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Light rail transit is the responsible choice – Part 2


Here’s part two of my response to Peter Shawn Taylor’s campaign against light rapid transit. It first appeared in today’s Waterloo Region Record on the op ed page under the title: Light rail is the sensible option. Please share your thoughts at the end of this post.

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If light rail transit (LRT) means a significant tax increase as has been speculated, it won’t happen. Proceeding would be neither affordable nor responsible.

With the federal and provincial contributions to the project now known but coming in lower than hoped, there appears to be growing support for improving our transit system with buses. It is less expensive and we are told it is all that we can afford.

LRT opponents have seized upon the so-called shortfall in an effort to kill trains as the preferred option. While we had high hopes the project would be fully paid by the senior governments, the conventional approach to funding large infrastructure is for each level of government to pay 1/3. We are now looking at paying less than 1/3, so we are better off than is common. People who prefer the bus option conveniently miss mentioning that the federal money is 1/3 of the final price tag up to a maximum of $265 million and decreases if the cost of the project does. If we cut costs, we are not necessarily seeing any significant savings of local tax dollars.

The opponents have found it easy to inflame public opinion by throwing around big numbers and talking about dramatic tax increases. They have also been able to tap into the public perception that buses provide more flexibility while questioning the need for rapid transit. What they do not know or are not saying is that buses means bus rapid transit (BRT) and would likely cost at least 75% of the cost of the staged approach to rapid transit selected by the Region (still big bucks). High costs for the BRT are because it too would mean built infrastructure that is inflexible. You cannot simply put these buses on a different route.

Suddenly, the wheels on the bus option stop going round and round as its affordability also comes into question. And we’re back to talking about if we need rapid transit at all.

Keep in mind that we are not building rapid transit to meet our present day needs. By starting now to greatly improve our transit system, we are solving tomorrow’s problems before they happen. We prevent uncontrolled urban sprawl while we address increased congestion and reduce pollution from too many cars.

If we are to solve these problems though we must choose an option that has the power to transform our cities, transform our cores and transform our behaviours. Our prosperity and proximity to Toronto mean continued dramatic growth. If we want to avoid paving over our famer’s fields and remaining forests, growth must occur in our core areas as outlined by the province’s Places to Grow legislation.

Light rapid trains are not simply the best choice to meet these challenges; they are the only choice that can. Two separate studies commissioned by the Region of Waterloo reached that conclusion because only LRT can be expected to attract the development needed to intensify our cores. It is also the only choice that changes people’s behaviour and gets demographic groups using public transit that do not take buses in great numbers as Andrew Hunt confirms happened in Salt Lake City.

So where does that leave us? We must stick with LRT as our preferred option but we need to be responsible and find a way to make it affordable.

Despite what people concerned about the size of our local contribution say, we can find a way to afford to move forward. Only now when we know the contributions of the federal and provincial governments can we begin to determine how.

Some options that can be considered are:

•             Borrowing – The Region of Waterloo has the capacity to take on debt.

•             Finding private sector partners – An article in the April 2010 edition of Toronto Life outlines the success of private sector involvement in public transit in many other cities.

•             Changing the current plan – We have already shortened the route due to cost considerations, maybe the first phase could use an even shorter LRT route and still achieve our objectives or other elements could be revised.

I trust that experts in public transportation and municipal finance know more about all of the available options. In all likelihood, they will recommend a mix of options.

In conclusion, LRT is the future of transportation in the Region of Waterloo. We must continue to support politicians who agree and urge them to explore every possible option to find an affordable way to make it happen. Proceeding in this manner is the responsible choice—both today and tomorrow.

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5 comments on “Light rail transit is the responsible choice – Part 2

  1. Excellent points James. As much as we hate the cost I believe the cost of not doing it would be too great. Yes, property will have to be purchased but if we don’t install the LRT and stayed in our cars and busses then property would still have to be bought in order to widen roads, enlarge intersections, and possibly build overpasses or underpasses as the region approaches the million person mark in a few decades. We;ve got the ‘spine’ of King St so let’s utilise it to the max with increased density so that most of the suburbs can stay suburban and not end up looking look like mini-downtowns.
    Once people see a funtioning LRT connecting major locations it will have a positve impact on city life and property. Just go to Toronto and check out the how streetcar lines such as the King St line connect the city and the growth along it.
    If it’s not built then the only place you’ll get free parking in 15 years will be the 30 minutes you spend sitting in traffic jams going to and from work.

    • Thanks for your comments Chris! Your comment on parking is already too true. We can already imagine what the congestion will be like if we continue to grow outwards and without the benefit of a LRT backbone for public transit.

  2. Hey James, I agree with you. We might not have all the money to proceed as originally planned, but that doesn’t change the fact that LRT is a sound plan, the right plan for WR. We need to get there eventually – opting to change to the bus-horse mid-stream means that we’ll be that much further away from the right goal. It’s baffling to me that people could be re-thinking the whole LRT plan just because of funding – funding will come. Through one of the suggestions you’ve made, or another solution, or by scaling back and implementing LRT in stages… there are options, and energy is better spent evaluating the options that keep us on the right track, rather than scrapping the plan altogether.

    • Thanks Cari! I read your comment earlier and meant to respond. I agree that we seem to needlessly been drawn into a debate related to funding because until all the alternatives for funding the LRT can be examined and an affordable plan is proposed, we are debating without all the facts. Unfortunately though the federal government announced their contribution just as the municipal election was moving into high gear and didn’t leave enough time for a debate with all of the facts. That’s why I’m trying to say, let’s stick with the plan and find a way to make it work.

  3. There was a letter to the editor in response to this post that was printed as a guest column in the Waterloo Region Record. Here is what Robert Davison of Kitchener thinks: http://news.therecord.com/Opinions/LettertotheEditor/article/790304

    If Davison thinks we have congestion problems now, just wait until we add a couple hundred thousand more residents to Waterloo Region. He’s only going to see more of the bigger and wider roads that he dislikes. The development in the outskirts he also dislikes will continue if we don’t act to stop it.

    Light rail transit attracts development needed to build more residences and workplaces in our cores. That’s a fact. We can pay to attract people to live and work in the core (without a car if they choose) or we can continue spending big bucks on new and/or wider roads and hope they don’t get choked with traffic. The choice is clear to me.

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