Special Report: Light Rail

No One Said LRT is a Magic Bullet

LRT must be contained in a comprehensive strategy that includes land use planning, two-way conversions and street calming - all objectives we have been advocating for years.

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 22, 2014

A column by Andrew Dreschel in today's Spectator has inflamed the debate over Hamilton's light rail transit (LRT) plan.

Titled, "McMaster study says LRT no magic bullet for Hamilton", the column interviews Chris Higgins, a PhD student at McMaster who was the lead writer of a paper [PDF] reviewing LRT, land use and development planning in Hamilton.

That paper was an outgrowth of a 2012 paper that determined Hamilton's LRT plan needs sound long-term land use planning, street calming and strong political leadership to be successful.

This new study makes pretty much the same point: that LRT, by itself, won't magically transform the city but instead needs to be part of a more comprehensive strategy that includes land use planning, two-way conversions and street calming - all objectives that we have been advocating for years through Raise the Hammer.

Here is the crucial message in the paper:

[T]his research demonstrates that along the whole B-Line corridor, local conditions compare favourably to three of the six land use change prerequisites noted in the literature. There is an availability of parcels on which to build, complimentary government growth and transportation planning policy exists at the local and provincial levels, and local economic conditions appear to be heading in the right direction.

However, the B-Line corridor, specifically the eastern portion of the planned line, faces a number of economic, social, and physical challenges to attracting new demand and development, though the strengths in these areas along the corridor from McMaster to the central business district does suggest some potential for land use change in the western lower city and downtown core.

Furthermore, the city is actively engaged in a number of policy and planning programs designed to improve economic and social indicators in the lower city. But crucially, the arterial road network along the prospective corridor is uncongested and forecasted to stay that way with high road capacity and little interest shown to date in large-scale two-way conversions, thereby greatly reducing the potential for any rapid transit-based locational advantage in station area.

This is not an explanation of why LRT will not succeed. It's an explanation of what LRT needs to be successful, and it's precisely what we have been calling for on Raise the Hammer.

In fact the paper itself acknowledges that the City is already addressing some of the identified success criteria, but needs to commit more fully to complete streets and traffic calming.

Traffic Flow

For years we have argued that the current form of Hamilton's lower city streets as a network of fast, multi-lane one-way thoroughfares has by itself done considerable damage to the neighbourhoods they cross. The paper acknowledges this:

[S]tudies have characterized the negative impacts of one-way streets on commercial uses, noting that high-speed automobile traffic presents a hazard to pedestrian movement that erodes confidence in the physical environment and discourages shopping in nearby commercial districts.

Likewise, in a follow-up article Higgins wrote today for RTH to provide some context and clarity on the Spectator interview, he wrote:

Changing King and Main Streets back to two-way travel was incorporated into Metrolinx's Benefits Cost Analysis of the B-Line, but this was one of the first casualties of the local transit planning process.

It should seriously be considered as one of the strongest tools for making transit a competitive option for travel across the city, which in turn bestows a 'locational advantage' for land around transit stations, increases property values, and makes new development more attractive.

Again, this is similar to the arguments we made when the City decided to drop two-way conversion from their LRT plan.

Our one-way thoroughfares are convenient for people who want to drive through the city at high speed but that convenience comes at a terrible price. Whether or not we build LRT, Hamilton needs to tame and reclaim its streets for a more accessible, equitable, diverse and economically productive mix of uses.

More important, this is a relatively quick, easy and inexpensive change that the city has already begun to adopt, albeit reluctantly.

It's hardly an argument against LRT to point out that it will be more successful if it is combined with complete, livable streets that also encourage active transportation, public health and improved local commerce!


If we engage in a project of traffic calming and complete streets but don't invest in LRT, the danger is that we will end up with a transportation network in which the transit system is incapable of accommodating the increased ridership it will generate.

Despite decades of free-flowing automobile traffic across the lower city, transit use on the B-Line corridor has grown to 13,000 rides a day, with crush capacity on express buses and frequent "pass-bys" as overstuffed buses fail to stop for waiting passengers.

The paper claims that people won't choose transit unless it becomes less convenient to drive, but many people along the B-Line corridor are already choosing transit despite the fact that it comes in the form of cramped, crowded, uncomfortable buses.

According to a Downton Hamilton Profile [PDF] using 2006 Census data, 25 percent of downtown workers commuted by transit, walking or cycling - despite the fact that our downtown parking lots have some of the lowest day rates in the GTHA and peak usage is less than 70 percent.

