By Ryan McGreal
Published October 03, 2008
I spoke this morning with Mayor Fred Eisenberger about light rail, economic development and the Gore Master Plan Study. He was understandably excited about the gathering momentum on light rail in Hamilton, and called light rail "the right focus for us to have."
He's "delighted" that the initiative has developed so quickly and to include such a broad base of support. His attitude toward the city's Higher Order Transit Network Strategy, developed before the provincial MoveOntario 2020 funding announcement, was "let's think higher and bigger." A year and a half of advocacy later, "that's exactly where we're going."
The Mayor lauded the "enormous support through the city" among the residents, community groups and business associations with whom he has spoken, and enthused that "staff are completely on board" and the initiative has majority support in Council assuming the province agrees to cover the capital costs.
He hopes to see the east-west B-Line built in the first five years of the Metrolinx plan, with an expansion to include the north-south A-Line over the next ten years. "We need to begin with a light rail corridor on the b-line. I think the [provincial] funding envelope would cover that."
All in all, the goal of light rail on the B-Line in the next five years looks entirely realistic. "The stars and the moon and the earth and the sun are aligning here."
I asked the Mayor about the recent fact-finding trip to Calgary AB, Portland OR and Charlotte NC. Eisenberger has been to Calgary before, but "their light rail system has expanded even beyond my visit five years ago."
In all three cities, it was highly instructive to talk to local city officials, ride the systems firsthand and see the economic development they spurred.
These cities are very successful at moving many more people on the system who previously wouldn't get on a bus," and "reaping the benefits from the development side as well," with businesses eager to locate around the transit corridor.
"For whatever reason," Eisenberger added, "people believe that light rail is attractive and sexy. It doesn't have a stigma attached to it the way the bus does."
Light rail also demonstrably lowered the transit operating costs, allowing the cities to move more people more cost effectively.
The other thing Eisenberger noticed was that the managers, operators, transit users and citizens are all "very proud of their system," seeing it as a real defining characteristic.
Light rail also has significant environmental benefits. "The last piece of course is we're using envirnmental technology. Electric rail is much cleaner than any fuel-burning vehicle you can imagine, which improves air quality."
In Charlotte, they put the light rail in an already-developed area, but "the uptake seems to be accelerating. Empty fields now have development applications attached to them" while existing "areas of intensification are adding floors to existing locations."
Charlotte's system runs in corridors that already had significant public transportation, but now they're able to avoid leaving riders behind on the platform the way the B-Line often does in Hamilton.
"You put it in a place where it already has ridership" and it significantly improves the service for existing riders and increass the uptake of new riders.
Charlotte also did some creative things to increase the system's usability. When they built a parking garage at the end of the line, where it functions "moreso a commuter service than ours would be," they added a green roof and a sports field on top of the garage, making it "a usable facility on previously undevelopable land."
"A lot of creative things ahve spilled out from their original vision fifteen years ago."
The plan took as long as it did to come to fruition because the city was stuck having to raise the capital and operating costs itself through some kind of tax. The debate over how to do this ran for fifteen years, at the conclusion of which the construction proceeded rapidly.
Fortunately for us in Hamilton, "Metrolinx realizes that this is something we need to do. Failure will cause gridlock much much greater than we have today - it's a must-do."
The Mayor concluded, "The ultimate benefit is moving more people more quickly and more efficiently, and then getting the development uptake."
We also talked about the city's announcement of a Gore Master Plan Study on how to revitalize the wedge-shaped park at King and James. A year ago, when Eisenberger called on the city to establish a pedestrian plaza here, the suggestion was met with considerable skepticism.
However, the ideas has gained traction since then. "Most people see future value in the notion of having a pedestrian square downtown," and as a result, "staf are starting to focus on the south leg of King St. toward creating a pedestrian-friendly area there."
In the long term, he envisions a civic square between James and John that cuts off vehicular traffic but allows light rail or a bus to pass through, "a laudible goal that woul work very well downtown."
In the Gore study, staff are "leaving the door open to this idea but want to start with the south leg" to see how that works out in the shorter term.
Asked about the pace of change, he responded, "If I had my way I'd do it tomorrow, but there are impacts and issues that need to be sorted out over time."
He sees the city moving "toward the day when [the Gore] might be a focal point" again. However, it's critical to move carefully. "There's no rush. I think good plans are plans that are well-thought-out, well-communicated and bought into over time. That's what we're doing; given the proper education in the broader community and downtown businesses, they'll see that this is a rejuvenating opportunity, not a threat."
He noted that there's often early resistance to change, but downtown stakeholders are starting to come around to the idea. He's "not sure if they're there yet, but we're determined to bring everyone along so there's consensus."
He also emphasized how important it is to honour "the historical context of the Gore." Its revitalization must entail "not taking everything out and starting over again but adding to what's already there. There's a historical, architectural context that we want to preserve."
Finally, I asked the Mayor about the original bathrooms buried under the Gore and recounted by Paul Wilson in one of his Spectator columns. Eisenberger pointed out that the original configuration had problems the city shouldn't repeat, but that a public bathroom downtown is an essential amenity.
He suggested that Hamilton could borrow an idea from Boston and invite the private sector to install architecturally interesting public bathrooms that pay for themselves via a modest user fee and are designed to be self-cleaning and self-sustaining. (I used such a facility when I was in Boston last year, and it was very comfortable and convenient.)
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