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LRT case more than numbers

We are confident LRT would bring huge benefits and the potential for positive change to our community.

By Lee Prokaska

Published as an editorial in the Hamilton Spectator on Feb 4, 2010

It is no stretch at all to suggest that if light rail transit is built in Hamilton, existing transit users will eagerly jump aboard. It is equally no stretch to suggest transit use will increase, likely in a substantial way.

Having said that, we must remember that in any discussion of LRT and our city, transit use numbers don't tell the whole story and never will. LRT means more to this city than simply moving people from place to place in a convenient, environment-friendly way.

Other communities have found LRT brings a ripple effect, one that can energize a community, create new and exciting ventures and inject a sense of boldness and hope into a faltering landscape.

There is no doubt Hamilton sorely needs a dose of boldness and hope. LRT has been a catalyst for creative land use and economic and community development in other cities. We are confident LRT would bring huge benefits and the potential for positive change to our community.

Based on the experiences of other communities, we know the potential for economic development along an LRT line is huge, the potential appetite for goods and services incredible. So, too, is the potential for residential development, long known to be one of the crucial elements of any urban rejuvenation strategy.

Critics of LRT point out that most cities with successful light rail have much larger populations than Hamilton. That may be true, but again, numbers don't tell the whole story.

But the story the numbers do tell is not a pessimistic one. A consultants' report into the economics of LRT in our city projected the system would need about 34,000 riders a weekday to break even on operations. The B-line from Eastgate Square to McMaster University -- which is the city's proposed corridor for an LRT line -- affects four of the HSR's major routes. Collectively, those routes add up to 25,000 to 30,000 trips a day. That's not far off the break-even point.

The beauty of the equation is that those 25,000 to 30,000 trips are already there. There's no need to convince those transit users of the benefits of public transit. If we build it, they will come.

The speed, frequency and ease of using LRT cannot help but entice more riders. That will be particularly true in the not-so-distant future, as rising gas prices, environmental concerns and the desire for convenience push more people out of individual vehicles and onto mass transit trains.

It's as if the perfect storm of influences will converge to validate the foresight of developing LRT in Hamilton. For those to whom numbers are critical, it will clearly not be a problem to pick up enough new transit users to hit the break-even mark.

But again, this is not a story of numbers alone. It is a story about freshness, about boldness, about a city poised to reach its full potential. LRT is not, of course, the magic pill that will completely transform our city. No single initiative, change or new project is. But LRT will help form the critical -- and exciting -- spine of rejuvenation, a base on which to build the future of the city.

Editorials are written by members of the editorial board. They represent the position of the newspaper, not necessarily the individual author.