And the lower city - especially the downtown - is a moving target. The resident population is increasing, the number of jobs is increasing, and as the McMaster study notes, there is still tremendous potential to increase both further on vacant and underdeveloped properties around the line.

Straw Man

No one is seriously claiming that LRT by itself is a "magic bullet" that will single-handedly solve Hamilton's problems.

Most supporters rightly regard LRT as a necessary component of a comprehensive strategy to set this city up for the kind of long-term transformative change that other cities across North America and around the world have already embraced and experienced.

Some of those cities will be our direct competitors for new residents, investments and jobs over the coming years: places like Kitchener-Waterloo and Mississauga, which are also actively pursuing LRT systems in order to attract development, shape land use and improve their quality of life by reducing their reliance on automobiles.

But LRT opponents and concern trolls are already jumping on today's Spectator column to claim that LRT won't work in Hamilton after all. That's not what the study says, and we need to make sure we don't let such an important debate get hijacked by yet another false claim.

If we squander this once-in-a-generation opportunity to build an LRT system with supportive land use and transportation policies in place, we will continue to stagnate in comparison to those urban centres that understand and seize the opportunity.

We can't let yet another future-altering decision by guided by the contempt and self-loathing that says we don't deserve nice things and it wouldn't work here anyway.

See also:

with files from Nicholas Kevlahan and Jason Leach

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 wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 15:28:16

"...many people along the B-Line corridor are already choosing transit despite the fact that it comes in the form of cramped, crowded, uncomfortable buses."

You might want to actually take a look at who it is that's 'choosing transit'. Numbers are great, but the demographics of those numbers mean just as much in the overall discussion.

But that's another discussion entirely, right?

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By dsafire (registered) - website | Posted September 23, 2014 at 08:37:07 in reply to Comment 104701

Oh, yay, it's the "only losers ride the bus" argument that people keep telling me doesn't exist. :)

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 16:10:45 in reply to Comment 104701

I'm trying to figure out what you mean here. Are you saying that people who use transit are somehow unimportant because of their "demographics"?

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By brendansimons (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 15:50:10 in reply to Comment 104701

"the demographics of those numbers mean just as much in the overall discussion."

Be careful. When discussing the Cannon St cycle track, acquaintances of mine were overheard saying "Cannon St? Why spend so much money so crack addicts and whores can bike?" This attitude - that downtown is full of undesirables, and is therefore unworthy of investment - seems to underlie a lot of the debate in this town. It's ugly and corrosive. Why can't "13000 rides per day" suffice as evidence for the demand?

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By bvbborussia (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 09:08:53 in reply to Comment 104705

Demographics are the elephant in the room. I'm very sure that the one of the core reasons those that oppose LRT do so is because of the negative perceptions and feelings they have for lower city Hamilton and its residents. A lot of people from other parts of the city see LRT as a billion dollar investment spent on the wrong people in the wrong part of the city and that even if it were built they would prefer their car to sharing a seat next to people they don't respect. They may not want to come right out say it but I'm sure that sentiment informs their opinion.

Comment edited by bvbborussia on 2014-09-23 09:22:31

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By Because (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 16:22:12 in reply to Comment 104705

Because some would say that is 13000 undesirables too many ;)

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By brendansimons (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 16:41:52 in reply to Comment 104709

The winky face does not shield really nasty attitudes. Is this why certain candidates and voters are poised to reject money offers from the province? Because the wrong kind of people will benefit from it? Holy hell I hope not!

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 17:59:45 in reply to Comment 104712

I don't mean to drive the wedge further, but I think there are some people who have selfish reasons to reject LRT. I think it irks people that have bought homes in places that are poorly served by transit that the inner city should get any investment or improvement. I didn't move to my house in an inner ring suburb and covet the homes of those who have less traffic, a garage, a double wide driveway, and extra wide street separating me from my neigbours. That works for some people and that is great for them. However, I think it bothers some people to see large home value increases in parts of the old city that they would never consider for themselves because those neigbourhoods are too hostile to their personal car-centric lifestyle choices. The province building an LRT would level the playing field too much for some people. Imagine if someone else's property goes up 8% and mine only goes up 6%... the horror;)

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 17:04:12 in reply to Comment 104712

Absolutely it is. Why do you think guys like Clark and Dreschel wouldn't dare question the costs of the Red Hill or several km of huge new roads currently being built across farmland in Stoney Creek/E Mountain? Those areas 'deserve' the investment. Code red doesn't. Plain and simple.

