On Friday, I tweeted that my vote for candidates on Regional Council depended upon if they supported light rail transit (LRT). I made it clear that it must be affordable but that we needed to explore every option before considering alternative forms of rapid transit. My declaration clearly resonated as many others resent it (retweeted) to people following them. For me, this statement also covered local Mayors who automatically sit on Regional Council.
Federal announcement seemed to kickstart BRT bandwagon into full gear
I was concerned because I had been hearing a low murmur over the summer that if the federal government didn’t match the provincial contribution of $300 million that rapid transit might mean buses. That noise became a loud roar when the federal government committed on Thursday to contribute up to $265 million depending upon the project’s final price tag. The bus rapid transit (BRT) bandwagon appeared to instantly swell based almost entirely on the fact that it was cheaper and was perceived to be all that we could afford. In part, this reaction seems to have been provoked by the onset of the municipal elections and politicians’ desire to prove that they are open-minded and fiscally responsible–both good traits in an elected or prospective politician. Forgotten was the fact that in the early stages of planning, we always assumed their would be a local contribution to construction as is common with major infrastructure projects.
Lost in the noise was Regional Chair Ken Seiling who showed strong leadership by making it clear that trains remained the Region’s preferred option for rapid transit. With firm numbers now on the table from the provincial and federal governments, he stated that the work could begin on exploring the many options for moving ahead that could lead to an affordable rapid transit plan featuring trains. The noise late last week though was that there was a shortfall of $235 million dollars that would require a significant tax increase that taxpayers would not tolerate. Apparently, we had no other option but to take a new look at buses. In fact, it seemed that BRT was the only responsible option to consider if we were going to take advantage of the money that was already on the table.
Jumping to conclusions
Hold on a second. Aren’t we jumping to conclusions here? Ever since the provincial government made its commitment, we’ve been awaiting the federal government’s own commitment. We sought that information so that we knew how much the senior levels of government were willing to commit so that we could determine how much of the tab was to be picked up locally. We wanted this information before the municipal election so that we could have a debate based upon solid information. We now have 2/3 of the information that we need but not all of it. Unfortunately, the federal announcement while welcome before the campaign heats up does not allow enough time to fully flesh out plans for rapid transit.
What I do know is that knowing what our local contribution could be does not automatically translate into a tax increase. Knowing the difference between what has been committed by the higher levels of government and the full cost of what is proposed is just a starting point for figuring out how we can make LRT happen. Perhaps a tax increase might be a part of the solution but maybe not and we definitely can not afford to fund it entirely by increasing taxes.
Some of the options to consider
On the one hand, I’ll leave it to experts in municipal finance and public transit to figure out how we can still afford to have trains meet our rapid transit needs. But already there are some options that are being floated publicly that deserve to be examined closely that could help the Region’s preferred option move ahead.I would expect that a single solution doesn’t exist and that we’ll need to use a combination. Some of the options are:
- borrowing – I understand that the Region of Waterloo has the capacity to take on debt.
- finding private sector partners – Until recently, this suggestion would have raised red flags for me but I’m open to the possibility after reading a Toronto Life article on the success of private sector involvement in public transit in many other cities.
- looking at revising the plan to reduce costs – For example, we can take a look at how long a route that we can afford to build in phase 1.
- using transit corridor development fees to fund transit as Arlington, Virginia did (as suggested by Darcy Casselman to Jane Mitchell on Twitter)
I’m sure there are other possibilities too that experts can propose and that could be implemented if the political will exists to find a way to make it happen. And that’s where my tweet and its repetition come in. I was afraid that the election was giving regional politicians cold feet about supporting trains as the preferred option for rapid transit. What I wanted to see was more of them come strongly out and state as Seiling did that trains remained our preferred option and that we now had the information we needed to find a way to make it happen. I didn’t want to hear so much talk about the need to look at BRT. If trains are the preferred option, I only want to hear that while a signficant tax increase is unacceptable that we will put all of our time and energy into finding a responsible, affordable way to bring LRT to Waterloo Region and that we would not take a look at alternative modes of transportation until that search had been exhausted. In short, I want to hear that we are commited to determing how to make the LRT plan a reality because it is the right thing to do.
I believe that to ensure the political will exists that we must only support candidates for regional council who are committed to a trains first policy. Buses may be a fallback position but not one that is actively pursued until we have concluded there are no responsible options that make trains affordable.
Why my vote depends upon support for LRT as our preferred option
And it is because I believe so strongly that rapid transit with trains is a must for our region that I will only vote for candidates who clearly agree.
We are on the brink of a historic decision that will shape our communities for decades to come. We can choose between boldly picking an option that will transform our cities, transform our cores and transform people’s behaviours or we can move people around better but lose the benefits of building a community prepared to meet the challenges the future is sure to bring.
