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Bob Green Innes,

Hamiltonian by birth & occupation!  

.... seeking to restore values, traditions, institutions, laws and protections Canadians once enjoyed
      .....lost by apathy ..... but stolen nonetheless

Here is the coolest little gizmo I've seen for awhile. If you're too rushed to read, just click the LISTEN button. It's still experimental, so please let me know if I need to fix it! The voice isn't perfect but seems remarkably coherent. Or you can save the mp3 file to listen from your ipod while you're walking or driving. To do this, right click on the button, and save target to your system. Be sure to rename the file with the extension .mp3.

Blog #3. Buses, LRT and streetcars - named Desirable?

Oct 33. Transportation matters - but beware the BS

It matters because it costs a lot and because it determines how cities develop.

Please understand that you're reading the blog of a curmudgeon whose job it is to get in your face a bit when everybody is jumping on a bandwagon. Everybody loves streetcars and its exclusive lane cousin, LRT, even me. They're comfy, solid, cheaper to run (sort of) and last forever. They're quiet, quaint, and there's no pollution, at least at source. What's not to like?

The tracks cost a fortune, that's what. Spending a fortune is, I suppose a good thing when one has made a fortune, but Hamilton has not made a fortune since big Steel started sinking. We should also stop and reflect on the fact that Toronto, despite being able to tap into the province's largess, has not expanded its streetcar system beyond the original 75 miles that has been there since roads were muddy, impassible tracks and cars were unreliable status symbols**. In that situation, rail made sense. It only expanded the subway because taxpayers across Canada were stupid enough to subsidize it. Now many Torontonians are up in arms because the new Mayor Ford talked about scrapping the streetcars.

Hey, if you think I'm being too hard, let me point to a nice gentle blog by Jarrett Walker that treats streetcar enthusiasts more gently. But if you're a bit tougher, I'll try to recap his points:

Overall, I get the impression he is pulling his punch because he consults to the industry and one wants to avoid taking sides or one will never see another assignment. Fair enough. I am going to do the same, not because I need the work but because I often find a way to get what I want and who doesn't want streetcars/LRT!

You might be wondering what he is smoking. Pollution, bogus?? Yes, for the simple reason that if you want pollution free electric, you can get it from a rubber tired electric trolley for a lot less cost than from a streetcar (system). Tracks are the single biggest cost, especialy in northern climates where the foundation must be below the frost line. Torontonians might understand just how costly these things are, with the disruptive trackwork this summer. Streetcars are said to be less costly to run and maintain, and they do indeed last longer. Then why wouldn't every little town not have a streetcar instead of the usual buses? That one word: tracks. This year, Torontonians are (re) discovering that tracks are an ongoing operating expense, so viewed in this light, streetcars may not always be cheaper. Energy consumption too, once the energy of rebuilding the roadway every decade or so is included, may not be as low as people think. Normal roads last a generation or so, with good maintenance, before the whole thing has to be dug right down to the foundation. So, regardless of what you thought when you came here, streetcars are difficult to justify on rational grounds with the possible exception of development. Railroads usually run on raised, well drained gravel beds to handle the foundation/ frost issue.

The development argument is trickier, and because of Hamilton's situation right now, has me a bit stymied. He argues that the apparent evidence suggesting development follows investment in streetcars/LRT ignores other incentives or factors that were put in place either before, or during the streetcar project. Once these are factored out, development does not follow. Several commenters noted actual cases where development did not follow streetcars. It should be obvious that developers are not stupid and will not build unless ALL conditions are right. Therefore, streetcars are not the sole determinant, just one element. Other elements include taxes, inducements, tax free periods, land cost, competitive aspects, prospects for sales or rents, economic climate, regulatory climate, interest rates, etc. etc. There are two consequences of this argument.

One is that some cities have been able, as noted in the link, to tap into the development potential in order to help finance the high cost of the project. One case mentioned a 15% tax (real estate) surcharge on properties along the line. Other cases tap developers directly to put up some of the cost, something like normal development charges. Not only have I not heard anyone mention this as a possibility for Hamilton, I understand Hamilton has kept development charges artificially low for years so as to encourage sprawl and fat profits for those who contribute to politicians' pockets. Nice work if you can get it.

So far, all Hamilton taxpayers got is glowing promises and fat bills.

The other problem though, for me and you, is that we all recognize that Hamilton needs to fix its problem. More development downtown is vital to our recovery. Can one really ignore the appeal of tracks in the face of our distress? Even if an LRT does not by itself bring development, does it not set up the conditions for development to occur?

