Thursday, December 16, 2010

Alarmist statement

Letter to the editor written by my dad in today's Record.

Alarmist statement

Re: Light rail: ‘A failure to move forward will doom us’ – Dec. 11

Waterloo regional Chair Ken Seiling says that “A failure to move forward (with the ‘light rail’ project) will doom us.” This is alarmist in the extreme.

Seiling knows as well as anyone that the alternatives are trains or rapid buses, not trains or doing nothing. It is an honest debate and sensible things have been said in support of both alternatives. Trains will certainly run faster. On the other hand, any sensible version of the rapid bus alternative will cost less and provide a more flexible transit system. For example, if the claim that trains will be underutilized proved true there would be nothing we could do other than watch empty trains racing up and down King Street. If a similar problem arose with rapid buses, assuming they were not running on rails, we could adapt without paying a huge price.

To suggest that adopting buses rather than trains will bring “doom” is ludicrous. Ordinarily, Seiling comes across as a very competent administrator. In this present debate we are not seeing him at his best.

Larry Haworth
St. Agatha

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Ellsberg on Assange

This post was written by the Insititute for Public Accuracy.

News Release

Ex-Intelligence Officers, Others See Plusses in WikiLeaks Disclosures

December 7, 2010

The following statement was released today, signed by Daniel Ellsberg, Frank Grevil, Katharine Gun, David MacMichael, Ray McGovern, Craig Murray, Coleen Rowley and Larry Wilkerson; all are associated with Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence.

WikiLeaks has teased the genie of transparency out of a very opaque bottle, and powerful forces in America, who thrive on secrecy, are trying desperately to stuff the genie back in. The people listed below this release would be pleased to shed light on these exciting new developments.

How far down the U.S. has slid can be seen, ironically enough, in a recent commentary in Pravda (that's right, Russia's Pravda): "What WikiLeaks has done is make people understand why so many Americans are politically apathetic ... After all, the evils committed by those in power can be suffocating, and the sense of powerlessness that erupts can be paralyzing, especially when ... government evildoers almost always get away with their crimes. ..."

So shame on Barack Obama, Eric Holder, and all those who spew platitudes about integrity, justice and accountability while allowing war criminals and torturers to walk freely upon the earth. ... the American people should be outraged that their government has transformed a nation with a reputation for freedom, justice, tolerance and respect for human rights into a backwater that revels in its criminality, cover-ups, injustices and hypocrisies.

Odd, isn't it, that it takes a Pravda commentator to drive home the point that the Obama administration is on the wrong side of history. Most of our own media are demanding that WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange be hunted down -- with some of the more bloodthirsty politicians calling for his murder. The corporate-and-government dominated media are apprehensive over the challenge that WikiLeaks presents. Perhaps deep down they know, as Dickens put it, "There is nothing so strong ... as the simple truth."

As part of their attempt to blacken WikiLeaks and Assange, pundit commentary over the weekend has tried to portray Assange's exposure of classified materials as very different from -- and far less laudable than -- what Daniel Ellsberg did in releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ellsberg strongly rejects the mantra "Pentagon Papers good; WikiLeaks material bad." He continues: "That's just a cover for people who don't want to admit that they oppose any and all exposure of even the most misguided, secretive foreign policy. The truth is that EVERY attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time."

Motivation? WikiLeaks' reported source, Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, having watched Iraqi police abuses, and having read of similar and worse incidents in official messages, reportedly concluded, "I was actively involved in something that I was completely against." Rather than simply go with the flow, Manning wrote: "I want people to see the truth ... because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public," adding that he hoped to provoke worldwide discussion, debates, and reform.

There is nothing to suggest that WikiLeaks/Assange's motives were any different. Granted, mothers are not the most impartial observers. Yet, given what we have seen of Assange’s behavior, there was the ring of truth in Assange’s mother’s recent remarks in an interview with an Australian newspaper. She put it this way: "Living by what you believe in and standing up for something is a good thing. … He sees what he is doing as a good thing in the world, fighting baddies, if you like."

That may sound a bit quixotic, but Assange and his associates appear the opposite of benighted. Still, with the Pentagon PR man Geoff Morrell and even Attorney General Eric Holder making thinly disguised threats of extrajudicial steps, Assange may be in personal danger.

The media: again, the media is key. No one has said it better than Monseñor Romero of El Salvador, who just before he was assassinated 25 years ago warned, "The corruption of the press is part of our sad reality, and it reveals the complicity of the oligarchy." Sadly, that is also true of the media situation in America today.

The big question is not whether Americans can "handle the truth." We believe they can. The challenge is to make the truth available to them in a straightforward way so they can draw their own conclusions -- an uphill battle given the dominance of the mainstream media, most of which have mounted a hateful campaign to discredit Assange and WikiLeaks.

So far, the question of whether Americans can "handle the truth" has been an academic rather than an experience-based one, because Americans have had very little access to the truth. Now, however, with the WikiLeaks disclosures, they do. Indeed, the classified messages from the Army and the State Department released by WikiLeaks are, quite literally, "ground truth."

How to inform American citizens? As a step in that direction, on October 23 we "Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence" (see below) presented our annual award for integrity to Julian Assange. He accepted the honor "on behalf of our sources, without which WikiLeaks' contributions are of no significance." In presenting the award, we noted that many around the world are deeply indebted to truth-tellers like WikiLeaks and its sources.

Here is a brief footnote: Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII) is a group of former CIA colleagues and other admirers of former intelligence analyst Sam Adams, who hold up his example as a model for those who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to power. (For more, please see here.)

Sam did speak truth to power on Vietnam, and in honoring his memory, SAAII confers an award each year to a truth-teller exemplifying Sam Adams' courage, persistence, and devotion to truth -- no matter the consequences. Previous recipients include:

-Coleen Rowley of the FBI
-Katharine Gun of British Intelligence
-Sibel Edmonds of the FBI
-Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan
-Sam Provance, former Sgt., US Army
-Frank Grevil, Maj., Danish Army Intelligence
-Larry Wilkerson, Col., US Army (ret.)
-Julian Assange, WikiLeaks

"There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nothing hidden that will not be made known. Everything you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight; what you have whispered in locked rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops."
-- Luke 12:2-3

The following former awardees and other associates have signed the above statement; some are available for interviews:

DANIEL ELLSBERG
A former government analyst, Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the Vietnam War to the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971. He was an admirer of Sam Adams when they were both working on Vietnam and in March 1968 disclosed to the New York Times some of Adams' accurate analysis, helping head off reinforcement of 206,000 additional troops into South Vietnam and a widening of the war at that time to neighboring countries.

FRANK GREVIL
Grevil, a former Danish intelligence analyst, was imprisoned for giving the Danish press documents showing that Denmark's Prime Minister (now NATO Secretary General) disregarded warnings that there was no authentic evidence of WMD in Iraq; in Copenhagen, Denmark.

KATHARINE GUN
Gun is a former British government employee who faced two years imprisonment in England for leaking a U.S. intelligence memo before the invasion of Iraq. The memo indicated that the U.S. had mounted a spying "surge" against U.N. Security Council delegations in early 2003 in an effort to win approval for an Iraq war resolution. The leaked memo -- published by the British newspaper The Observer on March 2, 2003 -- was big news in parts of the world, but almost ignored in the United States. The U.S. government then failed to obtain a U.N. resolution approving war, but still proceeded with the invasion.

