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CITY FILE | The Roads to Nowhere

It’s time to be brutally honest with ourselves. Hamilton needs to go on a road diet

By Sean Burak

Summer in Hamilton: Hiking the Bruce Trail; cycling along the waterfront; barbecuing in the back yard; tolerating road construction. As we plunge head-first into the heat of the season, perhaps it’s time to perform a cost-benefit analysis of the large-scale infrastructure projects on the horizon.

Long-time residents of Hamilton know that this is an easy city to drive through. Main Street can whisk us from the 403 to the Red Hill Valley in under 15 minutes. Trying to cover the same nine kilometres in Toronto — from the DVP to High Park for example — would more than double this drive time.

This efficiency comes at a price, however. Maintaining our current infrastructure is expensive. Our 2013 budget allocated $102,840,000 to roads. That’s over 40 percent of the capital costs for the entire city. Of this, $77 million is for rehabilitation of our current road infrastructure while $25 million represents growth-related expenditure. This means that over 30 percent of our 2013 capital budget is going to be spent on maintaining the roads we’ve already built.

How can we afford to maintain this “efficient” road network? To put it bluntly, we can’t. The city budget itself spells out the precise problem with our current system: “One of the most significant infrastructure deficits for the City resides in the roads program. The City has a maintenance and rebuild backlog of approximately $1.2 billion. Annually, the City should be spending approximately $179 million on road and bridge repair.”

In order to simply keep up with our current infrastructure needs, we would have to spend more than double what we have budgeted. If we kept all other expenditures fixed, our $252 million budget would balloon to $354 million if we planned for all required road rehabilitation — a 40 percent increase. Every year that we are under-budget, the expenses climb. Meanwhile, in March, the city unveiled plans for an $18 million roadway at the top of the Red Hill Valley Parkway. And if this isn’t scary enough, our 2009 Urban Official Plan contains a 12-page appendix of future road widenings.

Raising taxes to cover the $100 million shortfall is clearly not an option. So that leaves us with two solutions: 1. Increase the number of taxpaying residents and businesses without building more road infrastructure and 2. Decrease the costs of maintenance of the roads we already have.

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution which can accomplish both of these goals. “Road diet” refers to the process of analyzing a roadway and reducing its lanes to match the actual required capacity. The most common form of road diet is taking a four-lane road and reducing it to one lane in each direction with a centre turn lane. The space saved is reclaimed for widened sidewalks, planting strips, bike lanes and curb parking.

San Francisco Transportation Engineer Mike Sallaberry told streetfilms.org, “It’s a way to reallocate space so the street performs more efficiently. And it also allows spaces to be allocated for bicycle/ pedestrian measures. As a motorist, you have fewer lane changes and you now have a dedicated left turn pocket, so when you want to make a left turn, you have the space to do that and you don’t feel any pressure from behind to hurry up. And that improves safety for the motorist and pedestrians who are crossing the crosswalks.”

It seems counterintuitive that fewer lanes can create a more efficient street. But road diets have proven to be very successful on streets that carry fewer than 20,000 vehicles per day. They are also affordable. San Francisco has implemented over 50 and they add four-to-six road diets a year to their network. Changing a mile of road costs about $50,000. In infrastructure terms, that’s a bargain.

Road diets also have spinoff benefits that Hamilton cannot afford to ignore. By creating space for pedestrians, cyclists, turning and parking, businesses along these newly reconfigured roads see more customers. The road diet concept puts the needs of those who live, work and shop along the street above the desires of those who simply drive through at high speeds. Sallaberry, again: “We went from four to three lanes with bike lanes [...] and, after one year, we found that the number of cyclists increased by about 140 percent. And we were finding that the merchants along the roadway were actually very open to the idea of keeping the road diet.” In short, these changes can attract more taxpayers to help spread the infrastructure burden.

Reducing the square footage of vehicular travel lanes in Hamilton allows us to pick away at the growing infrastructure deficit number in another way — fewer lanes means lower annual maintenance costs. All we have to do is identify the streets that are currently under capacity. It turns out this is an area where Hamilton can really shine. We have many roads that are vastly overbuilt. Observation reveals a significant list of roads with more lanes than necessary. Consider the following recent lane closures: Main West at Caroline, King West at Hess, Claremont access (downbound), King East at Kenilworth, King East near Sherman, King West near Ray, Victoria near the General Hospital. All of these major routes have seen long-term lane reduction. In early June, the entire Queen Street hill was closed to traffic and, after a day or two, our resourceful citizens found alternate routes with no congestion and no mayhem. As all of these projects are completed, will we re-open the excess lanes and add them back to our growing infrastructure deficit?

Beyond observation, we can use traffic data to find even more candidates. The following streets have four lanes yet carry fewer than 20,000 vehicles per day; and this is just a small sample of candidates throughout the city.

Victoria S. of Barton, 8,900; Cannon W. of Sherman, 9,100; Sherman S. of Cannon, 9,900; Bay N. of King, 10,800; Cannon E. of Sherman, 10,800; Wellington S. of Wilson,12,200; Barton E. of Wentworth, 13,700; King E. of Wentworth, 16,400; Cannon W. of Mary, 16,700; Aberdeen E. of Dundurn, 17,200; Wellington S. of Main,17,900; Mohawk E. of Upper James, 18600; James S. of Herkimer, 18,700.

Whenever we take pleasure in the speed with which we can travel through our city, we should consider what this system is costing us — and whether we are willing to sustain a tax increase in order to continue enjoying it. Implementing road diets will not only make Hamilton a better place to live, work and play — it will save us money and move us closer to a sustainable infrastructure budget.