When it comes right down to it though, we really don’t have a choice. The Province of Ontario’s Places to Grow Legislation has mandated the intensification of our cores to curb urban sprawl. The cores of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo are all targeted as urban growth centres. At the same time, we’re already bumping into contradictory barriers such as limited parking and too much surface parking. What we need to do is to attract investment that will help to intensify use of our cores by bringing in more people to live and having more jobs in the core that are easily accessible. Only rapid transit featuring trains can spur the development necessary to achieve these results. BRT may improve public transit but its not going to spur development in our cores.
Another key difference is that trains can change behaviours in way that buses never can. A sleek train with a smooth ride can attract new riders to public transit. A more efficient network of buses is only going to better serve its existing customers without growing the types of people using transit. I got a first-hand glimpse into what was possible when I was in Dallas on business in 2009. There’s no comparison.
We keep hearing that buses are more flexible. I guess they are but BRT is not because it requires infrastructure changes that are easily changed or transferred. In addition, I recently learned listening to a CBC radio interview that if BRT is truly rapid that it costs approximately 90-95% of the cost of LRT. If we’re going to make this investment, why would we invest so much if it wasn’t going to prepare our city’s for the growth we anticipate? If we’re going to invest in a better transit system, let’s do it right and put in place trains right from the beginning. We may need to make compromises on the route or some details of implementation but its much better to start with a LRT system that goes through as much of Kitchener-Waterloo as possible now than let costs force us into a lesser option.
… more buses won’t work in the Central Transit Corridor. Already, each direction of King Street between Waterloo and Kitchener sees 12-15 iXpress and Route 7 mainline buses an hour. Which is great for riders now. But when the population and jobs more than double, so will transit ridership — or actually more without road expansion. With buses as they are now, 20-30 buses an hour is essentially the limit. Past that point they bunch together and form jams at busy stops. For them to handle the ridership we would need a bus highway through our downtowns, with passing lanes and level platforms. For most of the cost of an LRT system, it would get us dozens more buses per hour polluting our downtowns with diesel fumes and noise, and would only postpone the capacity issues.
His post (originally printed in the Waterloo Region Record) makes another couple critical contributions to the rapid transit debate. He points out that the plan is not all about trains but that it also includes improvements to the bus routes along major corridors that will help make connections with the LRT. He also reminds us that the question is not whether we need rapid transit today but will we need it in the future. In other words, can we solve tomorrow’s problems before they occur or must we wait until we experience them to seek a solution. By then it may be too late since we’d already be experiencing increased congestion and pollution from exhaust. We would inevitably face pressure to build more and bigger roads and continue to grow into our surrounding farmland.
I will give the last word to Gerry Thompson the former CAO of the Region of Waterloo who eloquently made the case t0 stick with trains as our preferred option for rapid transit. What follows is his letter to the editor that appeared in the Waterloo Region Record on August 11 when many were on vacation and before the federal government indicated its contribution:
I was very pleased to learn that the Province of Ontario has committed $300 million to the proposed Region of Waterloo light rail transit project.
I sometimes sense that we have forgotten the critical role of infrastructure in nation building. In a highly urbanized country like Canada, public transportation systems are important not only to relieve congestion and facilitate the movement of people and goods, but also to drive beneficial urban form and provide the backbone for more compact people-oriented space, emphasizing walking and more healthful styles of life generally.
Light rail transit systems are ideally suited for our medium-sized cities and as complementary systems in our larger cities. Rather than using light rail transit as simply a “Band-Aid” to solve congestion problems, the greatest return on investment in light rail transit accrues when implementation occurs before serious and intractable congestion develops and while there is time remaining to use light rail transit to advantage in shaping urban form.
Bus rapid transit, based on comparative studies and experience, does not anchor investment like light rail transit and consequently does not drive urban form to nearly the same extent.
The federal government should match the province’s commitment. I can think of no better region in which to invest in such a system. Waterloo Region has a uniquely suited urban geography. The project has been rigorously researched. The region is the 10th largest economy in the country and is a leader in manufacturing, finance, education and the development of exportable innovation. What better combination could there be as we look to improve our competiveness and expand and diversify our economy.
Although the implementation of such a system would be subject to public tender, it is also worth noting that Canadian industry has the technology and manufacturing capacity to build the system, and in fact has done so internationally. This should be seen as a strategic investment by the federal government.
One only gets a single opportunity to make a difference on this scale. Bus rapid transit is not the answer. Bus rapid transit would represent a dissipation of resources and the squandering of a unique opportunity for city building.
Implementation of the proposed light rail transit will pay significant ongoing dividends to the region and its provincial and federal partners. Future generations will look back on this decision as historic and I believe that going forward on this project will inspire the aspirations of other similar communities.
G.A. (Gerry) Thompson
Former regional chief administrative officer
Please join with me and clearly indicate to all candidates for Regional Council or to be Mayor of one of our communities that your vote depends upon their support of trains as the preferred option for rapid transit in the Region of Waterloo.
Disclosure: For the record, I should state that I live close enough to a proposed LRT station that it may enhance the value of our property but I assume that could also occur with BRT. I expect any increase to be modest and would not be seen for years into the future. My position would not be any different no matter where I lived in Kitchener. Supporting LRT is supporting good public policy and a better Kitchener which is this blog’s focus.