As soon as I read Peter Shawn Taylor’s most recent column in The Record as part of his ongoing campaign against light rail transit (LRT), I knew I needed to respond. What follows is the first of a two part response where I directly rebut some of his points and lay out why our future depends upon light rail transit.

Failure to understand Waterloo Region

In his column, Taylor displays a failure to understand the innovative, barn-raising spirit of the community where he lives. If we had followed like-minded thinkers in the past, where would we be today?

  • Build a University in a farmer’s field? Aren’t Western, Queen’s and the University of Toronto, good enough?
  • Build an expressway? We don’t have enough cars or people to need an expressway and it’ll be years before we do.
  • Build a hand held device that receives e-mail? Who needs to receive email wherever they go? No one!
  • Build a mall downtown. Who needs the old Kitchener City Hall anymore? (Well, we’re not perfect.)

You get the idea.

Harper government buying votes? Not here.

Taylor accuses the Harper government of buying votes by supporting rapid transit with federal money. But there’s no comparison to paying 45% of a rink to house a professional hockey team as was proposed and paying 1/3 of the costs of our rapid transit plan. Taylor suggests that the perception is different depending upon where one lives but I’d suggest it depends upon the rapid transit project being funded. I don’t expect Taylor to say no to federal money to fund his preferred bus rapid transit (BRT) option.

He seems shocked that other large urban centres like Hamilton, Winnipeg and Quebec City may also then want federal funds for rapid transit. If it has been identified as a local priority and there is a case to be made for it as there has been in Waterloo Region, why shouldn’t they be supported especially if they also have contributions from both the provincial and local levels? Sure, the federal government is cash strapped but it still has billions of dollars and it’s a legitimate decision to spend it on rapid transit instead of on new fighter jets for example.

Putting words into the mouth of national affairs columnist Paul Wells

In his column, Taylor indicates that even an infrastructure empire-builder like (a noted national affairs columnist) considers our LRT plan to be questionable. When I looked into this comment, I found that is not what Wells said. What he says is that according to Peter Shawn Taylor the project is questionable. So in essence, Taylor is quoting himself! Wells’ comments are built entirely upon Taylor’s foundation. When contacted, Paul Wells indicated that he didn’t presume to be an expert on the transit needs of Waterloo Region. Wells does make good points though that we also need to improve our transit connections to other cities–but that’s a whole other debate.

Need for an improved public transit throughout Region of Waterloo

There’s one other common refrain that keeps coming up in the rapid transit debate that I’d like to address here: that our current state of public transit needs to be improved. While GRT has made great strides in improving its service, there is still plenty of room for improvement. The LRT plan addresses that need by including enhancements to our traditional public transit by better moving people around using buses. The LRT will be like the heart of the new system with new improved major veins connecting to it. I hold out hope that the full network of veins is improved so that even folks who live in underserviced suburban areas can get service and frequently enough to choose to use public transit. While money to the LRT may seem to make that less likely, I believe it increases the chances of those improvements because as demand to use public transit increases, pressure will build to meet it and increased use should translate into being able to afford a higher overall level of service.

Watch for the second part of my response soon!

5 thoughts on “Light rail transit is the responsible choice – Part 1

  1. There’s one thing that you need to take into account for. As a homeowner in Kitchener, and with family owning property around the the region, I can tell you that I for one, don’t want to be paying the cost for LRT. Yeah it’d be nice to have, but is it necessary? No. GRT is doing a fine job, we just need more routes and increased time on certain routes.

    LRT is a lot more expensive than it would appear (to me) you think it does, equating it to building a university, or an expressway. Let’s assume that for the moment, a route from north waterloo to downtown Cambridge is roughly 30 kilometers away (slightly less at about 29.5 km but let’s play with round numbers). Let’s also assume it will only be above ground, and we won’t be tunnelling and that we can find some magical route where the city owns a contiguous block of land (thereby not having to buy land off home owners) and there is nothing built on them (so we avoid having to spend money demolishing whatever it is). Perfect world.

    Per kilometer in urban areas, costs for LRT can rise as high as $50 million per kilometer, or as low as about $30 million per kilometer on average. Let’s just strike a nice balance between and call it $40 million. Pulling out the calculator I see that 30 kilometers of LRT rail system will cost approximately $1.2 billion. This of course, assumes that everything stays on schedule, and again, we don’t have to go buying property and demolishing buildings.

    Let’s say we had to demolish just one building, let’s say at Columbia and Lexington in Waterloo, the old La-z-boy plant. To demolish that building will cost around $5 million (not to mention compensation for relocating the cellular tower, but let’s assume that’s not there). That doesn’t even take into account the cost to purchase that property. I can easily see an LRT line stretching 30 km in this city costing in excess of $4 billion. Even if you stretch that out over 5 years, that’s still $500 million we don’t have right now, let alone for every year for the next 5 years (maybe longer, these things rarely keep to schedules if other jurisdictions are any indication).

    Now let’s do the same calculations with bus service. The infrastructure is already there, so no (immediate) need to build new roadways (contingent on people actually taking the new public transit so some of them stop driving and clogging up the roadways). Costs approximately $2.20 per kilometer to operate a bus. That’s one route, let’s say it’s an hour long, taking approximately $70 to operate. In that $2.20 we have the driver’s wage, average maintenance costs, etc., all told. Let’s now say we need to add an average of 6 busses per route, 10 new routes, running 12 hours a day. That’s $43,200 of additional costs, per day. Now let’s scale that up, assuming the same schedules year round (it will actually be less than this, but nevertheless let’s keep it simple) and we have $15.77 million in additional operating costs per year.

    $15.77 million per year, in comparison to $500 million + operating expenses for 5 years, then operating expenses after that? I don’t know what operating expenses will be on LRT, so I make no claims about that. To me, as a tax payer in KW, I don’t want to pay for LRT, and I won’t vote for someone who does.

    1. Thanks for your comments Jeremy. I believe that your estimates are in line with the information that I have seen on the Region’s rapid transit website. It is for that reason that I understand they have chosen to take a staged approach with light rail along the portion of the route where it can have the greatest immediate impact. It can then be extended in subsequent phases when it is both affordable and responsible to do so. For more on my thoughts on why we need to get started with light rail and how we can afford it responsibly, please see part two of my post that is now online.

    2. There’s no indication that many, or even any buildings would need to be demolished for LRT. Its route is on streets and rail rights-of-way.

      Your entire argument falls apart if you consider the transportation needs of the Region 10 or 20 years down the line. Buses will not be able to handle the demand along the core, and neither would we be able to get away without building new transportation infrastructure of some kind.

      I’ve written about that in a few places.

      1. Thanks Michael! I encourage everyone interested in this issue to read your posts where you outline how the limitations of BRT and how LRT is clearly superior in meeting our long term needs.

  2. Oh and one thing I forgot to note, underground LRT systems typically cost between $130 million and $160 million per kilometer. They’re also not cheap. You can do the math given the formulas I was using above. The numbers are absolutely staggering.

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