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Hamilton council still seeks to make transit a BLAST for residents

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City councillors are resurrecting calls for cash to support a long-planned web of rapid transit corridors to compliment and feed LRT.

Just where that cash will come from remains

uncertain, however.

The city's master transportation plan in 2007 envisioned a so-called BLAST network to connect the lower city east-to-west, link the airport to the harbour north to south, send express buses whizzing to Waterdown and across the Mountain.

So far, only the "B" line of that network has funding — $1 billion in provincial cash for a light rail transit line that will link McMaster University and the Queenston traffic circle along Main and King streets. (A short north-south spur to the James Street GO station is also planned and technically part of the "A" line.)

Now, both political fans and critics of the LRT project are promising to ramp up lobbying efforts for the rest of the oft-forgotten network.

"There is clearly a growing public interest in growing transit and personally I'm in support of greater investment in transit across our city," said Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who supported a motion last week to more "aggressively" pursue government funding for the long-planned BLAST network.

Coun. Terry Whitehead also supported renewed emphasis on building the greater transit network, arguing without that investment "this (LRT) plan will fail." The Ward 8 councillor argued in a recently released report from his office that the LRT line won't have the ridership to succeed unless it is "fed" by a more robust system that lures Mountain and suburban riders into the system.

Technically, the city already has a 10-year strategy designed to create express bus service along parts of the BLAST routes — but it depends on an unfunded plan to build a $200-million new garage.

The city will need to build a new home for buses soon, even if it doesn't cost the originally estimated $200 million, said HSR operations head Murray Hill.

Hill said the expansion plan remains on the books — and a fare hike that will bring cash fares to $3 this fall will help meet short-term goals to fix existing problem routes in the lower city and on the Mountain. But he added proposed fare hikes over the next few years and "incremental" increases in the tax levy for transit won't cover the cost of express bus corridors.

"Until another funding source is identified, we're sort of in a holding pattern," he said.

Metrolinx and the province have so far indicated the funding priority right now is LRT, not conventional bus service.

The new Liberal federal government has also unveiled a transit infrastructure program that is estimated to be worth about $36 million to Hamilton over three years.

The Canadian Urban Transit Association says new bus purchases, design and engineering studies for rapid transit expansion are all expected to be eligible expenses under the program.

Nitty-gritty eligibility details won't be public until Ontario and the federal government come to an agreement on how the money will be doled out.

But transit is one of the city's four "major priorities" for federal government relations, said Eisenberger, along with social housing, poverty and Hamilton's $3-billion infrastructure backlog.

Once eligibility details are known, Eisenberger said council will need to prepare a priority list of projects to submit for potential federal funding.

Even if money becomes available for bus infrastructure, council will also need to consider proposed transit spending hikes of between $4.5 million and $6 million a year going forward if it wants to meet the objectives of the 10-year strategy.