DAVID MacMICHAEL
MacMichael is a former CIA analyst. He resigned in the 1980s when he came to the conclusion that the CIA was slanting intelligence on Central America for political reasons. He is a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

RAY McGOVERN
McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years, whose duties included preparing and briefing the President's Daily Brief and chairing National Intelligence Estimates. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

CRAIG MURRAY
Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, was fired from his job when he objected to Uzbeks being tortured to gain "intelligence" on "terrorists." Upon receiving his Sam Adams award, Murray said, "I would rather die than let someone be tortured in an attempt to give me some increment of security." Observers have noted that Murray was subjected to similar character assassination techniques as Julian Assange is now encountering to discredit him.

COLEEN ROWLEY
Rowley, a former FBI Special Agent and Division Counsel whose May 2002 memo described some of the FBI's pre-9/11 failures, was named one of Time Magazine's "Persons of the Year" in 2002. She recently co-wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed titled, "WikiLeaks and 9/11: What if? Frustrated investigators might have chosen to leak information that their superiors bottled up, perhaps averting the terrorism attacks."

LARRY WILKERSON
Wilkerson, Col., U.S. Army (ret.), former chief of staff to Secretary Colin Powell at the State Department, who criticized what he called the "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal." See recent interviews

For more information, contact at the Institute for Public Accuracy:
Sam Husseini, (202) 347-0020; or David Zupan, (541) 484-9167

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Setting Off a Bomb of Revolutionary Ideas

When WiliLeaks began releasing its latest batch of documents, 250,000 US diplomatic cables, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the act an attack on the US. Since then the US has been trying to find a way to prosecute WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange. There has been talk of using the Espionage Act. There is proposed Senate legislation targeted at Assange. The Justice department is said to be scrambling, trying to find legal grounds to get him.

The dubious Swedish sex charges appear to be part of plan - the idea being that once Assange is extradited to Sweden, it will be easier for the US to extradite him to American soil. Or maybe they're purely designed to discredit, distract and embarrass. Whatever the intent, the plan seems to be going off the rails a bit, with a Swedish police leak ironically providing proof that the charges are bogus.

But you have to wonder how clearly the Americans are thinking. If they manage to find a way to try Assange in the US, they provide a bully pulpit for him to communicate with the American people. Currently, most Americans dismiss Assange as an egotist, an anarchist, a criminal, a hacker. Even if American prosecutors managed to muzzle the man, journalists could find his voice in his published writings: his blog from 2006-2007, his articles, and a growing host of interpretations of his work.

I've been dipping into the Assange oeuvre this week, and even if his enemies killed him today, he has written enough to change the world. In fact, killing him could be the second most effective way to rapidly disseminate his thinking (not that I'm advocating it, mind you) - but trying him in the US would be the most effective dissemination method ever. That would ensure that his ideas are popularized in the country he is most targeting for change.

It's not that Assange's ideas are particularly new. I think he's brilliant, but it's not even that. He is very thoughtful, and he describes his theories in a compelling way. His importance is that he's inspiring. Assange's thoughts could form the basis of a powerful popular movement.

Assange doesn't just write about how to save the world, he writes about what it is to want to save the world. He muses about his personal valuation of idealistic activism over moral agency. He sometimes falls into a mystical way of talking, and even writes political poetry.

Assange creates new language for political analysis. Legitimate forms of government are described with the terminology of illegitimate forms, which allows us to be more objective about how they work, how they do bad things, and how to force them to change. He uses popular analogies to explain his thinking. For example, he compares the US government to a group of drug dealers in the TV show The Wire... and he does it very well.

Assange's goal is not regime change, but regime behavior change. It's not anarchy and it may just be doable. In fact, you might argue that if it's not done, the US will decline into an impoverished, despotic, desperate superpower that is ultimately the greatest threat to freedom in the world.

I can't claim to understand him yet. I'm not even sure if Assange sees the leaks as a way to force change in the behavior of governments, or whether he sees them as an end in themselves - an extension to freedom of information laws.

But I betcha we'll be hearing a lot more about what he thinks we should do. Jail is not the end of Assange; it's the beginning.

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Sunday, December 05, 2010

Rallies in the Square: A Suggestion

For anyone planning a rally in the Waterloo public square, I have a suggestion: invite participants to a post-rally event at a local establishment afterwards. Whole Lotta Gelato, Symposium, Jane Bond, the Huether - all would be great spots to meet for post-rally chat. It's good for you: organizers can join in and keep the conversation going. It's good for Uptown: all those establishments could use a boost, especially on a Sunday.

Whole Lotta Gelato, in particular, seems to be struggling a bit these days. They've added lots of new food items: cakes, soup, sandwiches, salads, breakfast stuff (along with their old standbys of paninis, gelato and coffee), and it's an advantage for groups that the upstairs room is often empty. (Plus they have a sort-of all-you-can-eat policy: they won't charge you beyond $13.)

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Rally for Rails

Three local organizations held a rally for LRT today at the Waterloo public square. It was a well-attended event, especially given the temperature; one or two hundred people, I'd say, mostly students (not counting press and organizers). A number of people made (mercifully) brief remarks, including local politicians Ken Seiling, Carl Zehr, Angela Veith and Jean Haalboom.

I sat off to the side and listened, trying not to get in the way. I was struck by my agreement with almost everything that was said. The remarks mostly concerned what I would call motherhood issues, and I think there's broad public support for them: a cleaner environment, less congestion, less sprawl, and more efficient use of public funds.

That's all an argument for better public transit. The problem is that LRT is not better public transit.

You don't have to be a transit planner to know that good public transit is transit that people want to take: that goes to where people want to go and is convenient. In Waterloo, the LRT is convenient for people at the University of Waterloo and a couple of other groups (bedroom communities to the north, perhaps), but not so good for most residents. The proposed LRT doesn't stop frequently enough; the route does not benefit most of Waterloo; and taking it would involve too many transfers (unless you're going to UW).

LRT is not going to reduce congestion or create density nodes if people don't ride it; there are plenty of examples of expensive transit failures in North America, and the proposed LRT is likely to be another one. Insanely, some proponents want to create traffic jams in order to force people to take the LRT, but the carrot is a far more successful tool than the stick in transit planning, because if you make traffic impossible, people will just go somewhere else. Instead of working and shopping Uptown, they'll go to the industrial parks and big box stores on the outskirts of town.

LRT is poor transit planning in other ways, too. By running down our main street without stopping very often, it actually reduces our ability to get to places on our main artery. It disrupts car, bus and bike traffic while not providing alternative convenience.

The final nail in the coffin and biggest failure of the proposed LRT route is the left turn across King onto Erb that will cause traffic chaos in the Uptown - as well as the chaos it will cause at Erb-Bridgeport and Caroline-William in the Uptown.

The problem with the cost of LRT is not that it costs money: it's that it wastes money.

