Atrocity of the Month

Red Hill Valley Expressway (Here it Comes)

How can a magazine dedicated to sustainable urban development not have an opinion on a megaproject that supports a growth pattern with no future?

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 19, 2005

Red Hill Clearcut facing south, as seen from under Main St. (Photo Credit: Ryan McGreal)
Red Hill Clearcut facing south, as seen from under Main St. (Photo Credit: Ryan McGreal)

We have sort of a policy here at RTH whereby we try to avoid banging on about Red Hill.

In our first issue, we ran a satirical piece on the planned expressway, but received a certain amount of feedback suggesting the issue is too divisive to touch without alienating some of our readers.

Certainly the conflict transcends mere debate. It seems that no argument, however reasoned, can penetrate the hardened opinions of those Hamiltonians committed to one side or the other. It's like trying to change the mind of a religious fanatic or a Ti-Cat supporter.

But, damnit, how can a magazine dedicated to sustainable urban development not have an opinion on a $500 million public infrastructure project that supports a growth pattern with no future and is, in any case, unaffordable?

The Economic Case

As Hamilton's industrial base declines, investment and employment are shifting to biotechnology, information services, communications, and what the city calls "aerotropolis", or value-add business driven by the development of John C. Munro Airport as a transport hub. (In fact, if theorists like Richard Heinberg are correct, these may turn out to be merely transitional.)

With the exception of the last item (serviced by the extension to Hwy 403), the other growing industries do not rely on mass transportation infrastructure the way heavy industry did. Instead, these growing industries tend to attract urban professionals who prefer a rich downtown to a massive highway that feeds suburban bedroom communities.

A common economic defense is that Red Hill will allow industrial parks to develop in Glanbrook. In fact, there is no market demand for such development, and property owners would rather sell their land to residential developers. Of course, each house built in these outlying areas costs the city more money, since they don't pay the full costs of their public infrastructure.

We also hear that more highway capacity is needed. This neglects the axiom that transportation supply creates its own demand. Traffic flows always maximize the available capacity. Additional lane-kilometres result in a corresponding rise in use by cars and trucks. People will use the most convenient transportation option available to them, and car transit is publicly subsidized out of all proportion to alternatives.

Finally, the city can't pay for the Red Hill Valley Expressway without some combination of service cuts, borrowing, and tax hikes. Since some of the money will come from downtown taxpayers and some of the cuts will come from downtown services, the core will be forced yet again to help subsidize its own enforced austerity.

It's as though they're going ahead with Red Hill out of sheer bloodymindedness.

800 Lb. Gorilla

So how, really, can we write about important urban issues without making at least occasional mention of the 800 lb. gorilla that looms over the entire political landscape? Like a massive gravitational body, Red Hill distorts the space around it.

By withdrawing from the issue, are we not merely ceding the argument to those who haven't withdrawn? Silence is affirmation, after all.

It's true that our focus is downtown, the heart of the city, which suffers arrhythmia today but may yet beat strongly again. However, the expressway still affects downtown, even though it's not located there.

We don't have all the answers, but it seems nonsensical to abrogate our responsibility to speak up, to yield the terms of the debate to others.

The Scarlet Letter

I realize that we are in grave danger of being saddled with that most fearsome of epithets: lefties.

Ben Bull explores the Scarlet Letter of Hamilton politics in Part II of his "Digging through the Custard" series on activism in Hamilton. In this case, however, the blanketing of a false left/right dichotomy over the issue obfuscates more than it clarifies.

I mean, is it "lefty" to call, as we do in this month's editorial, for less intrusive government regulations? Is it "lefty" to argue that people should pay the real market price for their homes? Is it "lefty" to oppose a massive, publicly-funded megaproject that is almost certain to mis-allocate resources based on projected market trends?

The editorial team at RTH really is a diverse group, politically. We run the gamut from small-c social conservatives to left-liberal progressives, including a converted Expressway supporter - and that's just one member!

We just can't belp but oppose a project that encourages unhealthy low-density development, drains money out of the budget, subsidizes sprawl with downtown tax money, and forces the city to go into debt and raise taxes.

If you think that's divisive, consider the case of Marvin Caplan, the moderately progressive councilor whom Ward 1 voters threw out - in part because he tried to please everyone by 'giving in' on Red Hill.

Of course, we recognize that the arguments in favour of the expressway are just as impassioned. We'd love to hear what you think, readers. Send us your opinions to editor@raisethehammer.org and we'll print the best ones in next month's issue.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By TFC&C (anonymous) | Posted January 07, 2007 at 17:57:30

This not a threat. I want Hamiltonians to remember what it is I called out as I recovered the flags of The Iroquois Confederacy from the longhouse site in 2003.

"WE WILL NOT FORGET"

And to say once again, we never will.

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By Adriano (anonymous) | Posted November 02, 2007 at 16:48:30

