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Look out, Hamilton, says Waterloo. LRT construction is a pain

With 19 kms of roadways torn up, Waterloo's LRT construction offers Hamiltonians a glimpse of the headaches and issues to come when work gets underway here.

It starts with 19 kms of roadways torn up all at once

Driving into Kitchener from Highway 8, on the straight line that is King Street, starts simply enough.

You pass over Sydney Street and Stirling Avenue. You pass optometrist offices and convenience stores. It all goes smoothly until around Cedar Street North. Then, the impacts of LRT construction begin.

It starts slowly at first. The crowds of cars on either side trying to inch onto King Street thicken. Lights go from green to yellow to red without the traffic even moving.

By the time you get downtown, to the point where Kitchener meets Waterloo, cars stand still for long moments. GPS becomes useless. The streetscape is littered with bright orange signs, and workers in safety vests, and the omnipresent sound of drills. Cars try to follow signs, then do U turns and try again.

This is what Hamilton has to look forward to when its LRT construction begins in 2019. And to hear people in the Waterloo region tell it, the impact can't be underestimated. Whether you're a fan of the service or not, construction on Hamilton's $1-billion LRT system along King Street will be a pain.

It looks like a war zone out there is what it is.- Mike Williamson, owner, Central Fresh Market

Mike Williamson knows. He owns Central Fresh Market, a long-time independent grocery store on King Street in Waterloo. He's seen the brunt of the construction on his region's LRT, which is 19 kilometres and due to open in 2017. Construction started in the spring.

Losses in the millions

Williamson says he initially heard that the street would close sometime in the summer. Then one day around Easter, when his freezers were stock with turkeys and hams, the street closed and business dropped "25 to 30 per cent, right away."

Diggers tore up the pavement. Crews whittled the street down to one dirt lane going in one direction. Eventually, crews added a lane going in the other direction. And that's how it's stayed.

Williamson has reduced the hours of some of his 100 staff. His revenue losses are "into the millions" now. He goes out and takes pictures of equipment he says sits untouched for days, lamenting the way the region and its LRT construction consortium, Grandlinq, has organized this.

"It looks like a war zone out there is what it is," he said.

With K-W's LRT construction, crews tore up the entire 19-kilometre stretch. Much of the work is underground infrastructure such as watermains and gas pipelines, said Thomas Schmidt, Waterloo Region's transportation co-ordinator. So it would take too long, and cost too much, to bring contractors in a bit at a time.

Chris Murray, Hamilton's city manager, has said that could also happen in Hamilton.

It's just what you have to do to get to the next stage.- Monica Blais, resident

The method means maximum disturbance along Kitchener-Waterloo's main drag. Brad Noel, a butcher who shops weekly at Central Fresh Market, says he avoids the downtown because of the construction.

'Get ready for the mess'

"It's a pain," he said. "There's no question."

His message to Hamilton? "Just get ready for the mess."

The Downtown Kitchener BIA paints a rosier picture of LRT construction. The key, they say, is to stay positive and let people know that while it takes longer to get downtown, it's not impossible.

The BIA has started incentive programs such as Chits for Charles and Dollars for Duke. It also convinced Kitchener city council to offer more free parking downtown. The BIA has hired downtown ambassadors to walk the streets, directing people to the open stores. One of the issues with construction has been ever-changing signs that some say aren't always accurate.

Linda Jutzi, the BIA's executive director, recommends Hamilton businesses have a plan to weather the storm.

LRT contractors "are working on a super long timeline, whereas the business owners are working on a daily and weekly timeline," she said. "If you're running a café or retail spot, you're trying to staff for the week."

Can't point to businesses closed because of LRT

The BIA can't point to any business casualties. Christine Michaud, manager of community relations, says the owner of a driving school told her he was moving because of LRT. While businesses have closed, Michaud said, 20 new ones have opened.

There are road bumps. Construction in some sections about six months behind. The Waterloo Record reported this week that work to move gas pipelines in 2016 will cost four times the anticipated amount of $406,000.

Overall, LRT skeptics such as Williamson have accepted reality. And supporters, such as gardener Monica Blais, are happy to accept the inconvenience of construction. It's not forever, she said.

"(LRT) is way overdue," said Blais, who lives three blocks from the construction. "We need public transit. We've needed it for 30 years."

Construction "is a bit of a bother," she said. "But it's just what you have to do to get to the next stage."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC