6 Comments

The case for light rail transit


We are about a month away from an expected decision on rapid transit in Waterloo Region. I would like to take this opportunity to summarize the case for choosing light rail, highlight recommended resources for learning more and staying on top of the latest developments and encourage you to make your voice heard.

My perspectives

I have shared in this space my perspectives on why our future depends upon light rail. Rather than repeat myself, I am going to share links to my posts that are most relevant to the decision being made.

First, I’d like to quickly address something I heard at Leadership Waterloo Region’s Conversation Cafe on rapid transit. Ruth Haworth of Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (or as she describes it, the anti-LRT group) was among those who suggested all Waterloo Region required was aBRT (Adapted Bus Rapid Transit) or a souped up version of the current iExpress. I couldn’t believe my ears. Sure it might be an improvement upon our current public transit system but not enough and definitely not for long enough. We’d almost certainly lose our funding from senior levels of government and with it our best chance to significantly upgrade transit, transform our cities and manage growth effectively.

Here’s my posts that I recommend anyone undecided on this issue read:

Recommended perspectives

There are many other voices in favour of light rail. First, I would like to highlight a few recent ones.
A great resource from TVO’s The Agenda:
You may also be interested in this infographic by a local tech firm that makes rapid transit easily digestible and understandable.
Other recommended perspectives are:

Make your voice heard

It’s important that you make your voice heard as part of the rapid transit debate.

Here’s how:

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6 comments on “The case for light rail transit

  1. Hi James and thank you for your post. As you know I am in favour of Rapid Transit. And I agree that Ruth Haworth’s comment lacks vision; I do not agree that LRT is the best solution.

    Cambridge sees other opportunities. I believe that LRT for Kitchener Waterloo is a done deal, but the extension of BRT or aBRT to Cambridge is not desirable. Both LRT (a)BRT are intrusive to the streetscape of our cities, to our businesses, to our traffic and to the environment. Both impose many additional costs now classed as externalities (eg: the $50M rail crossing upgrade at Weber to accommodate displaced traffic on King) and more.
    For about 1/3 to 50% of the cost AeroRail has greater flexibility and it will achieve the goals of ridership and intensification with a possible tourism value. Stations need not be above ground. Docking can be at ground, in parking garages, in malls in purpose-built commercial and retail buildings. And yes abouve ground too. Like older technology systems is proven technology in places like Québec, and Mannheim Germany, Schwebebahn since 1824). All subsystems have been proven (motors, structural cables, doors… fairly simple stuff). Malaysia has this system under construction and it is expected to be complete in ~6-12 mos.

    My bet is that Cambridge will opt for the AeroRail technology over the more expensive LRT or the unwanted aBRT. I believe they see this not only as cost effective and less disruptive to the streetscape, traffic and the environment; but also as visionary, expanding not only to the Ainslie Station but on to Conestoga College at a later time. And also as job creating.

    The public needs to look at this seriously because business and other areas are.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Denis.

      I don’t think anything is a done deal which is why I’m encouraging everyone who supports light rail to make their voice heard. I’m afraid if we don’t the louder voices that doubt the benefits of light rail will prevail.

      I know you like Aerorail but I don’t see putting it in just from KW to Cambridge. I think that we need a plan that will ultimately use the same technology from end to end. I was encouraged to see in today’s Record that there appears to be a more aggressive timeline for the connection to Cambridge.

  2. James you must have seen the below article this morning. Eye catching – thought provoking. Better alternatives need to be considered – Aerorails is deemed to be coming in at 50% less cost to perhaps as low as 33% of the LRT costs. Yet it was not included in the detailed study nor were the Aerobus people contacted on it.

    Adding up the cost of light rail transit. And adding. And adding.
    By Peter Shawn Taylor

