Commentary

Evaluate LRT on Facts, Not Irrational Fears

LRT has been proven again and again to spur development, attract new taxpaying businesses, increase property values (and tax assessments), and lure residents to the line.

By Sean Burak
Published February 01, 2010

I understand that a major goal of the opinion page is to generate a healthy debate. This time around, however, the Hamilton Spectator has crossed the line from stirring the coals of an argument to publishing opinions based entirely on assumptions and misinformation. A reply of this length would normally not be necessary, but the errors in Mr. David Serwatuk's piece deserve a line-by-line analysis.

The currently proposed light rail transit (LRT) route will have a huge impact on my businesses and other businesses and homeowners along the way.

Correct, but not in the negative way the author implies. Most businesses will benefit greatly from the intensification that LRT will bring. More people will want to live near the lines, meaning land owners will see a profit potential in increasing the residential density. Businesses near the LRT will benefit from an influx of new residents.

A small minority of businesses - those which cater specifically to drivers and happen to be located on the LRT line - for example, drive-thru businesses or, say, car washes - may suffer initially due to a reduction in vehicles per hour passing their door; but even these unlikely beneficiaries may succeed in the long run due to the increased density surrounding them.

Residents will see their property values increase and will see a better selection of services move into their neighbourhood as new businesses flock to take advantage of the greater density.

Who has really heard about the LRT?

Anyone who has been paying attention to what is going on around them has heard about the city's LRT plans by now. Talk of LRT started back in 2007, and the first published presentation on the city's website (PDF link) was in April of 2008, almost two years ago.

Public Information Centres started in 2008 and there have been numerous public meetings (not to mention media coverage) ever since.

I do not see the need for the LRT. Is there a congestion problem?

There is not a congestion problem from the viewpoint of drivers. Current HSR users see a different view, however, especially on the B-Line. Crowded buses are the norm, and being passed at your stop by a packed bus is common during peak times.

Since the adoption of Vision 2020 in 1992, Hamilton has been officially committed to higher transit ridership. Whether Mr. Serwatuk likes it or not, we are going to be improving the transit system in the near future. The question is: will we build an unsustainable and costly bus system or a profitable rail line?

Chicago and Detroit, are both home to LRT failures and there many more worldwide.

Chicago does not actually have an LRT system akin to what is proposed for Hamilton. Detroit's existing line is an elevated one-way loop around the downtown core. Elevated trains historically do not produce the economic benefits that true street-level LRT does.

Detroit's planned true LRT, which is still in the planning stage, has already attracted development money from forward-looking private investors.

There may be occasional LRT "failures" worldwide, but the vast majority of installations exceed even optimistic expectations and the worst case for most LRT systems is moderate success.

If we are going to analyze other cities, let's widen our view to every LRT system rather than cherry-picking the very few which perform poorly. While we are at it, let's use the poor examples (such as Detroit's elevated line) as lessons on what not to build.

Is King East and Queenston Road a tourist destination compared to Europe?

Transit is about residents first. Tourism benefits are, however, a spinoff worth celebrating.

It seems that the catalyst is the Pan Am Games. [...] LRT in Hamilton would not exist if the Games were not coming.

Actually, the catalyst was a need for transit improvements coupled with a desire to increase transit ridership. LRT has been on the table for the last few years because it also has the added benefit of bringing huge investment and development dollars to our downtown. Being able to service the needs of Pan Am participants and spectators will be a nice bonus, though.

Guess who is going to flip the rest of the millions and millions? Us, local taxpayers.

Who is already paying the millions and millions to prop up our road system? LRT has proven time and again to be a net profit in terms of increased tax assessment when you take into account the property tax increases from the development along the rails.

We currently pay for a road system to move cars through our downtown, which is full of empty buildings and absentee landlords who get tax breaks based on vacancy, or sometimes - as demonstrated by the Connaught consortium - do not pay taxes at all.

If you want to see an example of a system that is unsustainable from a taxpayer standpoint, take a look at the one we have right now.

Why don't we take just a portion of our road budget and funnel it toward LRT, in partnership with Metrolinx? How does a net return-on-investment of over a thousand percent sound?

Do you think people are going to walk or drive to the LRT and jump on it? [...] how much time do you save getting to the LRT and then waiting for it -- still having to park somewhere before you get on.

Yes, people are going to walk or drive to the LRT and jump on it. This is how transit works.

Unfortunately, Mr. Serwatuk is looking at this from the standpoint of someone who does not live near the proposed line. Those who do live near it will use it without thinking twice. Further, the creation of the line itself will attract more residents and businesses to live near it, and use it daily.

