Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rapid Transit in the News

From today's Waterloo Regional Record:
Not on board

April 25, 2009
Jeff Outhit


John Shortreed fears the worst if politicians build the rapid transit system they are studying.

"The region is about to commit to a big white elephant," warns Shortreed, a former Waterloo councillor. "The number one concern is that it's a huge risk. You're making a half-billion dollar bet."

Waterloo Region government plans to unveil a rapid transit proposal next month. Construction could launch in 2012.

Proponents say it will bring jobs and homes to underused urban neighbourhoods by increasing land values near stations. Critics agree better transit is needed but see rapid transit as a leap too far.

"I don't think it's a good idea for Waterloo, as it currently stands," said Ruth Haworth, a member of a citizens committee to advise Waterloo council on downtown issues.

Haworth fears putting trains on King Street in Waterloo will damage the only downtown that's already flourishing by frustrating traffic and parking and by discouraging cyclists and pedestrians.

"We're way too small for this," says Haworth, a transit user. "This is going to be such a white elephant that it will reduce our ability to have other good transit routes."

Rapid transit will consist of electric trains or rapid buses on the urban spine linking Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. Construction costs for trains will exceed $306 million.

"Urban planners are driving this thing," says Shortreed, a retired University of Waterloo professor who has taught transportation planning.

"They believe it will save energy. They believe that if you build it, they will come. They believe it's the right thing to do."

But he estimates just a 10 per cent chance rapid transit will achieve its goals. He sees a 90 per cent chance of an underperforming system that drains public coffers.

UW professor Jeff Casello disagrees, saying big spending is needed to achieve big results.

"If we invest only a little bit, we are likely to have very little influence on land-use patterns," says Casello, an expert in transportation planning.

"And if we are to invest quite a bit more, then we are likely to see greater impacts on land-use changes."

One real estate study predicts rail transit will boost land values by 10 to 18 per cent near local stations.

Shortreed argues rapid transit is a bad idea because:

Other North American cities with rapid transit are much bigger and tend to have dominant downtowns, Shortreed says.

By comparison, local downtowns lack the office jobs, traffic delays and high parking fees that encourage transit use elsewhere.

Looking forward, Shortreed does not expect local downtowns to gain many jobs. He figures technology firms will continue to choose campus-style suburban locations because this suits their employees.

Casello agrees this is a small community for rapid transit by North American standards. He disagrees it needs to be bigger or will not grow bigger.

Regional Chair Ken Seiling describes Shortreed as a lone voice of scholarly dissent. Building rapid transit now will prevent land-use mistakes other cities have made and are struggling to fix, he says.

Shortreed contends politicians can achieve their goals more effectively with other transit upgrades. Examples include: More frequent buses, realigned bus routes, a limited streetcar system in Kitchener and Waterloo, development incentives and passenger conveniences.

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