This blog entry has been updated
With the exciting announcement last week of $300 million in provincial money to develop rapid transit in Hamilton, we have a unique opportunity to develop a fast, robust, affordable, and forward-compatible transportation network for the city.
The provincial announcement suggested bus rapid transit (BRT) for Hamilton, but we need to push for light rail transit (LRT) instead. LRT is far superior to BRT for a number of reasons:
LRT carries more people than buses and is much better at attracting new riders - people who choose it for its superior speed and convenience. These riders represent real decreases in driving and new revenue for the system.
Grid-connected electric vehicles like LRT are more energy efficient than internal combustion, battery, hybrid or fuel cell vehicles, and can be powered by renewable energy sources like wind or solar. Calgary's light rail line, for example, is 100 percent wind powered.
LRT is quiet and produces no emissions at the tailpipe. For a city in which driving now produces more than half the air pollution comes from vehicles (according to the latest report by Clean Air Hamilton [PDF]), it is particularly important to invest in a network that helps to reverse this trend.
LRT capital costs are about double the costs of BRT, but it's as little as a quarter the cost of BRT to operate. With the provincial (and possibly federal) government contributing toward its construction, this is an unparalleled opportunity to build a more affordable system.
Finally, because it is such a superior transportation system, LRT is extremely attractive to investors and developers. There's simply no comparison between new investment around glorified bus routes and LRT lines: LRT attracts billions of dollars in new investments in every city that invests in it.
The city of Portland, Ore. actually regards its transit network as an economic development strategy first and a transportation system second. The Pearl District line generated over 100 new private developments adjacent to the line worth $2.3 billion.
Similarly, Ybor City, Fla. spent $55 million on a light rail line that attracted $1 billion in new private investment.
Investors simply do not get excited about buses the way they get excited about light rail. As the transportation director for Kinosha, Wis., explained, "Streetcars have sex appeal ... Developers don't write cheques for buses."
The Hamilton Spectator editorial board agrees. In last Saturday's editorial, Robert Howard called LRT "the 21st century solution" and wrote, "Mayor Fred Eisenberger and Hamilton council should make a case - soon - for upgraded LRT funding."
Hamilton has missed too many opportunities like this in the past, paralyzed by partisanship and parochial thinking. We can't let yet another opportunity slip away, when faced with the mounting challenges of climate change and declining oil production over the next several decades.
Light rail is far past the point where it can be perceived as a risky gamble. This is a proven, well-established system that works well and pays robust dividends.
Cities that have embraced it are enjoying the lavish rewards of growing ridership, cleaner air, and copious new investments. Cities that continue to eschew it will fall farther and farther behind.
Editor, Raise the Hammer
Update: As originally written, this blog entry seemed to state that the Pearl District line in Portland cost $2.3 billion to make. Thanks to the alert RTH reader who pointed this out. -Ed.
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