Hamilton has a great case for light rail in population growth and economic development potential. In land use, though, the Aerotropolis decision is our latest embarrassment.
By Meredith Broughton
Published November 15, 2010
Two days after the Airport Employment Growth District was approved in October, I was channel-surfing and caught the word "Hamilton," on what turned out to be an episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin. Arriving midway through the discussion, I went online to view the entire thing.
Among the guests on that show was Jeff Casello, an Associate Professor in the School of Planning and the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Waterloo, giving an introduction to LRT and why Waterloo's case was the strongest in Ontario.
The introduction followed the typical triptych of a light-rail primer:
Their discussion began on land use and how LRT is "a tool to affect how our cities are actually formed," Mr. Casello highlighted again that there's a combination of transportation and land-use policies that are essential in making light rail happen in a city or a region of a half-million people.
Do you want those jobs and those people to be at the edge of town, where a car is the only option for them? Do you want to consume farmland, do we want to have to extend our infrastructure all the way out there? Or do we want them to be in our already developed area?
And the way that you bring them into the already developed area is you give them transportation alternatives, like light rail. So you build a station, you put in infrastructure, you provide amenities, you give economic incentives to the development community, and you say: "This is where we want you to build and this is where we're going to support building."
After a bit more discussion on the Waterloo context (worth a watch), we came to the place where I heard Hamilton mentioned. (And while a Waterloo professor likely would admit a regional bias, remember that their provincial funding has already been committed - all the way back in April.
"Your region's half a million people."
"Hamilton's half a million people. Do they have a good case for the LRT?"
I'm not as familiar with the Hamilton case; I'll say this as a disclaimer before I make the comments. But I think that one thing I struggle with in Hamilton is that when I look at the region of Waterloo, I see growth of 250,000 people [in the next 20 years], I see growth of a lot of jobs, but I see other things.
I see land use policies that say: "This is the boundary outside of which we're not going to allow you to grow." I see infrastructure investments coming into the core. I see the Canada technology triangle, the economic development group in the region of Waterloo, supporting the light rail project because they realize that the kind of jobs that they want to bring to the region of Waterloo are the kind of people who want to use LRT.
When I look at Hamilton and I think: Are the land use controls there? I'm not sure. Are the, is the economic development as strong of a case in Hamilton as it is in Waterloo? I'm not sure. Is the population growth there? I'm not sure.
When did this interview take place? Two days after Council ratified the Airport Economic Growth District (AEGD).
When I look at Hamilton, the city I live in and love, I would definitely invite Mr. Casello to see that population and economic development are equally compelling reasons for light rail in Hamilton, but I can't say much to how we're proceeding with land use.
The city of Hamilton - by the decisions of its councillors, and by extension its people - invests over $200 million into the AEGD. In the meantime, it turns a blind eye to a few significant blocks of downtown - even though those few blocks alone turn off thousands of visitors, commuters, and students every year, and represent millions of dollars lost in tax revenue and jobs not located there.
What incentive do other levels of government have to fund density-producing, corridor-improving light rail if Hamilton has its focus, money, councillors and developers almost exclusively putting their eggs in the "get through town fast, expand on the edges" basket and constant neglect of the core?
When will this city realize it's a city, with valuable rural areas surrounding it, and revel in that identity instead of running away?
I look forward to good things from our newly elected Council, and I think Hamilton is beginning to change their perspective. But will we ever be in a place where they say "the kind of jobs that they want to bring to the region of Hamilton attract the kind of people who want to use LRT"? I don't know, but I sure hope so.
Hamilton has a great case for light rail in population growth and economic development potential. In land use, though, the Aerotropolis decision is our latest embarrassment. I am glad that attitudes are starting to change.
In the meantime, however, when it comes to light rail, I also sure hope two out of three is enough.
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