KW's LRT is up and running — so what can Hamilton learn?

There's lots that Hamilton can learn from Kitchener's light rail transit project, proponents of LRT say.

Waterloo region's LRT started operating late last week

People board an ION LRT train in Waterloo on Friday, June 21, 2019. This was the first day of service for the new transit system. (Carmen Ponciano/CBC)

Years of planning and construction in Waterloo came to fruition Friday when the region's new ION Light Rail Transit (LRT) system launched.

It didn't come easy — or on time — but now that the system is up and running, there's lots that Hamilton could learn from the process, proponents of LRT say.

Ken Seiling is a former regional chair in Waterloo, and he fully admits there will be headaches for Hamilton while navigating through a multi-year planning and construction process.

"I don't think any major infrastructure project comes without construction issues, traffic issues, and business issues," he said.

You have to go way back to 2004 to find the roots of Waterloo's LRT. That's the year the federal and provincial government, along with the region, announced $2.5 million in funding for the Region of Waterloo Growth Management Strategy, which paid for studies and an environmental assessment to move the project forward.

The environmental assessment process began in January 2006. LRT was approved as the preferred technology for the system in 2011, and officials said a couple of years later that the line should be running by 2017 — but that didn't happen.

Construction started in August 2014 in uptown Waterloo, and was delayed several times. But now that the LRT is operational, those delays seem worth it, Seiling said.

"Once [construction] starts, there's going to be criticism and complaints, but you have to just keep pushing on, because there's no turning back," he said.

Officials say LRT construction will bring disruption, but will be worth it in the end. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

The LRT process in Hamilton has been tumultuous at best. The province instituted a seven-month freeze on Metrolinx buying property along the LRT route in 2018, but that was lifted at the end of March — and yet another government commitment to fund LRT came in the latest provincial budget not long after.

The last municipal election was essentially an informal referendum on LRT, with mayor Fred Eisenberger, a staunch LRT supporter, defeating anti-LRT challenger Vito Sgro.

Eisenberger told CBC News that in his eyes, LRT is transforming Kitchener Waterloo and bringing investment along the transit corridor. He's anticipating the same in Hamilton, and visited Waterloo Friday for the launch.

"The fundamental lesson here is it's a difficult journey," Eisenberger said. "[Waterloo] wasn't immune to criticism and naysayers.

"[But] when it's all said and done and people are using it, they wonder why we didn't do this sooner."

Seiling, for his part, says he is "quite astounded" by Hamilton's consternation over its own LRT project — considering the province is funding $1 billion for the transit line.

"It just blows me away," he said. "We'd love to be treated like that.

"We had to do it on our own."

Hamilton's LRT is set to run from McMaster University to Eastgate Square. (City of Hamilton)

Seiling said it will be key for Hamilton to work with BIA's and businesses in the region to mitigate the effects of construction.

He said Waterloo tracked the amount of business closures along its LRT route both before and during LRT construction, and found they were largely the same.

Once cranes were in the air on the LRT route and people could tangibly see the investment, complaints about the project really started to die down, he said. The Region of Waterloo says $2.3 billion has been invested in new construction along the ION route since 2011.

"Once it's up and running, people see the value of it and what it brings to the community," Seiling said.

With files from Kate Bueckert


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