Students in support of LRT are quite cavalier about the cost to taxpayers. I'd like them to put their money where their mouth is and agree to the following. If this UW rail shuttle is to be foisted on the residents of Waterloo region, there should be:

  • No more cheap transit passes for university and college students - they pay the full adult fare.
  • Transit passes should be a compulsory ancillary fee for all students, guaranteeing revenue for the GRT/LRT.
  • UW students should pay an extra fee of $10/month since the LRT services them more than any other group.

But better than all that, whether it's LRT, BRT, bus, streetcar or whatever technology, the route should be changed so that Uptown Waterloo is not so severely damaged. Bottom line: LRT cannot turn left across King in Uptown. Either it is circumvented to go two-way on Caroline, or - far better - we get a transit system that goes straight down King, creating density nodes at King-University, King-Columbia and King-Weber; and we get a route that has much more frequent stops.

And let me say again that not only do I live extremely close to the proposed Uptown LRT stop, but I work (and have worked for most of the past 11 years) near the proposed UW R+T Park stop. I am not only an alumni of UW but my parents were both profs there and I grew up on campus: I love UW. My opposition to LRT is not because of any personal inconvenience or dislikes: it is because LRT, as currently planned, is very, very bad for Waterloo.

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Bus is Best – downtown is (and will be) too small

This post was written by John Shortreed.
  • LRT will cost over 1 billion, local taxpayers will put up 500 million – for example grade separation at tracks in Kitchener is estimated at under 10 million – will be 30-40 million
  • Bus Rapid Transit will be about half the cost of LRT and have lower operating costs
  • LRT is a commuter rail system to bring commuters from Elmira – park at mall then go to downtown Kitchener – LRT will not intensify development in the existing cities
  • BRT will intensify land use with more stops, will serve Sun Life (LRT has no stop there)
  • BRT will serve Bauer Lofts (that’s right LRT has no stop at Bauer Lofts, 144 Park and new Red condos) Where LRT will have one stop, existing King St. Bus has 10.
  • UpTown is one of three “Region and Provincial Growth Centers” but it will reach target population and employment before the LRT could be built
  • LRT, a commuter rail system, has one stop between UpTown Waterloo and downtown Kitchener –LRT can not intensify development in the prime 2.5 km redevelopment area
  • BRT is flexible, if there is an accident it can go around the accident, LRT sits there. Santa Clause Parade and Buskers only possible with BRT not LRT
  • If a station is in the wrong place or more stations are needed (they will be needed), BRT can change cheaply as no tracks, curbs, LRT involves major expense.
  • BRT would not have curbs and left turns into businesses on King would be possible, with LRT no left turns into Adult Rec Center from King St. north, or the 2 Funeral Parlors.
  • BRT can be integrated into some Cross town routes without transfers, while all LRT connections are transfers
  • Region’s ridership estimates are 2 to 3 times higher than ridership in Buffalo which has a better system, double the population and more than double the downtown employment
  • With realistic ridership the annual LRT subsidy will be at least 10 million more than forecast and few ways to reduce it other than stop running the trains
  • Transit expenditures have been increasing by almost 10% a year and revenue by about 2% with most of the new riders being University Students with passes (which is good)
  • In 2011 Transit expenditures will be about 80 million per year (operating plus capital), with about 20 million revenue – overall return on investment is 20%.

And by 2031 cars will be more energy efficient than the LRT.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Better Transit

People give me a certain amount of guff for opposing LRT but not proposing something to replace it. I feel this is an unfair criticism: after all, I'm not a transit planner or an urban planner. I have a pretty demanding job and other stuff on my plate. I can recognize a stinker when I see it but that doesn't mean I can come up with something better. (Also, I have tried to make proposals, such as in this article in The Record.)

Nonetheless, I get the point, and also (as I've said many times), I'm uncomfortable in this ever-negative role, so I've been putting a bit of thought into this. I've decided that someone with my skill set might contribute best to a discussion of transit development by proposing requirements rather than trying to propose routes or technologies or whatever.

At some point it would be good to start organizing the requirements into categories and priorities and so on, but this is more of a brainstorming exercise (and I'm open to criticism on all these ideas), so here is a very rough start.

Public transit should first and foremost service people who have no alternatives
That's people who can't afford to drive or who are unable to drive (due to being under age, elderly, physically or mentally unable, and so on). Serving those groups means understanding where they need to go and what their special needs are in using transit.

A bit of a puzzler here is where university students fit in. University students make up something like 20% of the population of Waterloo, and the current LRT proposal is designed to service the University of Waterloo more than any other group in town. In fact, we might as well call the LRT the "UW Shuttle". UW students tend to be quite wealthy, and transit is optional for them in that they could live close to campus and walk. (When I was a grad student at UW I never took transit simply because it was expensive; I always rode my bike or walked. But that was 30 years ago.) Also, university students get a cut-rate pass to use transit. I'm undecided about this one. I have noticed that the pro-LRT forces are overwhelmingly made up of people at UW.

Public transit planning must be part of overall transit planning
It seems that part of the LRT plan is to force people to take transit by making driving inconvenient. I can't see any other reason for running a GO train down our main street, putting railway gates in Uptown Waterloo, and so on. That's needlessly destructive.

Public transit should co-exist with other transit. That means that public transit should not foul up car traffic: in Waterloo, LRT/BRT cannot turn left across King in Uptown. It also means that there should be provision for parking, where appropriate, at transit stops; intracity transit should connect seamlessly with intercity traffic; and so on.

Public transit should be convenient and go to where people want to go
Any route down King Street must have frequent stops, especially in downtown cores. If the Region wants to build a rail line with infrequent stops, it can't go down King.

Public transit needs density to be successful...
...Which is why our regional sprawl doesn't have successful transit. A really good part of the LRT plan is the attempt to create density nodes. However, we need to look more closely at the actual locations of these areas of densification. In Waterloo, will the LRT do anything to create density? I don't think so. The proposed stops are:

  • Uptown, which is booming without any assistance. LRT is actually a threat to the densification of uptown because it is going to make it a traffic disaster.
  • University of Waterloo, which has stops at Seagram Drive, the main campus, and the R+T Park on the north campus. As that is all UW land and is planned development, I'm not sure what difference transit nodes make to its development. Will LRT cause UW to enroll more students?
  • Northfield/Parkside - There may be some densification opportunity here. I really don't understand this stop. It's on a terribly busy road right by the entrance to the expressway. Is this a good place for a lot of development? I don't know.
  • Conestoga Mall - Again, is this an opportunity for density? It seems to be booming all on its own.

Some of the Waterloo stops could use better transit service, especially Uptown and Conestoga Mall, but that's a different issue (and I don't think they will be well-served by LRT in any event).

But if anyone were interested in creating density nodes in Waterloo, the main transit line would not go to UW, but would go straight down King, making Uptown north of Erb more attractive; and have stops at King-University, King-Columbia, and on King north of Weber. Or something like that.
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Monday, October 25, 2010

Is LRT Dead?

When I read things like this, I'm sure LRT dead: "Mayor Brenda Halloran said she was surprised to learn how many people in Waterloo do not want to see a light-rail system going through the city. “The ‘no’ to trains, that surprised me. People are totally against having trains running up and down King Street,” Halloran said."

