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.
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