RE: Economic View
I have both a bachelor degree in Economics and Computer Science, and I must say there are major flaws in our argument. The Red Hill Expressway opens up the Hamilton Mountain to prospective residents, which in-turn HELPS HAMILTON, not hurt it. Hamilton needs higher taxed properties and higher income families to support Canada's highest population of people on social assistance. How does this expansion help you ask? Hamilton homes situated below the mountain have a median cost of $120 - $135 thousand dollars. The property tax pulled in by these homes are marginal at best, leaving major gaps in Hamilton's present and future income. Morever the business area, or lack there-of, in Hamilton's downtown has numerous vacant spots wherein no business taxation is beeing generated. HUGE losses. The Red Hill Expressway provides path for a commuter, such as myself an IT professional who works in the inner city Toronto, the option of purchasing one of the homes in the projected $1 billion dollar development which the Red Hill Expressway connects to the QEW. Also for those professionals that fly alot, a local airport is a blessing. That beeing said, business professionals WILL move in as the initial cost, convienence, and property tax it offers is unbeatable to anything in or around the GTA presently. With the population influx comes huge revenue in tax dollars for Hamilton coupled with higher income families which inturn equates to higher spending families. This places the demand and need for more business resources local to their residency. BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES, wherein Hamilton can collect their much needed Business Taxations. These new found revenues provide Hamilton with the opportunity to spend the previous lacking tax dollars on re-structoring the downtown area to meet the new business demands. As for the thoery that the Information Systems, and Biotechnology demands in the area are dying fields; that's proposterous. They are both the leading area's of growth for not only every major urban area in the Northern America's; but also globally. Hamilton needs to stop taking corrective action, and start making proactive planning, and the Red Hill Expressway is definetely a step in the right direction.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 03, 2007 at 14:55:24

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. In response:

"The Red Hill Expressway opens up the Hamilton Mountain to prospective residents, which in-turn HELPS HAMILTON, not hurt it."

Your argument is that the additional tax revenue from "higher income families" living in new developments opened up by Red Hill will help city finances.

There are a number of problems with this hypothesis.

  1. Tax collected on new houses in the suburbs is not enough to pay for the city's costs in providing civic infrastructure to those places. In other words, every house built in the suburbs actually increases the city's operating deficit.

  2. People respond to incentives. If the government invests in making it cheaper and easier to live in the suburbs than in the downtown, then people will choose to live in the suburbs. Alternately, if the government invests in making it cheaper and easier to live downtown, people will choose to live downtown. The huge public infrastructure expenditure that makes highway-access sprawl developments more attractive carries an enormous opportunity cost in lost potential to invest in making the existing built environment more attractive.

  3. By draining new capital investment away from the existing built environment, the city also squanders opportunities to leverage its prior investment in that already existing infrastructure to maximize return on new investment. In addition, doing so actually drains operating funds away from maintaining that investment, causing it to deteriorate and further repelling new private investment.

  4. Certain neighbourhoods in the lower city have very high average incomes, indicating that people with high incomes are quite willing to live in an attractive urban environment. If we examine these neighbourhoods, we notice several common features: mixed uses in close proximity; attractive, walkable streets; good transit connections; diverse public and private amenities including community schools, public libraries, parks, recreation centres, restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, and so on; and a street system not optimized for ease of driving.

"Morever the business area, or lack there-of, in Hamilton's downtown has numerous vacant spots wherein no business taxation is beeing generated."

Disinvestment from downtown is a direct result of public investment in suburban sprawl infrastructure. Highway capacity, new roads with multiple lanes, mandatory "free" parking at every destination, and low assessment and property tax rates represent a massive public subsidy for sprawl development, artificially lowering the cost so it attracts more people. It's a false economy that never ends up paying for itself and requires a never-ending infusion of 'fresh blood' farther and farther out from the increasingly hollowed-out centre of the city.

"The Red Hill Expressway provides path for a commuter, such as myself an IT professional who works in the inner city Toronto, the option of purchasing one of the homes in the projected $1 billion dollar development which the Red Hill Expressway connects to the QEW."

It actually produces a false economy that makes an otherwise economically unrealistic arrangement (living in the outskirts of Hamilton and working in downtown Toronto) seem feasible.

You would be much better off if the city and province used the money it spent on Red Hill and invested it in faster, more frequent GO train service and improvements to Hamilton's public transit system. Then you could live in a lively, vibrant downtown neighbourhood and enjoy the convenience of fast, comfortable commuter rail instead of sitting in gridlock on the QEW.

Even if the problem of highway congestion were somehow resolved, the problem of declining energy production rates would remain. Three years ago when we started writing about peak oil on Raise the Hammer, oil prices were in the $40 per barrel range, and it was easier to dismiss peak oil theory as implausible nonsense. Today, with oil prices hovering just under $100 per barrel and traders betting on it hitting $125 per barrel by the end of the year, it's harder to dismiss.

Global oil production peaked in 2006 and has been more or less stalled at around 84 million barrels per day for the past three years, despite steadily growing demand, very strong price signals and massive increases in exploration and drilling. In the next few years, oil production will go into decline and prices will continue to skyrocket.

In his economic report to city council, Richard Gilbert assessed a better than 50 percent chance that gas prices will pass $4 per litre in the next decade or so. At that point, the false economy that makes highway-dependent sprawl development possible will fail completely.

"As for the thoery that the Information Systems, and Biotechnology demands in the area are dying fields; that's proposterous."

I was referring mainly to aerotropolis as a viable economic development model, but let's look at the economics of IT: as Richard Florida argued in his book _The Rise of the Creative Class_, information professionals coalesce around vibrant urban environments: attractive, dense, diverse, mixed, with strong arts scenes, excellent public and private amenities, adjacent to academic institutions, and so on.

In other words, IT requires a distinctly urban character to investment. (There's a reason your job is downtown Toronto.)

"Hamilton needs to stop taking corrective action, and start making proactive planning, and the Red Hill Expressway is definetely a step in the right direction."

The Red Hill Expressway is exactly what Hamilton has been doing for the past half-century: it is profoundly reactive, retrograde planning, and the economic theory behind it has been utterly discredited in city after city all over the world.

The Red Hill Expressway is a half-billion dollar misinvestment that will only benefit a few residential property developers and will soon be revealed as a huge blunder and a tragic wasted opportunity to fix this city's problems.

Future generations will scratch their heads and wonder just what the hell we were thinking.

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