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By Because (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 16:55:42 in reply to Comment 104712

I hope not too, but I think that might be the thinking behind rejecting LRT. Don't we often hear, "how will the LRT benefit anyone outside the core?" as though people living in the core are unworthy of improvements in their neighbourhoods.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 22, 2014 at 15:48:16 in reply to Comment 104701

That, actually, is exactly the discussion we need to have. A friend of mine complained about how the LRT discussion is classist and it's just about a bunch of middle-class yuppies wanting to make the city look more like Portland... and it occurred to me that he's exactly right.

It's all about class. Specifically, it's about getting the middle-class into transit. Buses, right now, are for two kinds of people:

  • Folks who have no better option, and
  • Folks who are ideologically committed to the bus.

Fundamentally, the LRT is about making transit palatable to the middle class. Shunting poor people and teenagers and the disabled and hippies around is a problem that's solved by buses, but people who have a real alternative are obviously not taking the bus. Bus travel is slow and miserable, while cars are fast and comfortable. You might be able to sell bus travel to the middle-class for a short segment of a trip, but taking it end-to-end is apparently something they're not willing to do.

By getting the middle class onto transit, it allows the core to serve people who are traveling by transit. Serve them with the higher density by eliminating seas of parking, higher frequency bus-service away from the LRT transit hubs, and so on, pulling the city into human scale. Once there's a good alternative to driving then traffic calming becomes palatable.

This also lets us make the city sustainable instead of depending on carbon-emitting finite-resource-consuming combustion engines. I know a lot of folks roll their eyes when talking about global warming, but I know one day my grand-kids are going to ask me why the heck we didn't do anything about it, and I'd like to have an answer "we tried". This is doing something - more than recycling and carbon credits and turning off your lights for an hour once a year.

And there are two ways to get middle class people onto transit. The first one is to push people out of their cars by making cars suck, through taxes and regulations and street-design and a true "war on cars" to make car-travel suck as much as the bus. Obviously, that's unpalatable to the electorate and also kind of economically dumb. The other is to give people a good alternative to cars.

Hence, LRT.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2014-09-22 15:53:16

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By dsafire (registered) - website | Posted September 23, 2014 at 08:49:19 in reply to Comment 104704

Hear! Hear!

Since moving to Hamilton I've been baffled by the car culture which has convinced the middle class that transit use is bad and "only losers ride the bus". Had the argument over and over with co-workers and friends. I have an acquaintance who is homeless and living at the YWCA who insists that she absolutely NEEDS her clunker of a car and complains that she cant park it anywhere downtown (she says the pay lots near there don't allow 24 hr parking?!?!?). It's completely illogical.

If you do the math, including gas, maintenance and parking costs, a monthly bus pass is about half the price.

The hope for me in LRT is that when it gets built, the novelty will get people to try transit again. And if it's done right, they'll like it, they'll use it. They'll leave the cars for weekend use which will ease the traffic loads and make it easier for everyone to get around.

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By jorvay (registered) | Posted September 24, 2014 at 09:50:32 in reply to Comment 104731

Do that math again. I live downtown and pay a good 4+ times the cost of a bus pas just in gas and insurance (insurance is extremely expensive if you live downtown, even with a great driving record). To put it another way, the average cost of car ownership is in the range of $6000 to $8000 a year. At the low end, that's about $5000 more than a year of bus passes.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 23, 2014 at 12:18:17 in reply to Comment 104731

I would be sorely disappointed if the savings of a monthly pass represent only 50% savings. Maybe 50% savings over using the car, but I'd expect it to be vastly better once you stop owning the car and paying insurance, for example.

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By Son (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 16:24:58 in reply to Comment 104704

Bravo! Well said.

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By Justin (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 15:43:59

We all want what's best for our city, right? Well then, can those who attack LRT have bona fide intentions after all the evidence? I would submit not.

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By brendansimons (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 15:58:32

The plea for 2-way reversion of Main is an interesting (and ignored) part of the report. The first plan I saw out of the (ex) rapid transit office had bidirectional transit on Main. That route is straighter, wider, would benefit most from transit-oriented development, would affect the least number of parking spaces, and doesn't require the construction of a new bridge! Almost as soon as the suggestion was made, the RT office changed course and baselined King St - saying all of the lanes on Main St were still needed.

I am not calling for a redo of Rapid Ready, or the King St corridor study. We have spent more than enough money, and we need to get on with construction already (either corridor). But one wonders what went on in back rooms, when the most cost-effective solution is kiboshed, and then the replacement is criticised for being expensive and disruptive!