And this: "Jan d’Ailly, a two-term member of city council, said he was surprised to see public opinion sour on the light-rail system approved by regional council. “At almost every single door it is ‘no’ to LRT and that surprised me,” d’Ailly said."

Note that Mayor Halloran didn't say that people aren't willing to pay for LRT: she said they're telling her that they are "totally against having trains running up and down King Street." Opposition to LRT is not all about money. This is not something that's going to be fixed by rejiggering the finances.

When I read things like this, I think LRT is going to be rammed down our throats regardless of what the people want:
[Regional Chair Ken] Seiling let it slip that regional staff were trying to shave as much as $85 million off the cost.

Instead of the region’s original $235 million obligation, he suggested the total bill might be between $150 million and $175 million. And there may be new development charges to pay for it as well.

. . .

The original rail proposal required a regional tax increase of close to nine per cent to cover both operating and capital costs. Such a tax hike appears to be extremely unpopular. Seiling seems to think he will be able to get the new council to back a smaller tax increase of perhaps 5.5 per cent to 7.5 per cent. Why not ask voters directly by providing a plan?

We should also remember the current proposal is already a compromise. To save money, trains will only run from a mall in Waterloo to a mall in Kitchener. Cambridge is to get buses. So what will another $85 million in cuts look like? Cheaper trains? Fewer stations? Buggies for Cambridge?

Whatever cost-cutting manoeuvres the region adopts, it seems certain to result in a reduction in ridership and an increase in the tax subsidies necessary to keep it solvent. So as capital costs drop, operating costs may go up in step.

I'm also rather worried by this comment from Cambridge Mayor and LRT opposer Doug Craig:
What is happening right now is that the LRT debate has been deliberately submerged until after the election. The numbers regarding the 230 million dollar shortfall are being massaged, compromises on capital costs are being trimmed and in early 2011, it will in my opinion, be re-packaged and passed by the new council. The costs to all regional taxpayers will be significant because the operating costs will be 23 million dollars a year and the capital costs will exceed projected estimates. In other words, it's unsustainable.

As far as I can tell, Seiling has not heard one word of the thousands of arguments against LRT. He seems hell-bent on shoving this idea through. He is motivated by a passionate belief that growth in the region will overwhelm road capacity. What he doesn't get is that LRT will only help with that problem if people ride it. People won't ride something that is even more inconvenient than the current bus system - and LRT is much, much more inconvenient than the current buses. Further, the LRT as planned will greatly reduce road capacity and make traffic much worse. It will not solve the problem; it will greatly exacerbate it.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

LRT Round-up

To see all of my writing about LRT, click here. The list is truncated, but it provides most of the posts I've written on LRT.

Here are some highlights:

What LRT Will Do to the King-Erb Intersection

What LRT Will Do to the Erb-Bridgeport-Caroline Intersection

Jane Jacobs on LRT

Is this the region we want?

In addition, you might be interested in the 100+ letters to the editor against the Waterloo Region LRT proposal, as well as the dozens of articles published in local papers against it.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

We need other mass transit solutions

My column in the Saturday, October 23, Waterloo Region Record (link)

No: We need other mass transit solutions
Ruth Haworth

If the Great Light Rail Transit Debate has done nothing else, it has got our community talking about transit. In fact, transit may well be the issue of this election campaign.

In a recent election survey by Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (www.t4st.com), 95 per cent of responding candidates said they oppose Waterloo Region’s light rail transit proposal. It seems likely that the new regional council will vote against light rail transit and that will be the end of it.

But the survey had another, even more extreme result: over 99 per cent of candidates responded that we need to improve transit in the region.

If we’re smart, we’ll take what we’ve learned from the light rail transit proposal and debate, and use it to create a better transit plan that will serve our community into the future. I’ll take a stab at taking the arguments on both sides of the issue to see what they can tell us.

The main argument against light rail transit is that it’s unaffordable. The cost to Waterloo Region of well over $200 million is simply too much for local taxpayers to absorb — and typical cost overruns could make that burden much larger. There have also been criticisms that the service is too inconvenient. The long distance between stops means that riders would have to walk further and make more transfers. The distance from light rail stops to nearby attractions, notably from proposed light rail stops to the malls, also means that light rail transit would be less convenient than buses. And the inconvenience of light rail is not offset by any advantages in speed. Light rail transit, running on busy city streets and stopping at all traffic lights, is virtually no faster than what we have now.

By contrast, there’s a lot of room for improvement in our existing bus service, at much lower cost. If we want to woo people out of their cars and on to transit, the total transit experience must become more convenient. That means that the total time of trips is faster, with less transfers and more predictable schedules. We need more bus shelters and better snow clearance around them. And so on.

Another complaint about light rail transit is that it could cause major traffic disruption with plans such as railway gates on Erb Street in Uptown Waterloo. Transit should be integrated with, and respectful of, other uses of roads, including cars, bikes and pedestrians.

The region’s “Plan B” is rapid buses. The rapid bus proposal, which is to build dedicated bus lanes (with curbs) on a route similar to light rail transit, is almost as problematic as light rail. Like light rail transit, bus rapid transit isn’t rapid. The rapid buses are expected to travel at about the same speed as an iXpress bus. What’s the point of spending over $500 million on a single route that is already served, without greatly improving it?

In addition, the rapid bus plan has many of the same problems as light rail. By building physical barriers around bus lanes, we would be creating a route that’s inflexible and disrupts traffic.

Creating an entire route of physically demarcated lanes on major arteries may be a mistake, but we could use the idea in a modified form. We could create dedicated bus lanes in areas where congestion slows down buses, and we could do it affordably by painting diamonds on the road, a system which works well in Toronto.

A major argument for light rail transit was that increased growth in the region will require more capacity than buses can provide. There is a bit of a circular argument here. The region wanted to use light rail to create density nodes in downtown cores and then argued that the resulting large numbers of passengers would require a rail service to move them all. But if development continues to grow as it has been, employment will be scattered across many industrial parks and downtowns, and we can easily service those smaller nodes with buses. We should be identifying those nodes and improving transit service to them.

Another thing I’ve learned from the light rail debate is the importance of being fair to all parts of the region. How could we build such a large regional initiative that essentially excluded Cambridge for decades? If we’re serious about building strong commercial cores, we need to include the downtowns of Cambridge.

If we treated each downtown core as a transit hub, we could create express routes that link the downtowns of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo, using the expressway where appropriate. Those linkages could also be extended to more intercity travel, with easy access to buses and trains to Guelph and Toronto.

Those are just some ideas. After we put light rail transit behind us, those of us on all sides of the debate should put our energies toward more productive and positive ideas to improve transit and our community.

###

Thursday, October 21, 2010

LRT = chaos, says "No" side

LRT = chaos, says "No" side
570 News
October 21, 2010
link to article

Waterloo Region's plans for light rail transit are not without critics. As the region moved forward with the project, a group of business owners, professionals and everyday taxpayers formed into Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (T4ST).

The group's spokesperson, Ruth Haworth, calls the light rail plan a case of poor transit planning and poor city planning.

"The problem with this version of LRT is that it runs right through the busiest parts of our town but it doesn't stop very often," Haworth argues. "So there's one stop between downtown Kitchener and downtown Waterloo, for example."