People who do not live near it will still benefit - either directly by connecting to the LRT through another means, or indirectly by living in a city which is seeing a growth in tax base thanks to a world class transit system.

With downtown being closed off, it will now be more unaccessible and more of a hangout, where crime will thrive.

Mr. Serwatuk seems confused about the LRT proposal. First of all, the downtown is not being "closed off". There is an option of closing a few blocks of one street to vehicular traffic. In such a case, it is not unreasonable to argue that LRT would bring more people through that stretch than cars ever did.

Besides that, the removal of cars from this tiny stretch is just one possibility of one proposal - we are nowhere near the final plan yet.

How do you feel about driving to the outskirts of downtown, then walking in or paying $5 to ride six blocks? [...] What about all the downtown underground parking garages? Do they have to be rebuilt at cost of the taxpayers? They won't be accessible by cars anymore, nor will our downtown hotels and new condos. I guess our tourists will catch the LRT with their luggage after they are dropped off on the outskirts.

Even if we dedicate a few blocks of one street to LRT (and it is still a big "if"), over 99 percent of our downtown will remain accessible to vehicles. The concept of closing the entire downtown, as well as the $5 fare figure, have both come from the same place: Mr. Serwatuk's imagination.

The design now proposed makes a driver pass your business or street a kilometre and do a U-turn - at certain intersections only - and backtrack.

This sounds suspiciously similar to the way things work right now - except that this is the current reality on every one-way street downtown, not just on the single street on which B-Line LRT will run.

What about the four-to-five-year construction time with streets closed, traffic nightmares, business loss?

Aside from the fact that the "four-to-five-year" timeframe was imagined by the author, the construction of LRT would happen in sections to minimize disruption. Nobody is proposing we tear up 13 kilometers of King Street all at once.

How about our sidewalks and street parking being taken away?

Nobody is proposing any sidewalk removal. Some street parking may be sacrificed in some stretches, but for each lost parking spot, we can envision one more person on the train who no longer needs a parking spot. City staff are also investigating adding off-street parking in areas most affected by a loss of on-street parking.

Is it fair that a store on the Mountain requires parking spots according to the city and the same store along the LRT route does not? We cannot make provisions for some and not the others.

This is how it already works downtown. Businesses in the core obey different parking requirement bylaws. If you open a business in an area where you can expect the majority of your customers to arrive by foot, bike or transit, it makes sense to provide fewer parking spaces than a business situated in a spot which is accessible primarily by car.

In fact, it could be argued that the parking requirements be removed from the law books completely, and be left as a simple economics decision to each business owner.

Let me leave you with only one question: What would be the worst thing that could happen if we did not go through with this LRT?

In other words, what is the worst thing that can happen if we maintain the status quo? The worst case is hard to predict, so why don't we look at the best case instead? How about 0.08 percent tax assessment growth?

From the same article: "the growth in tax revenue from new businesses coming in or expanding was about 1.5 per cent, a so-so performance", "the scaling back of operations at, for example, the former Stelco and Hamilton Specialty Bar means fewer tax dollars for the city", and "the city is also absorbing the loss of millions of dollars in tax revenue stemming from assessment cuts to commercial properties with declining values".

LRT is, first and foremost, a tool of economic development. It is an infrastructure investment that has been proven to spur development, attract new taxpaying businesses, increase property values (and assessments), and lure residents to the line. LRT not only pays for itself in short order, it actually makes money for its host city.

The status quo has proven to be a long road to nowhere. It is time to stop accepting the way things are and to start looking forward to the way things will be. The city should investigate potential opportunities from LRT based on facts, not irrational fears.

Sean Burak was born in Hamilton but raised elsewhere in Ontario. He returned to his birth town at the turn of the century and has never looked back. Sean is the owner of Downtown Bike Hounds.

28 Comments

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By sbwoodside (registered) - website | Posted February 01, 2010 at 22:48:20

Since Sean just sent me a nice email about it, I'll repost the link to my "just the facts" rebuttal that I posted on my own blog:

http://simonwoodside.com/weblog/2010/2/1...

14 factual errors in the original opinion piece.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted February 01, 2010 at 23:05:26

Though who knows if they'll publish any of it, I'd send that in to the Spec too - your piece is succinct enough it would be a good counterbalance. Not holding my breath though.

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By lukev (anonymous) | Posted February 01, 2010 at 23:27:33

With apologies to Ben Bull, this article was a much more professional and coherent rebuttal to the Serwatuk article.

I hope somebody with contact to Mr. Serwatuk will point him to this page. If he is the land owner of his business properties, he has a lot to gain from the LRT, if only by selling his land.