Comment edited by brendansimons on 2014-09-22 16:08:21

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 16:50:10 in reply to Comment 104707

I agree. Everything that can be said has been said. It is time to stop talking and start building before the rest of the world leaves us in the dust.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 20:18:13

"...with crush capacity on express buses and frequent "pass-bys" as overstuffed buses fail to stop for waiting passengers."

This poster from New York expresses my feelings precisely:


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By dsafire (registered) - website | Posted September 23, 2014 at 08:55:57 in reply to Comment 104719

Hahah thats the 4/5/6 line, on Manhattan's west side. It's brutal. We call it the "Cattle Cars" for a reason. But they're working on the East Side line again now.

8.5 miles. $17 Billion. Expected to serve about 560,000 daily riders*. And we're all cheering the tunnel borers on. Well, except the shopowners on the stretches that are cut-and-cover construction.

*Edited to add cite: http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/the-next...

Comment edited by dsafire on 2014-09-23 08:58:19

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By bullethead (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 07:33:26

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted September 23, 2014 at 13:29:41 in reply to Comment 104724

Don't mistake putting up with trolls who endlessly spew ignorant crap as believing in a "silver bullet." The stance at RTH has been fighting lies, falsehoods and intimations with real research. However once these well researched facts have exhausted the "talking point FUD" the trolls start to make ad hominem attacks. I don't know where the guys (Nick or Ryan etc.) that post their well researched articles find the patience to deal with these attacks.

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By Palipot (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 07:53:21

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By blah (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 09:15:16 in reply to Comment 104726


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By Starbuck (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 09:05:39 in reply to Comment 104726

They should consider a name change from "Raise the Hammer" to "Raise our Taxes", exponentially, I might add!

Reading some of the comments on this site amazes me at the lack of knowledge, or complete disregard, as to how much this project will cost the taxpayers of this city and province.

I’m for downtown revitalization, however not at a time when we cannot afford to maintain our current infrastructure needs. Ryan and friends either forget, or intentionally look over the fact that both Moody’s as well as Standard and Poor’s has downgraded Ontario’s credit rating: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/poli...


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By redmike (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 21:12:56 in reply to Comment 104736

you have a very limited understanding of how real money works dont you? so sad.

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By jeffzuk (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 13:12:37 in reply to Comment 104736

This debate shouldn't get so personal. LRT / BRT / enhanced transit is a tried-and-true enhancement for city development. It's fair to argue we can't afford it, but I hope you're the first person to also say we can't afford such city-developing projects as Tim Hortons Field and Aerotropolis.

There's an article in today's Globe & Mail trumpeting the developing innovation hub in downtown Toronto:

John Arnoldi, the executive managing director, Toronto region, for Colliers International, points to four different reasons why the south core area is becoming such a viable option for companies doing business in so many different areas – new building technology, availability of Class A space, a labour pool that wants to live and work in the same area, and the diminishment of the physical east-west barriers presented by both the railway tracks and the Gardiner Expressway farther south.

A labour pool that wants to live and work in the same area. Intelligent urban planning. This isn't news. It's happening all over.

Comment edited by jeff on 2014-09-23 13:13:10

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By Starbuck (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 15:27:50 in reply to Comment 104764

The name change suggestion, if that is what you mean by things getting personal, isn't personal at all. That is what RTH is advocating in relation to LRT, is it not? Again, this blog is not being straight with regards to the costs associated with the infastrucutre costs on the initial build, as well as the ongoing operational costs. LRT, according to the mac report, "found LRT has the potential to succeed in Hamilton, but cautioned it would be a long, challenging and costly process"!

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 15:40:19 in reply to Comment 104768

That is not a quote from the report. It is a quote from Dreschel's interpretation of what the report says!

Here is the actual report


which cites the main obstacles to achieving LRT's development boosting potential as the lack of congestion and the high speed one way arterials, which discourage walking and urban development. The fixes proposed in this report are relatively simple:

"Planners and policymakers should first consider addressing the current shortcomings identified in the literature by improving near-term economic, social, and physical conditions in the downtown core and prospective station areas as well as making travel by personal automobile less attractive. This can include solutions that are potentially more cost-effective, such as streetscape improvements and traffic calming through the conversion of the city’s one-way arterials back to two-way traffic."

This report does not dispute the Rapid Ready report which found the LRT will actually make a profit of 75 cents per passenger which can be used to off-set the costs of the entire HSR system. In terms of operational costs, LRT is far cheaper than buses, even if the capital cost (the vast majority of which would be covered by province) would be higher.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-09-23 15:43:56

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 09:23:05 in reply to Comment 104736

Yes, no one on RTH has ever been mindful of the public purse

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 20:31:15 in reply to Comment 104742

The #1 item of Ontario government spending is health-care, at $44.77 billion in 2010-11 or 40.3% of total provincial spending

A very large percentage of this health-care spending is due to treating people who are injured or dying because they were poisoned by motorists. These costs come to $511 million every year in Hamilton and a whopping $2.2 billion per year in Toronto.

