered local politicians and transit activists.

Ms. Mulroney was supposed to face reporters at a downtown hotel after a technical briefing on Monday afternoon, but the briefing never happened and she never appeared. Pro-LRT city councillors and transit activists had packed the room, and local media was already reporting the project was dead, with the government blaming its ballooning cost. Premier Doug Ford’s spokesperson said the briefing and news conference were cancelled because of safety concerns.

After a closed-door meeting with the minister, it was left to blindsided Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger to break the news that the city’s light-rail project was no more – even though the new PC government at Queen’s Park had recently reaffirmed its commitment in its April budget. Bids were expected to be submitted by three groups vying to build the 14-kilometre line next spring.

“This is a betrayal by the province to the City of Hamilton. This will not only hurt Hamilton’s economy, but Ontario’s economy,” the mayor said, pointing out that other projects with growing price tags in Toronto and Mississauga were going ahead. “The message to the world is that Ontario is an unreliable partner. Ontario is not a place where you can do business because of the Ford government.”

In a statement, Ms. Mulroney claimed the previous Liberal government’s $1-billion budget figure low-balled the project’s cost. She said the previous government had kept a higher $3-billion estimate under wraps, and that she commissioned a third-party review of the project that calculated its price tag at $5.5-billion. Ms. Mulroney said the previous Liberal regime had planned to make the City of Hamilton cover $1-billion in operating and maintenance costs, which the government later said covers a 30-year period. The Globe and Mail hasn’t seen a copy of the third-party review.

“It is frustrating news, but the stark fiscal reality is that the project will actually cost five times more than the previous government led us all to believe,” Ms. Mulroney’s statement reads.

However, she said Ontario would continue to provide its promised $1-billion for Hamilton’s transportation needs, and pledged to strike a task force to look at how the money should be spent.

In an e-mail, the Premier’s executive director of communications, Laryssa Waler, said Ms. Mulroney’s event was cancelled owing to safety concerns and that the minister was to speak with local media elsewhere. Hamilton police were called to the area by building security to deal with crowd control, but said no arrests were made.

Mr. Ford defended the move in an interview on talk radio station 640 Toronto, saying costs had ballooned under the previous Liberals.

“Not our fault, they can look at the previous government and ask them why they lied,” he said, adding that he feels “terrible for the people of Hamilton.”

Last year, after voters supported Hamilton’s pro-LRT mayor, Mr. Ford said he would let local elected officials make the decision on the contentious LRT project, which has divided the city.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, a former Hamilton city councillor, vowed to fight the decision, saying “we’ve seen this time and time again over the last 18 months: Doug Ford makes stuff up to justify deep cuts.”

The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce issued a statement saying it was shocked at the province’s move and that it had rescinded an invitation to Ms. Mulroney to speak at an event in January. The business group said the project had already spurred investment downtown, and that the province had already spent $184-million on the decade-old plans.

Keanin Loomis, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer, said the move shows the government’s “word is not to be trusted.”

Joseph Mancinelli, international vice-president of the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), which has been friendly with Mr. Ford in the past but strongly supports the LRT, said the cancellation “smelled of politics” as opposed to costs. “This is clearly a gigantic mistake on the government’s part,” he said.

Ms. Mulroney made a point of singling out former Liberal transportation minister Steven Del Duca – now running to lead his party – for blame, saying he and his fellow cabinet ministers were “not up-front” about the project’s costs.

In an e-mailed statement, Mr. Del Duca did not directly address her allegations. But he accused Mr. Ford of inflating his deficit figures to justify cuts: “Today, after months of wasting everyone’s time, Doug Ford and Caroline Mulroney continue to make their planning up as they go along.”

Source: The Globe and Mail