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By g. (anonymous) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 01:13:49

ok guys and gals, really, fess up, who wrote that? who is "David Serwatuk?" (great fake name by the way!)

i agree that satire is a very potent weapon, and that the article was blindingly funny, but seriously, no one is that ignorant. no one who runs a business in hamilton could be that unaware of the potential of having trains full of people shuttling around their doors.

next time one of you writes in to the spec to be funny, please, for the love of pete, tone it down a bit. they might catch on and stop printing this stuff, then we would have to go back to laughing at that waterfall guy. so 2009.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted February 02, 2010 at 07:17:47

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 02, 2010 at 08:05:39

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted February 02, 2010 at 08:36:06

I may be wrong but I don't even think the current B-Line plan calls for routing as far as King&Queenston http://maps.google.ca/maps?q=King+Street...

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 08:40:51

This line is the scariest part:

Let me leave you with only one question: What would be the worst thing that could happen if we did not go through with this LRT?

It's amazing that anyone who lives, works (good luck) or owns a business in Hamilton can honestly believe that we're some sort of booming shangri-la that doesn't need to be tinkered with.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 08:43:11

are dogs allowed on a light rail train?? If so, bonus for this guy!

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By JonC (registered) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 09:10:42

http://www.thespec.com/News/Local/articl...

Hamilton is unique in that the ridership is already there, it just has to be shifted from bus to rail. Most North American systems, he says, run on an entirely new line and have to build from nothing.

That's a big advantage, says Antonio Paez, an associate geography and earth sciences professor at McMaster, who specializes in transportation.

"There is only the potential to gain. It's a relatively low-risk transition in that corridor."

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 09:42:47

^ so, let's NOT do it!! It makes too much sense. Hooray for Hamilton!

Comment edited by jason on 2010-02-02 08:43:36

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 11:35:39

I'd like to echo Meredith. This needs to be sent to the Spec. I'd like to think they printed that dreck in the hopes they would get a response like this, although with the weasely "plenty of people"/"they say" article they published today, I'm not so sure.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted February 02, 2010 at 13:15:21

I'll have to take a look at today's Spec.

Also... I just accidentally upvoted my own comment on this article and it seemed to work. (I un-upvoted it though). Strange.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 02, 2010 at 13:21:40

You are allowed to upvote your own comments (along the reasoning that candidates are allowed to vote for themselves).

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted February 02, 2010 at 13:26:15

Ok. I understand that logic.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 13:39:49

Ok, wait... So this David Serwatuk guy runs the Little Ceasers at King & Wentworth!?

WHAT IS HE EVEN WORRIED ABOUT THEN!?

I pass this 'pizzeria' every day, and see nothing but a sea of Blue & White (that's Cathedral Students in uniform).

ALSO, if it stuck to the same route, Wentworth would be an LRT Stop! Why on Earth would he be against additional pedestrians/transit riders loading/unloading right infront of his store? Don't they have 'instant pizzas'? Isn't it super convenient to grab a Pre-Made $5 Pizza, then jump on the Light Rail to your home/job/whatever?

This guy is clueless... even about his own operations! Dude, Your current clientel is probably 85% students... who walk to your shop from the surrounding neighbourhood in which they probably all live in!

Someone should send some LRT & ME pamphplets to that King & Wentworth Little Ceasers. (ps: is this the same guy that was on CHCH Yell About It 5:30??)

Comment edited by Really? on 2010-02-02 12:44:20

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 14:57:12

Yes, this was the gentleman who appeared on CHCH a couple of months ago. He made the same arguments against LRT, using the same hyperbole and misinformation.

At that time he ended by suggesting that Hamilton consider a "monorail" on Main St since this wouldn't disrupt traffic or business, even though he simultaneously recognizes that Detroit's "monorail" is a failure. He also doesn't say how it would be supported without losing traffic lanes ... would it be a flying monorail?

His tactic seems to be to throw out as many half-baked ideas, and false and misleading information as he can, in the hopes that something will stick (or at least create the impression that the whole thing is dangerous and risky).

He also keeps coming up with the idea that all business is driven by impulse and convenience and that the only way to maximize impulse and convenience is by removing any possible barrier to customers arriving by car. I suspect this "impulse and convenience" mantra was part of the package he received as a Little Caesar's franchisee.

As Really? points out he doesn't seem to have looked at who his customers actually are, or imagined how the business environment might grow that customer base (rather than reduce it). How does he imagine all the similar businesses in the downtowns of any other city operate?