Haworth also describes a scene of "traffic chaos" in uptown Waterloo, given the proposed route through the core. She uses the corner of Erb and Caroline as an example, saying railway crossings that will be used at the intersection will bring traffic in all directions to a complete standstill every three and a half minutes.
Haworth says planners have also put the cart before the horse, so to speak, when it comes to development. She says rather than lay down rail lines and expect development to come to the tracks, the region should develop commercial properties and add rail later to support them.

Haworth cites the new mega mall on Ira Needles as an example of poor planning. "(It's) out there off the transit grid. You (need to) think in advance and prepare in advance," Haworth insists. "I don't know why it is that we seem to have to have sprawl and city and regional councils can't do anything about it. That just doesn't seem right."

Price is another sore spot with T4ST, although Haworth is hesitant to use that as a rallying cry for fear the group's entire message will be lost among the dollar signs. That said, Haworth does not believe anyone in the region truly thinks the $790-million system is affordable. She points to a survey of municipal election candidates by way of support.

"T4ST just did a survey of all of the candidates for the upcoming municipal election and 95% of them said they would oppose it," Haworth asserts. "And that's because of the funding shortfall."

Haworth says T4ST is very supportive of improved transit in the region but she believes there are less expensive ways to go about it. Analyzing bus routes and perhaps even using smaller buses on less travelled routes so that no more "half empty" buses will be "rattling around our subdivisions" is one suggestion she makes.

But Haworth still bristles at the mention of light rail.

"I just know that if we throw all of our resources onto one route and it's a white elephant and it causes massive traffic disruptions, then that's not good."

###

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Evolution of Communication

The Social Network is a very good movie. The Social Network is an especially interesting movie in that everyone seems to have come away with a different take on the Zuckerberg character. Many see him as a heartless nerd, but I thought he came off very sympathetically. He was driven to create something great, and his success was due to a single-minded commitment to his vision.

That vision was world-changing. Prior to Facebook, the paradigm for online communicaton was email. Email was based on the old business memo. Zuckerberg saw a different way for the world to connect. The reason he was able to succeed so amazingly (unlike many other social network products that fizzled) seems to be an early decision he made to let the users of Facebook determine what it would be, and then to provide the very highest quality for those features.

Thanks to Facebook, the paradigm of communication has changed. Instead of issuing memos we communicate in social networks, with our picture next to our writing and a mixture of broadcast and address. Many children use Facebook as their primary form of online communication. Who knows where it will go next.

Facebook isn't the whole story, of course. There's Twitter and texting and other variations. When historians look back at this period, they will be able to chart the rapid evolution of communication in these still-early years of the wired world. What we do now is nothing like what we will do in ten years.

There is also an evolution in how software products get created. So many of the most successful companies are newly formed, youth-run companies because the staid old companies don't seem to be able to evolve. Successful business is moving towards a much more customer-driven model, which is what Zuckerberg created as an intuitive, naive 19 year old who hadn't been taught how to "properly" develop software. Old businesses try to move towards the new model by adding customer usabilty to their development process, but that's like putting a bandaid on a broken leg.

The fact that Zuckerberg's first social network was a university site to rate the hotness of girls is not a minor point. He developed something that he thought was cool and that he thought other people would find cool, and then he tossed it into the sea and let other people pick it up. He then swam beside them, altering it according to their use of it. You couldn't do this so easily with a product that has to be released, but part of the new business model is creating a product that is fluid and adaptive. It may be why cloud computing or something in that direction is the necessary evolution of software. Downloads and upgrades and new feature lists are all so cumbersome and annoying. In five years we may look back on them as dreadfully archaic, like typewriters.

###

Friday, October 15, 2010

T4ST Press Release

October 15, 2010

Most candidates in Waterloo Region disapprove of regional LRT plan

Buses favoured by a wide margin, says survey by Taxpayers for Sensible Transit

Local grassroots organization Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (T4ST) today released the results of a comprehensive candidate survey ahead of the October 25 municipal election in Waterloo Region. The results show massive disapproval for the regional government’s controversial $819 million light rail transit plan.

T4ST, which favours improved bus service over the region’s light rail transit plan, sent out 168 email transit surveys. This covered all urban and rural mayoral and regional chair candidates plus candidates for city, regional and township councils. The overall response rate was 66 percent. Excluding township council candidates, the response rate was above 80 percent.

Asked whether they supported the region’s current plan, 95 percent of the responding candidates said no. Only one candidate supported the necessary tax hike of approximately 9 percent to pay for light rail.

“These results are crystal clear,” said Ruth Haworth, spokesperson for T4ST. “Voters in Waterloo Region do not want to pay for light rail transit. And the candidates have heard this message.”

According to the survey, 89 percent of the candidates do not support permanent traffic disruptions on King Street or other roads to facilitate a permanent rail line. And asked which form of transit was most appropriate for Waterloo Region, buses were the overwhelmingly popular response: 62 said the existing iXpress system should be improved, 30 wanted a new system of rapid buses and 21 candidates said light rail is the best form of transit for our region.

Haworth said this means regional staff should immediately stop work on light rail plans and begin examining improvements to existing bus service or rapid buses. “Over 80 percent of candidates want better bus service,” says Haworth. “Buses make sense for Waterloo Region. It’s time the region recognized this and switched gears on transit.”

Haworth added, “Our reply rate was very high and we have responses from all candidates in most urban races. This means residents can use our site as a voting aid no matter where they stand on this issue.”

The survey provided a comment section and received many interesting suggestions regarding ways to improve or alter the existing transit system in Waterloo Region.

The complete survey with all candidate responses is available at the group’s website: www.t4st.com.

For more information, contact
Ruth Haworth
Taxpayers for Sensible Transit
t4stgroup@gmail.com

###

Beware Oktoberfest

I was lured out to Oktoberfest events twice last week, once by free sausages
(yum) and once by free pancakes and sausages (alas, the line was too long). I had a good time at each event, but... there was the music. I enjoyed it at the time. I enjoyed watching the crowd bobbing up and down to polka time. I even enjoyed watching parents teach their kids the chicken dance.

But it's been over a week, and I still have the Pennsylvania Polka stuck in my head.

I made the mistake of emailing my brother about it, and he cruelly emailed back the lyrics.

Strike up the music the band has begun
The Pennsylvania Polka.
Pick out your partner and join in the fun
The Pennsylvania Polka.
It started in Scranton, it’s now No 1
It’s bound to entertain you
Everybody has a mania
To do the polka from Pennsylvania

I sing out of tune even in my head, and I really can't hit the notes on that last line.

I'm a little paranoid about ear worms because I once had Hail to the Chief stuck in my head for two years. That was a rough time. When the Pennsylvania Polka knocks around in my head I have tried displacing it by thinking of the scene where it's played in Groundhog Day, one of my favorite movies, but that has just made it worse.

A cautionary tale.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What I Learned from the Transit Survey

As spokesperson for the anti-LRT group Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (T4ST), I was involved in running a survey about transit that included all candidates in the upcoming elections in Waterloo Region. While writing up the results I had to read the responses over and over, and developed some opinions that go further than the usual analysis. Here are my thoughts.