Well, maybe. Here is where you come in. Are you willing to pay for such a risky investment up front? If the billion is borrowed (what else?), you will pay interest ($10m for every percent of interest - simple calc). If interest rates double as will surely happen before this is all over, you will pay double, or even more if credit ratings are harmed. Will developers overlook that burden? Will the economy support whatever development you are hoping for in the face of higher interest payments? Remember that Portland Oregon, which everyone loves to cite is a 2 million person state capital with lots of economic activity.

Then again, do you even WANT such develpment. Development in a city usually means high rises. Downtown has plenty of empty parking lots that cry out for development but the LRT is supposed to go miles and miles away from the core. When it goes by your neighbourhood, are you willing to see rezoning that allows higher density. Will you accept huge apartments buildings or neighbours' houses duplexed, basement apartments, etc.? Hamiltonians seem to be real stubborn when it comes to their neighbourhood. Some call it NIMBY, not in my backyard. Well, take your choice. Hamiltonians sort of voted for the LRT (by returning most councilors), do you want to pay for it yourself, or do you want higher density development in your neighbourhood to help pay the bill? There's no free lunch - though Trudeau convinced many of us otherwise.

So there you have it. The essential conundrum. Walker's article is a great resource to clarify your thinking. Development is the key that must be sorted out. Should we go for the LRT to attract development, will development actually be attracted and should developers be the ones to profit from the burden the people will carry?

So far, I say NO. At least I say Not now. The time is not right. We are on a downswing, economy wise. A billion sized burden will blow up in our faces as the US enters its inevitable resolution phase and interest rates finally return to normal - providing savers with a real return if you can remember what such a thing feels like!

Hamilton, instead of trying to wave a magic LRT wand, should look to its internal resources - its people - for a way out of its rut. Instead of tying us up in red tape and high taxes, the needed changes should be made so the energies and creativity of the citizens can be released unhindered, can be realized without having to leave town.

The first step I propose in such a venture is to adopt a simple motto, which should become Hamilton's motto: Live and let live.

I ask all individuals to stop paying attention to other people's faults and instead try to contribute something of your own to society. That way, we all benefit and we will see Hamilton rise from the ashes.

Over to you. Comment below - a new feature here.

** In case you might be thinking Toronto did not expand their system because of the hill at the old shore of the ancient Lake Champlain(?) , there is the St. Clair line runnig along the top of the hill.

PS. The reader, if still energized on this subject, might want to attempt a basic risk analysis. I concluded, more or less, that development and intensification should precede the LRT or BRT. What if I am wrong? What are the risks or penalties of this go-slow strategy. Looking at the other side, what are the risks or penalties if the LRT is built and development does NOT follow for whatever reason?

In other words, is it possible that my wrong headedness could forego a triumph of hope? But the word risk comes into it - whose risk? Naturally if developers want to bear all the risk and the profits, I would gladly move heaven and earth, or at least open the city hall door for them. Developers are much better at assessing risk than gummerments and so far, it appears they have assessed that there is not enough opportunity for them to justify the risk.

PPS. Another little morsel for your consideration

The Hiawatha Light-Rail Disaster One of the arguments for light rail is that it is supposed to have lower operating costs than buses. But Minneapolis Hiawatha Light Rail is losing so much money that Hennepin County wants a region-wide sales tax to cover the costs of what Minnesota Governor Pawlenty calls these very expensive transit projects. The feds were subsidizing it with a $10 million grant, but that ended last year.

One lesson is that people are fooled into thinking stuff is cheap just because upper gummerments are paying the initial tab.

Stay tuned for more curmudgeonly thoughts.

Bob Green Innes

****************************************************************************************** Comments

Please forgive the primitive nature of this comment system as being consistent with the meagre technical abilities of your humble scribe. It ain't easy for an old curmudgeon to learn new tricks but just give me time.......

It's a manual system that sends me your comment, which I will then insert into the page. If you know the code for a better system, I'll be glad to upgrade. Thanks.

Please be patient. Hopefully you can check back for your comment or response in the next day or two. Thanks. Bob

Pet Peeves

    * retired Professional Engineer, married, father of 2 including one still in the system.

    * pursuing many interests - partial list below

    * small-c conservative (but not a Harper PC - that's the party of big business!)

    * investigating causes of economic problems, finding troubling trends and possibilities

    * Former candidate, Hamilton East Stoney Creek, FCP, Public System Trustee, Ward 4

Past Blogs

Updated Oct 2010