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 17:55:15

if he's all about maximizing impulse and convenience than shouldn't he be leading mass protests to get rid of our one-way freeways downtown? I'm guessing not too many people stop at his pizza shop flying 60km an hour down King St. And if they wanted to a block later, they've got some great circling around and looping to do in order to get there. The LRT plan calls for both two-way Main and King, directly helping businesses like this guys as well as adding in a whole whack of new neighbourhood customers that'll be using the LRT.

How much you wanna bet this guy is next in line to take over the Chamber of Commerce.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 20:42:03

People need to travel more. Go to fantastic cities worldwide (i.e., Amsterdam, Brisbane,Singapore) and they have all benefited from:

1) LRT 2) Sections of road converted to pedestrian only use

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By turner (registered) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 21:34:04

Is this the same David Serwatuk that is a member of the Committee of Adjustments (urban)?

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 02, 2010 at 22:08:30

Keily, no kidding. I've said it before and I'll say it again, too many Hamiltonians think they've seen the world if they pass a Muslim, Asian and Italian on their way to the Hortons drive thru.

Turner, I have no clue. Why would that matter?

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By turner (registered) | Posted February 03, 2010 at 09:02:20

It doesn't neccessarily matter. Just curious to know if this is the same guy - he is. This is the same guy who has involvement over decisons about zoning variances and severances.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted February 03, 2010 at 11:23:06

I agree with Kiely. Once you've seen (not just on the internet but actually experienced and walked around in) the various possible urban designs, and what it feels like to live, shop and work in a humanized place - this place starts to look very 'ghetto' by comparison - dirty, ugly, anti-human, dangerous, run by a bunch of useless bickering Smoggies. Negativity is not intended; it's just frustration. The AMAZING potential is in such evidence, achievable with little more than changes in attitude and some consensus, it makes one saddened it's such a shame. We in this region seem to stall at even taking baby steps. In my opinion a tragic and unnecessary waste of quality of life!

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2010-02-03 10:26:57

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted February 03, 2010 at 17:31:06

Very true Mike. I am blessed (and at times cursed) to do a lot of international travel for my job and even when I go to other "world-class" cities, when I return to Hamilton I am always amazed at the amount of raw potential Hamilton has even when compared to those cities.

I am often frustrated by the bickering at all levels of government. There are good, proven, effective decisions, methods, programs, etc... that are known to work when implemented properly. This needs to be the driving factor in decision making not ideology and rhetoric. Let the facts and data lead you to where you need to go, making decisions based on any other method often yields predictably poor results. In my experience the good decisions are ones that eliminate the polar extreme views and work on solutions for everyone. For example, in this debate you cannot neglect transit, pedestrians or cars. ALL need to be considered and accommodated.

Comment edited by Kiely on 2010-02-03 16:33:35

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 03, 2010 at 17:42:04

This needs to be the driving factor in decision making not ideology and rhetoric.

In defense of our decision makers, they are not motivated by ideology and rhetoric so much as fear and inertia.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted February 03, 2010 at 18:05:54

In defense of our decision makers, they are not motivated by ideology and rhetoric so much as fear and inertia.

This.

Also, bonus points to mikeonthemountain for the Smoggies reference.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted February 03, 2010 at 18:14:51

"In defense of our decision makers"

Why? They're holding us back :)

"ideology and rhetoric so much as fear and inertia"

Seems characteristics of both are present. Not sure which is worse/primary but all of those factors are holding us back.

"I am blessed (and at times cursed) to do a lot of international travel for my job and even when I go to other "world-class" cities"

Likewise. Can you imagine how frustrating it is to come back to Ontario and get assaulted (by dangerous driving and verbal/horn abuse) for lawfully riding a bike to work? Especially when you see solutions deliberately shelved (or given half-century timelines lol)? The other really frustrating thing is that almost everyone assumes you lost your license or got a DUI or something. It never occurs to anyone that you'd go car-less by choice to give yourself a $8K raise and flee the automotive industry while it does its oil shocks and other turmoils. What a weird place we're in. Although I guess every region has its issues ... some areas deal with war, some have famine/drought, we have unmitigated selfishness. Can't have everything I guess :)

"For example, in this debate you cannot neglect transit, pedestrians or cars. ALL need to be considered and accommodated."

Oh, you mean Holland. (wipes tear) They did a good job of balancing all modes.

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2010-02-03 17:19:57

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted February 10, 2010 at 13:57:42

In defense of our decision makers, they are not motivated by ideology and rhetoric so much as fear and inertia. - Highwater

This is probably true, but I was referring more to the debate being driven by ideology and rhetoric.

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