There's a bandwagon and everyone's jumping on it
We received responses from over 100 candidates, and the overwhelming response (95%) is that if elected they will oppose LRT. While knocking on doors, candidates have been hearing anger and opposition to LRT - I know this not just from the responses, but also because I've been knocking on doors and talking to people myself. The issue is going to sway a lot of voters (which is why our survey is so important). I don't know if any candidates say they oppose LRT just to appease voter anger over the proposal, but I do know that on June 24, 2009, every single Regional councillor - with the exception of Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig - voted in favor of LRT. That includes our mayors, who automatically sit on Regional council.

We need to be more concerned about fairness
As is evident from the responses of candidates in Cambridge, the proposed LRT is grossly unfair to Cambridge, essentially leaving it out of the plan for decades. In future, we need to ensure that our regional initiatives are more balanced.

If the LRT was really about beefing up downtowns, why did it go from a mall in Kitchener to a mall in Waterloo? Why not start by going from a downtown core in Cambridge to downtown Kitchener and Uptown Waterloo? Cambridge is bigger than Waterloo, for Pete's sake.

Elected officials should be open to public opinion
Some candidates chose to not respond to our survey because they thought the questions were too biased. This troubles me. Elected officials have to spend a lot of time listening to constituents on all sorts of issues, and the officials should have an open mind. All too often, citizens who make a statement to city or regional council are met with bored looks and zero interest. That's just wrong. We need representatives who listen to us, not get their backs up and freeze us out.

Saying it's a regional issue is a cop-out
Some candidates responded to our questionnaire by saying that they're running for municipal council and LRT is a regional issue, so it's not part of their mandate. I completely disagree. When something is going to have such a profound impact on the municipal landscape, city councillors should take a stand.

For example, I remain dumbfounded that Waterloo City councillors didn't examine the impact of the proposed LRT route on Uptown Waterloo. Examination of the Region's proposed route map shows three Uptown intersections (King-Erb, Erb-Caroline, and Caroline-William) that could become nightmares, and cross-town traffic on Erb could grind to a halt. (In the LRT plan, only one lane of Erb Street crosses King, and it is also a turning lane.) This would affect not only car traffic, but also buses, bikes and pedestrians. And the ensuing mess would almost certainly have a negative impact on the success of local businesses.

City councillors should also have been looking out for their constituents on accessibility issues. With an aging population who may need to rely on transit, there were significant issues such as the long distance between stops, the long distance from LRT stops to their target destinations (notably the malls), the linkages between LRT and bus transfers, and possible problems crossing the tracks with walking aids.

In my opinion the specifics of this LRT plan are bad, in part, because municipal politicians dropped the ball.

It ain't over till it's over
Many people believe that LRT is dead. After all, the whole plan was based on the feds and province paying for it, and they fell short by $250M. I agree it's unaffordable, but I have no illusions that it's over. Our Regional Chair, Ken Seiling, is still fighting for this like it's his life at stake. Sure we could vote him out, but (1) he has no real opposition and (2) he has enormous backing - I think he got about three-quarters of the vote last time.

What Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig said in our survey was, "What is happening right now is that the LRT debate has been deliberately submerged until after the election. The numbers regarding the 230 million dollar shortfall are being massaged, compromises on capital costs are being trimmed and in early 2011, it will in my opinion, be re-packaged and passed by the new council."

There are a lot of good candidates out there
I have been working on LRT for two years now, but I learned a lot from reading the comments of candidates. Many of the comments were thoughtful, insightful, and original - and I say that about comments on all sides of the issue. I was particularly impressed that within Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge, almost every candidate responded. What we need more than anything is a truly open, community-wide discussion about how to improve our public transit. I think our local candidates are up for the job.

For the results of the T4ST survey, see www.t4st.com.

###

Monday, October 11, 2010

Find Out How the Candidates Feel About LRT

The T4ST election survey asked candidates in Waterloo Region some questions about transit. We got fabulous results - over 100 responses, representing almost all of the candidates in Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. (Response rates were lighter in the townships, where it's not such a burning issue.)

The responses were really interesting. I expected the results to be overwhelmingly anti-LRT (and they are), but I didn't expect all the thoughtful, insightful comments - reflecting all sides of the issue. I learned a lot from them.

There have been other transit surveys sent to candidates in this election, but ours is by far the most comprehensive.

So check it out: www.t4st.com.

Update: Someone just sent me this link, showing that all the current regional councillors except Doug Craig voted in favor of LRT. ...just something to think about while reading the responses. (link)

Update: The pro-LRT group TriTag also did a comprehensive survey. It's more comment-based. Check it out: TriTag transit survey.

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Barrels

Oktoberfest is set to begin again, and with it our annual barrel race (Saturday, 10 am, Waterloo Public Square). This will be the first year we've had the barrel race since we lost our last barrels. The remaining ones were purely ceremonial, piled in a pyramid in front of the CIGI building (formerly the Seagram distillery) at Erb and Caroline. Last year City Hall said the pyramid was rotting and gave the barrels away. Now the spot is part of the new Balsillie School of International Affairs.

(A local theater group has started the Barrel Project to commemorate the barrel diaspora. "While the wooden slats and metal rings may be scattered all over the county, their memory remains..." I kid you not.)

All we have left of barrels is the name of the Barrel Yards development on Erb at Father David Bauer Drive. The Barrel Yards used to be the Canbar lands where whiskey barrels were made and stored. The land is soon to be a complex of apartments, office buildings, retail space and hotels... or at least it will be if reported water table issues can be resolved.

Canbar shut down in 1992, and I can clearly remember when barrels were part of the culture of Waterloo. When you drove down Erb you could see the barrels piled high.

The best part was that after Seagrams was done aging whiskey in them Canbar practically gave the barrels away. Cut in half, they were used in backyards all over town as planters.

If you got a fresh one it would still have whiskey soaked into the wood. When I was a grad student at UW, a popular party drink was called swish. We'd buy a barrel, add some water, let it sit a bit, swish it around, and voila - a large supply of half strength, nearly free, blecchy tasting whiskey.

My dad aged a batch of homemade peach wine in a Seagrams barrel once and brought the whole barrel out for a pig roast. The problem with the stuff was it was delicious and didn't taste nearly as lethal as it was. A large crowd of respectable people became completely blotto very rapidly. (I watched it all, completely sober, because that was my first day of work as a waitress at the Kent Hotel... once again, a story for another day.)

The distillery (and brewery) dominated Waterloo in other ways. All the time I was growing up in Waterloo, you could tell what day it was by the smell - and they were nice smells, or at least I thought so. Certain days of week we could smell the Seagrams distillery at Erb and Caroline, and other days we had the smell from the Labatt brewery (formerly Carling, and before that the Kuntz brewery) at King and William. Everyone had a different description of the smells: some days it was bread, molasses, oatmeal or Raisin Bran, and some days it was martinis.

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Sunday, October 03, 2010

Travel Alert

The comments this weekend on Globe & Mail articles about the US State Department's latest travel alert are unanimous in claiming that it is a fraud. They opine that the government is warning Americans away from European capitals as a way to scare the public into voting for incumbents in the upcoming election and as a way to deflect public attention from more important matters, like the economy. Many express amusement that there will be less Americans in Europe creating queues at art galleries and so on.

