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Light rail a 'once in a lifetime opportunity'

Light rail a 'once in a lifetime opportunity'

The prospect of light-rail transit for Hamilton is about much more than moving people from place to place. For many, it's about moving the city itself.

By Meredith MacLeod

published in the Hamilton Spectator on March 15, 2010

The prospect of light-rail transit for Hamilton is about much more than moving people from place to place.

For many, it's about moving the city itself.

Terry Cooke, former regional chair of Hamilton-Wentworth who now heads the Hamilton Community Foundation, believes light-rail could transform Hamilton.

"This is a once in a generation opportunity to change the city's economic base and land use planning."

It's clear Hamilton city planners and many residents are pinning their hopes for renewal on landing an east-west LRT line from Eastgate to McMaster University.

Business, environmental, neighbourhood and student groups have lined up behind light rail, which was also unanimously approved by city council as the preferred option.

They see LRT as a critical component to bringing people downtown to live, work and spend money, to linking key destinations, to bringing back ailing sections of the core, to enhancing the city's image as a progressive and growing city.

"The history of rail anywhere is that there is overwhelming evidence that you get major development across the corridor," said Don Hull, director of transit for the Hamilton Street Railway.

"It's a primary instigator of economic renewal. There are pros and cons on LRT, but everyone can agree on that."

Real estate agent Colette Cooper is already highlighting the light-rail project in her home listings, including a $479,000 home on King Street in the east end.

"Where I really see the city of Hamilton and properties benefitting is through central Hamilton. There are a lot of homes there that are undervalued," said Cooper.

She has sold homes to a half-dozen young families from Toronto in the last year who were looking for older houses in established neighbourhoods close to transit routes.

Jill Stephen, Hamilton's director of strategic planning, says LRT dovetails perfectly with other city-building initiatives, such as the Pan Am Games, the Gore Park master plan and redevelopment of the west harbourfront.

"Each are great projects on their own but you combine them and there is a greater chance for success. This isn't a transit project but a city-building project, just like the Pan Am Games aren't just about sports but about legacy benefits."

LRT is definitely a better tool for achieving development goals than its rubber-wheeled cousin, says Antonio Paez, an associate professor at McMaster University who studies urban transportation.

Light-rail attracts more diverse ridership, because trains are seen as higher status than buses, he says. In other words, while buses in Hamilton are heavily populated with students, seniors and those who can't afford a car, LRT is expected to land many riders who have a choice about how they travel. It's faster because it's separate from vehicle traffic.

As well, the permanence of rail tracks encourages higher-level investment along routes and beside stations.

Paez lived in Japan, where LRT stations are social and commercial hubs.

"It affects the optics of how it will help downtown Hamilton ... It would be nice to see people want to meet and have fun in the downtown."

But Barry Wellar, a retired University of Ottawa geography professor, says he would give an F to any student who argued that LRT automatically brings economic renewal.

"Light rail does not bring magic. It hasn't happened anywhere in the world."

He says in many cases taxpayers pay for the system and developers and land speculators cash in. All the pieces have to be in place to ensure broad renewal.

That includes drastically containing urban sprawl and allowing higher densities in the transit corridor.