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Merchants celebrate new LRT plan

by Meredith MacLeod

Downtown merchants are relieved a future light-rail transit line won’t mean the end of car traffic along a busy stretch of King Street.

The plans to bring tracks to Hamilton no longer include two-way vehicle traffic on King and Main streets or the closure of King between Wellington and Mary streets to all but transit vehicles.

The original plan met with strong opposition from downtown business people and was scrapped by the city after consultations with merchants and further engineering studies of the downtown corridor. The decision is a major reversal to the plan the city has been trumpeting for the past year.

“It would have been devastating for the area,” said Wolfgang Schoen, owner of the Black Forest Inn, a King Street landmark for 45 years.

“The worst thing in the world would have been to close King Street. I would normally be for two-way traffic, but along here it’s too narrow. It wouldn’t have worked.”

But Schoen says he’d rather see streetcars operating in the same lane as cars than LRT lines running separately. He said that would slow traffic down and make King more of a destination-geared street than a thoroughfare through the downtown.

Both the International Village BIA and the Downtown Hamilton BIA expressed their opposition to the initial LRT plans. Individual merchants also made their views known during formal and informal meeting with city officials.

“They’ve come here on a few occasions,” said Schoen. “They listened and maybe they’re on the right track.”

The city’s previous plan, the basis of regional transit authority Metrolinx’s benefits case analysis into LRT versus bus rapid transit for Hamilton, called for two-way rubber-wheeled traffic in single lanes for the majority of the 16-kilometre route, with two lanes in each direction at the westerly and easterly ends where streets are wider.

But director of rapid transit Jill Stephen says there was opposition to two-way conversion in the core and engineering realities made it unrealistic.

Stephen says the desired cross section of two-way car traffic, two-way LRT tracks with a centre platform, a single parking/loading lane and sidewalks wide enough for urban Braille requires about 26 metres. King Street in stretches of the core is much narrower and at Sherman Avenue, it is less than 20 metres wide.

Susan Braithwaite, executive director of the International Village BIA, says the BIA is pleased about the city’s new plan. The previous proposal would have made it very difficult for businesses to draw customers or load and unload and would have cut off access to underground parking for tenants in the Terraces on King.

She says while it might seem the city should have realized that the initial proposal would not work, it’s all part of the process to bring a vision to life. “We were presented with a grand idea and then they work to the reality of it … It’s not that we’re against LRT or think it’s not a wonderful thing for Hamilton but it has an impact on our businesses. It didn’t seem realistic but we’re really pleased they’re hearing the concerns of the businesses in the area.”

Mayor Bob Bratina, who used to represent the affected downtown Ward 2 as a councillor, said the move is a good one. “When I looked at the (previous) plans, I couldn’t see how you could do it. It’s expensive to expropriate property and reconfigure streets. It doesn’t make sense. But you have to start somewhere. You draw lines on a map and when you go from 30,000 feet to street level, sometimes it changes.”

BIA members continue to be very concerned about the construction of LRT, Braithwaite says. “There are several small businesses that are barely getting by. The prospect of construction is daunting.”

Some still think the entire project, estimated to cost somewhere around $800 million, should be scrapped.

Steven Waxman, owner of Waxy’s Deli and a mayoral candidate this year, says LRT is a luxury but not a necessity.

“I don’t think we can afford it. We don’t have the money for it. Are we ready for it, this city? We should use the money to fix up the downtown and the water mains that keep bursting.”