Canada, the US, and other countries regularly issue travel alerts, and anyone who travels should get in the habit of checking them before buying tickets. They aren't a joke, they aren't political, and they carry repercussions in terms of whether you'll be bailed out if things go wrong. See travel advisories from the US, Canada and the UK.

The current travel alert for Europe does not warn people against going to Europe; it merely describes an ongoing threat and current concerns by European governments, and suggests that US citizens register with a US travel service. I wouldn't cancel a trip because of it, but it would cause me to keep my ears open for possible developments.

There are times when you can take advantage of non-existent but perceived threats. When Reagan bombed Libya in 1986, I immediately made plans for a European holiday. American tourists were terrified of terrorism in Europe that summer and stayed away in droves. I rented a car for three weeks and did a driving tour to French 3-star restaurants. I could walk in to establishments that normally required at least a year's advance booking, and they were grateful to see me. It was quite a trip - mired only by being doused with radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. But that's another story.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Amalgamation, Negativity, Municipal Elections and my Teeth

In today's Chronicle, someone is quoted as regretting that there's no anti-amalgamation group in town.

Well, me, I'm opposed to amalgamation. I think it's a spectacularly stupid idea for Waterloo, for lots of reasons:
  • Amalgamation has been shown to be expensive. Union contracts bump up to the highest level; there are virtually no cost savings; and so on.
  • Waterloo property taxes will go up if we merge.
  • I like our unique identity. Kitchener is a great place but is very different from Waterloo and vive la difference.
  • Waterloo has an internationally known name. We should be building our brand, not diluting it.
  • Merging with a city that's twice as big is tantamount to throwing away our self-determination.
  • We already merge almost all the services that can be merged. If there are more opportunities to merge services (the only one I can think of is the libraries), then we can do that without amalgamation.

Crazy as it sounds, the main reason why some prominent Waterlooians are for amalgamation is that they think the city is currently mismanaged, and will be better run if it's part of Kitchener. They point to our chronic underfunding of the arts and library as key issues. But Jeeze Louise guys, if you want better management then vote for candidates who are qualified to do the job. If you have issues you want to influence, speak up - especially now, during an election campaign.

Despite my emphatic opposition to amalgamation, I can't get active in my opposition. For one thing, amalgamation has become The Beast That Will Not Die. It's like, every couple of years I hear someone say, "It's baaaack..." I am suffering from amalgamation fatigue. But even more than that, I have been working to oppose the LRT for two years now, and I'm sick, sick, sick of being negative. Fighting FOR something is so much more fun.

So what am I not against? Well this may be bucking the trend of popular lunacy, but I'm for fluoride in my drinking water. I think the anti-fluoride contingent is fueled by junk science, while the benefits of fluoridation are verified. I'm horrified by what has happened to my dentist, Dr. Harry Hoediono, for standing up for sanity and saying the simple truth. (People in this town play dirty: besides trashing his character, someone on the anti-fluoride side has now brought Harry up on charges for conspiring to spend money or some such thing.)

So why am I not out dressed as a giant tooth, promoting the cause of fluoridated drinking water? If I had kids, maybe I'd stand with Harry and brave the attacks of the pro-cavities crowd. But I don't, so I'm sitting this one out.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Waterloo's Mayoral Candidates Kick Off Election 2010


Tonight's Waterloo mayoral debate could be summed up like this, from left to right:

Jan d'Ailly: I bring experience, leadership ability, and a proactive approach.
Barbara Halloran: I've done a super job.
Franklin Ramsoomair: Ummmm.
Dale Ross: Slash the budget!

Actually, Ramsoomair had some interesting things to say, but he was unable to articulate a vision for his mayoralty. In fact, his ability to articulate his ideas was a problem throughout.

Ross, on the other hand, articulated his vision all too well. He wants to cut spending. Really - that's it. When asked about specific issues, he repeatedly said he'd have to get someone to tell him what to do or form a committee. His plan is to put the city through ten years of extremely restricted spending in order to pay down our debt.

The questions were excellent. Neil Acheson was a great moderator - when he asked the audience to not applaud, it created a much better debate than most. One quibble: I was disappointed by all the answers about bylaw enforcement: they all focused on unmaintained lawns and noise complaints, without mentioning the vital accessibility issue of snow clearance.

Bottom line: This is a two horse race, between Halloran and d'Ailly. I approach elections like a hiring process, and look for qualifications, experience, intelligence and vision. To my mind, d'Ailly is the best choice. But I enjoyed listening to all four of them. d'Ailly and Halloran were both refreshingly candid, and d'Ailly in particular was very detailed and informative. Good job all around.

Upcoming debates:
  • Wednesday, Sept 22 - Waterloo Ward 1 candidates, Hauser Haus, WMRC
  • Tuesday, Sept 28 - Waterloo Ward 3 candidates, Community Room, McCormick Community Center
  • Wed, Sept 29 - Waterloo Ward 4 candidates, Room 207, RIM Park
  • Thurs, Sept 30 - Waterloo Ward 5 candidates, Room 208, RIM Park
  • Tues, Oct 5 - Waterloo Ward 6 candidates, Hauser Haus, WMRC
  • Wed, Oct 6 - Waterloo Ward 7 candidates (uptown), Hauser Haus, WMRC
  • Thus, Oct 7 - Regional Council candidates, Adult Rec Center
  • Tues, Oct 19 - Public school board candidates, TBD
  • Wed, Oct 20 - Regional Chair candidates, TBD
  • Thurs, Oct 21 - Waterloo mayoral candidates (Round 2), Hauser Haus, WMRC

More info on the upcoming debates: WaterlooVotes.com

Update: The Waterloo Regional Record is also hosting its own debates. For a list of times and places, see here.

Update: Rogers TV schedule of debates on TV on Karen Scian's blog

Update: You can watch videos of debates on the Record's Vote 2010 site.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Boom! Boom! Boom!

Uptown Waterloo is booming.

Just at the corner of King and William, there are two new buildings going up. In the pie-shaped lot where Quiznos used to be, a financial services company is putting up an office building:


Across the street, the region's most expensive and luxurious condo building has been announced at 150 King:


Over at Erb Street there's the Barrelyards, nearly 13 acres in size. The details keep changing, but when it was officially announced in 2007 it was slated to have two hotels, two 25-storey condo towers, four rental apartment towers, 230,000 SF of office space, townhouses, and ten mixed retail/residential low rise buildings.


Next to the Barrelyards is the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics, which is getting a mammoth and very exciting-looking addition:


Across the street from the Perimeter Institute is the Balsillie School of International Affairs, a complex of buildings:


And kitty-corner to the Balsillie School is the new Knox Presbyterian Church:


Then there's the 21-storey condo/townhouse complex at 144 Park, the new condo at Bridgeport and Peppler, and a proposal for a high-rise condo at 31 Alexandra. That's just what's already in the pipe. A commercial realtor told me recently that within five years he expects that King Street north of Erb will be a canyon of large new buildings. Projections of Caroline between Erb and William show all those parking lots replaced with buildings.

