Light rail delivers investment

LRT is about transforming neighbourhoods, not merely carrying passengers from A to B.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted November 24, 2010 in Essays (Last Updated November 24, 2010)

As the public debate over light rail transit (LRT) in Hamilton heats up, I've noticed a big conceptual difference between people who support the initiative and those who oppose it.

The common sentiment running through opponents is: Why would we spend more than necessary to provide rapid transit? LRT costs three times as much as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to build but won't provide three-times-better transit service.

If moving people were the only - or even the main - objective of a rapid transit system, I would agree completely. I'm as eager as anyone to hold the line on my property tax bill.

The thing is, LRT is only incidentally about moving people around. Its more ambitious purpose is to transform the city's relationship between land use and transportation.

LRT doesn't just get people from here to there and leave everything else static. It provides an anchor around which Hamilton can attract billions of dollars in new private investment - investment into dense, mixed urban uses that make downtown more valuable.

Hamilton is currently stuck in automobile-path dependence. We design our neighbourhoods around the car, which pushes destinations far apart and makes car ownership necessary. High car ownership, in turn, increases pressure to design our neighbourhoods around the car.

LRT breaks us out of that path dependence. Designing neighbourhoods around rapid transit brings many destinations close together and reduces the need to drive everywhere. A family with two cars can give one of them up. A family with one car can leave it at home more often and experience city living at its best.

It's easy to dismiss this as pie-in-the-sky optimism, but we have hard numbers from cities across North America and around the world proving that LRT really does attract the investment Hamilton needs.

When a city builds LRT and streamlines the regulatory investment process inside the area planners call the "transit-oriented development corridor" - a walkable stretch of land about half a kilometre to either side of the line - the return on investment is impressive.

For every dollar the city invests in building LRT, developers invest up to $10. That translates into real, sustained growth in the city's property tax base, and on a building form that makes the most efficient use of public infrastructure - unlike low-density sprawl, which requires kilometres of new roads, water and sewer lines.

Metrolinx, the provincial body co-ordinating rapid transit investment across the GTA and Hamilton, recognizes this. In its Benefits Case Analysis for Hamilton's east-west B-Line, Metrolinx highlighted the value of LRT in increasing investment and boosting economic development.

BRT, in contrast, attracts only minimal private sector investment. While some people argue that LRT is fixed and therefore inflexible, this is actually a strength. It tells developers the city is committed to a long-term investment in urban revitalization.

BRT is just too easy to reroute, reschedule or cancel. At its most full-featured, it's not much cheaper than LRT to build, but has higher per-passenger operating costs. In both cases, it leaves developers unimpressed.

Len Brandup, the transportation director for Kenosha, Wis., put it best: "Streetcars have sex appeal. It resonates with folks. ... Developers don't write cheques for buses."

This helps to explain why the Realtors' Association of Hamilton-Burlington heartily endorsed LRT. As the association stated: "We believe that light rail is one of the best ways to achieve ... revitalization of the downtown core, intensification along main corridors, increased economic development and broadening of the tax base."

As residents, commercial businesses and employers start to cluster around the LRT network, downtown Hamilton starts to transform from a hollowed-out, underinvested pass-through for suburban drivers into a real centre that attracts both investment and people, and generates steadily rising property tax assessments.

Clustering matters. The innovations that will drive tomorrow's economy will grow out of dense networks of well-connected researchers, developers, entrepreneurs and investors sharing and cross-fertilizing ideas. By promoting high-quality density, LRT will help set Hamilton up as a future economic growth node.

Similarly, decades of economic research tells us young, small businesses disproportionately generate tomorrow's jobs - the kinds of businesses created by people seeking the high-quality density that LRT promotes.

Hamilton needs LRT. For too long we have been a city without a centre, and the result is expensive, distributed infrastructure costs carried disproportionately by residential taxpayers.

Even if you never come downtown and have no intention of ever setting foot on LRT, you should still support light rail in Hamilton - if only because a lively, economically healthy downtown means less pressure on your property tax bill.

And who knows: After a few years of watching the core spring back to life, you might even decide to come down and find out what all the excitement is about.

Originally published in the Hamilton Spectator on November 24, 2010