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In 25 years, we'll wonder why we didn't build LRT sooner: mayor

Light rail transit will have growing pains, says Fred Eisenberger. But eventually, everyone will agree that it was long overdue. Not everyone listening to his speech was so sure.

Eisenberger talked up LRT to the crowd of 50 at the Waterfront Centre

Mayor Fred Eisenberger compares Hamilton's LRT project to the Big Dig, a massive Boston transit and highway project, during a breakfast speech on Tuesday. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Light rail transit will have growing pains, but eventually, Hamilton will wonder why it didn't build it 25 years ago.

That was Mayor Fred Eisenberger's message for business leaders during a Canadian Italian Business and Professional Association (CIBPA) breakfast on Tuesday. Eisenberger updated the crowd on LRT, the Pan Am Games, the state of Hamilton's downtown and the city's rising housing prices.

"It'll be like the Big Dig," Eisenberger said, referring to a pricey Boston highway and transit project. "There'll be a lot of upset, but at the end of the day, we'll wonder why we didn't do it 25 years ago."

Eisenberger talked up LRT to the crowd of 50 at the Waterfront Centre. And it's been a common subject in Hamilton this year. 

On May 26, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced $1.2 billion for transit in Hamilton, including $1 billion for an LRT line from McMaster University to the Queenston traffic circle, with a shorter line going to the James North GO station. The rest of the money is for the Centennial GO station. Construction on LRT will start in 2018.

Eisenberger speaks to local Italian business owners. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Not everyone shares Eisenberger's confidence. Jon Jurus of the Investors Group says he doubts there are enough riders for it. He also worries that five years of construction will hurt his business at King and James.

"I came down from Ancaster, and LRT — the $1-billion investment on the line on King Street — isn't going to do anything with the congestion in and around Hamilton," he said. "I would have preferred to see an investment in our roads and highways."

Claudio Andreis, owner of Claudio's Restaurant at Jackson and Catherine, disagreed.

"Anything that moves forward is good," he said. "As long as there's movement, it's always good.

"The city, until now, has been 'do not make any mistakes.' That has been the policy. Do not do anything in case you should make a mistake. Fall and get up is the best way to do things."

Here are other highlights of Eisenberger's talk:

Downtown: 'We're getting there'

The city is still giving incentive grants for downtown developments. The area is drawing condo towers and businesses. "It'll be a while before downtown becomes the downtown everyone wants it to be, which is hustling and bustling, but we're getting there."

Trying to attract foreign business

The Global Hamilton office is aimed at attracting new Canadians to Hamilton, particularly entrepreneurs. Through the project, city staff will get advice from the immigrant community, which "is going to be very, very helpful," he said. The city will also use the Pan Am Games as a chance to connect with other countries.

Pan Am Games: We'll see economic spinoff

Eisenberger says even if ticket sales are lower than expected, the games will bring thousands of spectators to the city, which can't help but have a positive impact.

Housing: 'A little scary'

Eisenberger says housing prices continue upward, and he worries that young families will eventually be priced out of the market. "I'm a realtor from way back and I keep wondering when the bubble is going to burst, and it doesn't burst," he said.

"There is a danger of (prices) going so high that you're leaving a bunch of folks behind. We need to make sure we find that appropriate balance."

Attracting industry: 'Big ones' are rare

The mayor says the city is always trying to attract large industries, although they don't come along very often. The city recently approved the airport employment growth district, a large urban boundary expansion around the airport. The expansion encourages industry to build on green space.

"That could be a great attractor for those wanting an industrial zoning, which is difficult to get these days," he said. 

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