The votes have all been counted and I think all the signs are gone now. Life has returned to normal. So what did the municipal election mean for Kitchener? In this post, I’ll take a look at the results for the Region of Waterloo.
The issue of the election: Light Rail Transit
The election seemed to be all about light rapid transit–and it experienced a very rough ride. For many voters, they just started paying attention to the proposal when the federal government announced its contribution to the project just before Labour Day when municipal elections typically begin to ramp up. They were clearly upset about what they learned especially the so-called “shortfall” in funding from the senior levels of government especially since they understood it meant a significant tax increase. Opponents used these financial concerns to try to kill the light rail option and replace it with an alternative.
Voters just tuning into the debate wondered why we were even having a debate about rapid transit. Some of the questions repeatedly asked were: Weren’t we better suited for buses? Shouldn’t we make our current bus system better first? Why would we return to “streetcars”? Why are we doing it now? Why don’t we wait until we’re big enough?
The dissatisfaction with the LRT proposal did not translate to any significant changes in the makeup of regional council. In Kitchener, all four incumbents (including the Mayor of Kitchener) were re-elected. A pattern that was repeated in both Cambridge and Waterloo.
LRT opposition noticeable in results
But the anti-LRT vote was still noticeable in the results. The only new councillor is Geoff Lorentz who combined his strong name recognition with an anti-LRT platform to finish third. DaSilva, Satnik and Porritt who came 5th, 6th and 7th were all opposed to the region’s preferred option too. Jason Hammond who strongly supported LRT came in 8th close behind Porritt (who also got some pro-LRT votes) and within arm’s reach of Satnik.
Digging a little deeper reveals that Wideman went from fourth last time to second while Haalboom fell from second to fourth. I think that Wideman’s questioning of LRT as the preferred choice and his desire to actively look again at BRT contributed to his increase. Haalboom’s pro-LRT position likely cost her some votes but I think her highly publicized declaration that we should spend less on pipes, police and pavement and more on the arts, culture and heritage caused more damage—losing the votes of police officers, those who equate policing with keeping our community safe from crime and those with an unquestioned love affair with the automobile.
A message has been clearly heard. People are upset by what they know about the LRT proposal–or at least what they think that they know. But does that message mean that light rail is dead or on life support? I don’t think so.
Another message was also sent in the election that must be heard. Ken Seiling enjoys a strong region-wide mandate to continue his leadership on this and other related issues. An anti-LRT candidate for Regional Chair might have made waves but we’ll never know since a credible alternative from that camp did not emerge. I read that as an endorsement of the Region’s direction. I also believe that Tom Galloway’s strong first-place finish while backing an affordable LRT plan shows support for this approach as does the re-election of Haalboom. Even Wideman would have been swept aside if opposition to the LRT was as strong enough to send a message that couldn’t be ignored.
Our future will feature light rail trains
I remain optimistic that we’ll see light rapid trains in Waterloo Region in a few years. Here’s why:
- The debate featured hypothetical scenarios about our local contribution and our ability to afford it. I remain confident that the Region of Waterloo can find a combination of options that will make proceeding with rapid transit’s first phase affordable.
- I found much of the opposition (though certainly not all of it) featured a lot of misinformation and a lack of understanding of the context of the proposal. An opportunity now exists to correct misinformation such as that the LRT was at the expense of a better traditional public transit using buses when the Region’s information clearly shows that improvements to Grand River Transit are integral to the LRT proposal. We can also now look at rapid transit within the context of the larger growth management issues that we face. For example, deciding against investing in light rail does not save any great sums of money since we’ll need to spend it to build and expand roads and other infrastructure to handle growth that will increasingly be widespread.
- Chair Ken Seiling and the vast majority of Regional Council were around the table the first time a decision needed to be made to endorse light rail as the preferred option. They know the facts and understand the context. I expect they will make the same decision again but not lightly or quickly. I am confident they will only do so if they have an affordable, responsible option to support. I am also confident that support for the proposal will increase as people understand the facts as expertly articulated by Jeffrey Casello in the latter stages of the election.
The decision on the future of light rail cannot be made in isolation from the big picture. Failure to move ahead with light rail could mean rethinking the Region’s official plan, growth management strategy and transportation master plan and affect our ability to handle the implications of the Province’s Places to Grow agenda. So while we need to listen to the message sent by voters, how we respond may be different than what politicians were hearing in the heat of a campaign. We elect politicians to make the best informed decisions that are in our best interest both today and tomorrow and that is what I expect to happen.
Note: As my focus is on Kitchener, I have not addressed here the comments made this week by members of Waterloo City Council. I would suggest though that if you haven’t already read it that you read today’s editorial in The Record that recommends how we move forward with making decisions on light rail, rapid transit and transportation.
This post has been cross-posted on the Wonderful Waterloo forum.