Anyone who is a real fiscal conservative realizes that the way to save big money is to mode shift away from car driving and towards walking, cycling and public transit using methods that have a proven track record of success.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2014-09-23 20:34:05

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By DissenterOfThings (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 09:17:11 in reply to Comment 104736

Those taxes, provincially are all but spent. Do you want to get in on the spending or not?

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 08:39:47

I would be disheartened to think that the province is making generational infrastructure investments based on the whims of current municipal councils during an election cycle, but on the off-chance that they are, can we not all clam up and trust them to decipher Rapid Ready?

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By NoSugarAdded (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 09:57:19

This is typical Hamilton. We do this all the time. A project will is a “magic bullet for Hamilton” and “save the city” when it is only a small part of helping the city along. When they built Copp’s they said it will change the downtown. It did, but only a little bit. The problem is that when they start a magic bullet project, they should be well on the way towards the next project and have plans for further “magic bullet” projects. It is positive momentum that is the “magic bullet for Hamilton” not any one project no matter how much money is spent.

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By Starbuck (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 10:57:55 in reply to Comment 104746

Thank you! additionally projects require money. Since there is no interest from the private sector, are we willing to raise property taxes to accommodate these grandiose ideas?

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By redmike (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 21:11:38 in reply to Comment 104751

yes, yes we are.

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By Fool (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 21:44:21 in reply to Comment 104779

Well, that's why you don't run the city.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 11:49:14 in reply to Comment 104751

To make a private sector analogy, your perspective on urban governance is a bit like a successful company that fails to reinvest in new machinery or facilities to improve product quality and reduce units costs ... very profitable for a while, but eventually hopelessly uncompetitive. We are struggling to maintain our infrastructure in Hamilton, because we insist on maintaining as it is rather than investing in next generation infrastructural systems. LRT is perhaps the centerpiece in a suite of changes being proposed to give us better infrastructure to be successful and prosperous in the future. Look at life-cycle costs of infrastructure, not just the upfront capital costs. You also need to compare the cost of inaction, i.e. maintaining the status quo, with the alternatives being proposed. LRT is also not comparable to Copps or Timbit Field. Different kind of city-building all together.

Comment edited by RobF on 2014-09-23 11:51:48

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 11:36:50 in reply to Comment 104751

Tax increment financing is one approach: the public infrastructure investment leads to increased tax revenue from new private development along the line. This new development also leads to new jobs and businesses, which generate revenue. Instead of "raising tax rates" the city borrows against future increased tax revenue from new development. It is very commonly used in the USA.

By the way, there is also "no interest from the private sector" in building and maintaining Hamilton's roads, public housing, its water and sewage system or most other municipal services. Maybe we should be consistent in our spending, and decide to stop spending tax dollars on any public services. For example instead of spending up to $100 million in city revenues per year on roads, why not charge motorists directly for snow removal, road construction and repair, traffic policing instead of paying them out of property taxes? Maybe each street could be sold to the adjacent property owners, who would be responsible for maintenance and would be allowed to charge motorists to use it (via gps)? This is actually how roads were financed in the past ...

And maybe if motorists paid a toll and various direct user fees, the private sector would be interested in building and running LRT, just like they did in the days of Hamilton's streetcars...it might level the playing field a bit.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 11:59:08 in reply to Comment 104755

I don't think going back to the days of exclusive franchise, which is what made street railways attractive to private investors in the early 20th century, is a palatable choice. We had good reasons to make transit a public service.

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By DissenterOfThings (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 11:31:43 in reply to Comment 104751

You're missing the point

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By z jones (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 11:47:21 in reply to Comment 104754

You're avoiding the point


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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 21:45:24 in reply to Comment 104757

You're dodging the point


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By NoSugarAdded (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 10:01:29

I took Public Administration and Governance from Ryerson years ago and one of the first things we where taught is that politicians do not like good long term planning. You can give them a plan that is tough in the beginning but in 20 years the roads will be paved in gold. And there answer back would be “how does that get me elected/re-elected in the next election”. They usually work on a 4 year cycle based on how to get re-elected. This fits well in Brad Clark’s program. Tell them that they will save money now but I may not be here when the high bills need to be paid. Beside he can always blame someone else.

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