    When it comes to big ticket items, they say that if you have to ask the price you probably can’t afford it. But what happens when no one seems to know the real price?
    Then you probably still can’t afford it.
    Like anything else bought or sold, Waterloo Region’s light rail transit plan only makes sense if the benefits outweigh the costs. And we can’t possible make such an important decision until we know the full size of the train’s price tag. Despite the region’s enthusiasm in extolling the many alleged virtues of light rail transit, it’s rather difficult for average taxpayers to figure out what this whole thing is going to cost them in the end.
    According to the latest report from regional government, the bureaucracy’s preferred rapid transit option of a light rail system between Conestoga Mall in Waterloo and Fairview Park Mall in Kitchener plus rapid buses to Cambridge will cost $818 million to build.
    For individual taxpayers, the region says this will require: “a tax rate increase of 1.5 per cent per year, or approximately $25 per average household annually, for seven years.” But do you know what that really means?
    In March the weekly newspaper Waterloo Chronicle asked folks at one of the region’s transit open houses if they understood the concept of an ‘annual tax increase.’ Almost everyone got it wrong. Most appeared to underestimate the true impact of this looming tax hike by a large margin. More detail is clearly necessary.
    If the light rail transit plan is approved this June, the region says an average household will see its taxes go up by 1.5 per cent, or about $25, in 2012. In 2013, taxes will again rise by 1.5 per cent, for a new rapid transit tax of $50. The year after it will hit $75, then $100 and so on, until it hits $175 a year in 2018. It will stay at that level permanently.
    Over the first seven years, the cumulative tax hike will equal 10.5 per cent. That’s substantially more than the nine per cent increase taxpayers were led to expect last year. And by the end of those seven years, the total sum paid out by that average taxpayer will be $700. Anyone expecting $25 a year is in for a big surprise.
    Of course averages can hide as much as they reveal. According to regional bureaucrats, the average household is currently worth $254,000. But according to the Kitchener-Waterloo Real Estate Board, the average detached single family house sold for $350,000 this past April. If you live in a detached home, you can scale up the tax hit proportionately.
    But wait! – as they say selling Sham Wows on late night TV – There’s more!
    All of the above might be considered a best-case scenario. What happens if something goes wrong?
    The first wild card concerns the possible impact on city budgets. When the rapid transit process began, the understanding was that there would be no implications for city budgets. That appears to be changing.
    Engineering department heads in Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge are now in discussions with the region over a variety of capital costs related to rapid transit that may be downloaded to the cities, including moving, updating or replacing road and/or utility infrastructure. This is expensive work and the totals will likely be measured in the millions of dollars.
    This suggests city taxes could be going up to pay for rapid transit, along with your regional tax bill. Local taxpayers deserve a lot more clarity on this.
    The second wild card is Cambridge. Cambridge city council recently passed a motion calling for the current rail plan to be dropped. There have also been rumblings that Cambridge shouldn’t be expected to pay for a train system that only services Waterloo and Kitchener. It’s unclear whether such a move is legal or feasible, but removing 45,000 households from the transit tax rolls would create a significant new burden for taxpayers in the remaining cities.
    The third wild card is ridership. If light rail does not deliver on a promised massive influx of new transit riders, taxpayers will have to brace themselves for further operating subsidies, over and above the $13.7 million per year currently projected. Keep in mind the regional plan projects a tripling of ridership on the iXpress line the first year light rail is operational. Is this realistic?
    The final wild card is cost-over-runs and construction delays. As with all large projects of this nature, there will inevitably be unforeseen setbacks and obstacles.
    Consider a worst-case scenario: the infamous St. Clair light rail project in Toronto. Originally slated to cost $48 million in 2003, it eventually rang in at $106 million. And the chaos and bankruptcies caused by the lengthy disruption of a significant commercial street (as will also be the case with installing tracks on King Street and other important routes in our region) led to a $100 million class action lawsuit brought by angry business owners against the city.
    How much will light rail transit cost? Probably a lot more than you think.

    • Thanks Denis! As I’ve said before, I don’t think we can switch horses mid-stream.

      • James, our primary concern with Cambridge is that the timelines are, we believe, irrelevant. The present proposal is to start in KW, and the present proposal speaks nothing of corollary infrastructure cost impacts: those “external” costs will more than double the overall project budget, which will drain any funds that would have gone to Cambridge. Further, the official plan from the Region says that the Cambridge leg will be built “when ridership is sufficient” to justify the expansion: this will not ever happen if rail is installed in KW. The density will grow where the rail is, and Cambridge will be forced to wait while KW gets all the benefit, burns the budget far faster than the plan currently expects, and creates all the traffic problems we know the current routing plan will create… this is a major white elephant that will hurt, and keep hurting, and keep hurting.

        The only reason to rush into light rail is to avoid cost increases while we wait. The losses from increases in LRT which we will face will pale in comparison to the savings we could achieve with Aerorail, and it is well worth waiting to study Aerorail properly. The savings will more than make up the difference.

      • We’re going to need to agree to disagree Denis. As I’ve indicated, I believe it’s important to use the same technology end to end–if not immediately as soon as possible.

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