Minor note: None of this development has anything to do with LRT plans. Most was already in the works before the LRT proposal, and all of it is a direct result of the high rental rates in Uptown - brought about by the redeveloped Waterloo Square, new streetscape, programming in the Public Square, and general momentum of success in Uptown.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

The Embarrassing Past of a Kettle and Pot

The ever-astute Elizabeth May has a theory. She thinks Harper is going to call an election this fall, even though he's down in the polls. She believes that Harper is focused on voter turnout rather than ratings, and that his strategy has been to reduce voter participation outside his base.
In the 2008 election campaign, she maintained, Mr. Harper purposely drove down voter participation in several ways. He called a snap election, he had the minimum numbers of days for a campaign, he had election day right after the long Thanksgiving weekend, he had changes in the Elections Act that meant people couldn’t vote without additional ID, and his attack ads had increased cynicism toward politics. The result was that every party’s total vote number went down, except the Green Party’s. The Liberals’ dropped the most and Mr. Harper was able to increase his minority.

. . .

Everybody thinks Mr. Harper’s right-wing manoeuvring, like his move on the census, has been disastrous, Ms. May said. "I bet he doesn’t think so. For his base, which is essentially the tea party of Canada, these are good messages."

May predicts that Harper's got a bunch of devastating attack ads to use against Michael Ignatieff, and that he'll unveil them during the campaign. They will include footage of Ignatieff before becoming Liberal party leader.
An example, she said, is some incredible statements the Liberal Leader made on torture when he appeared once on the Charlie Rose show. "The Conservatives must have a video archive of him saying things that Harper believes will make him unelectable." The Prime Minister is saving them for the campaign because "he wants the shock value."

This tactic could work if Harper gets the timing right and prevents Ignatieff from having time to respond or recover. In the 2006 election a fake scandal invented by the NDP sewered Paul Martin; Martin was bouncing back from it, but he didn't have time before the election to recover enough, and it wasn't until months after the election that the scandal was fully debunked.

Or is it possible? Harper himself has recovered from revelations of his saying far worse things than Igantieff ever said. Harper, after all, denounced Canada as a "Northern welfare state in the worst sense of the term." In that speech he also spat on universal health care, women’s rights, the unemployed, francophone Canadians and all Canadian political parties, including his own.

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Saturday, September 04, 2010

Culture of Layoffs

Another story about another company laying off a percentage of their workforce. This time all we're told is that 81 employees were laid off, representing 5% of the workforce, and that the company "ended production of some unprofitable products".

I wonder what would happen if companies were expected to report more information about layoffs - and by "expected" I mean by law where possible, and by convention and community standards otherwise. And if they don't provide the info, newspapers should investigate and get the goods.

The information I'm looking for has to do with the negative side of layoffs. How long, on average, had these people worked there? What percentage got a good performance ranking in their last review? What sort of severance did the company provide? What was the total direct cost to the company of the layoffs (severance, out-placement, travel and consulting fees required by the move)?

If all these details were provided, would the market automatically react as strongly to reward companies that lay off a big chunk of their workforce?

I once worked for a publicly-owned company whose management was committed to avoiding a take-over. Every time the stock price fell they laid off employees to bring it back up. There were so many layoffs that they didn't use the terminations to get rid of low performers: terminations were totally a function of what someone was working on, and the best and the brightest regularly got cut. This culture of continuous layoffs created a totally dysfunctional company with a decidedly subpar product, but it also kept it successful.

That kind of success is a market distortion. Unproductive - even antiproductive - behavior is rewarded. It's a systemic failure.

###

BRT not a Viable Plan "B"

Now that we know how much the federal government is willing to contribute, it’s clear that the Region of Waterloo can’t afford the proposed LRT. The combined provincial/federal contributions leaves $235M to the Region and that is too much for us to carry. LRT is dead.

Well, not really. Now there's talk of going to the Region's Plan B, Bus Rapid Transit, or shortening the LRT route.

In the BRT plan, curbs are inserted in the middle of our streets so that buses can run in dedicated lanes. The BRT has many of the disadvantages of LRT:

  • It costs hundreds of millions to build.
  • It puts a disproportionate amount of our resources on one route.
  • It prevents cars from turning left except at designated intersections.
  • It disrupts car and bike use of the street.
  • It disrupts other use of the street, including parades and festivals.
  • The route is very difficult to alter.
  • It is inconvenient for transit users because the stops are so infrequent.
  • It creates an accessibility issue for seniors with walkers, parents with baby strollers, and the like.

The iXpress, which runs high tech buses on the same route as BRT, is no slower than BRT and costs one or two percent of BRT. (The iXpress route, including marketing, cost $9M. Of that, the buses cost $4M.) There is simply no reason to spend over $500M creating curbs in the middle of our streets.

In fact, it boggles the mind how the Region could propose creating a single bus route that costs $550M. In Toronto, dedicated bus lanes have nothing more than some diamond shapes painted on the pavement.

Building a shorter LRT route sounds like it might be equally crazy, but I haven't seen a proposal yet so I can't be sure. When I was in Istanbul in the early 90s I thought their two-station subway system was quite useful, so I'll withhold judgment - but with reservations.

I dearly wish that LRT were dead, for one simple reason: we're about to embark on a municipal election season, and it would be great if we could seriously discuss how to improve transit, rather than fight over this ridiculous, over-priced, destructive plan.

We could discuss initiatives such as the following:
  • Running multiple iXpress routes.
  • Forming a fleet of minibuses that run on little-used routes.
  • Creating an on-demand transit system for the elderly and poor families.
  • Implementing marketing programs such as cheap family passes on weekends.
  • Running more buses to festivals, events, the Aud, and so on.
  • Creating a free shuttle.
  • Reducing fares.
  • And on and on...

We could take a step back and look at other issues around transit:
  • Transforming our sprawl into a livable city.
  • Making sure our transit system is adequate for the needs of people who have to take transit.
  • Identifying people who don't take transit but would like to, and finding how we could get them to use it.

We’re the community that got designated the world’s most intelligent. Why have we spent two years chasing the old failed trend of rapid transit? It all comes down to the way LRT was pushed on us. There were fake public consultations (I say they were fake because I went to them) and there was never any real needs assessment: someone at the top of the Region conceived this notion and forced it through the system. Here's an example: about 18 months ago a city hall committee I'm on met with rapid transit planners. At that time my committee included a former mayor, former city councillor, and former regional councillor, and we had spent a lot of time researching and discussing the issue. Over a couple of hours we discussed our concerns with the regional employees, and they didn't take a single note. They didn't even bother to get out a pen or notepad. They hedged most of our questions. It is really no wonder why we ended up with an LRT plan that would have killed uptown Waterloo, been an enormous white elephant and drained funding from the rest of the transit budget. It was a vanity project.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Canada's Homegrown Terrorists

I don't condone terrorism at all. But the western military involvement in Afghanistan is a humanitarian disaster, and Afghans who fight to end it are not necessarily in the same class as religious fundamentalists who want to punish the west for holding different values.

When a community is occupied by military forces who round up innocent citizens and transfer them to people who torture, abuse and in some cases kill them; when bombs are dropped by planes on a regular basis; when regular citizens are regularly killed; when infrastructure is destroyed; when a country turns into a chess board for foreign powers to fight over - we have to expect that people are going to fight back.

A lot of Afghan "insurgents" aren't Taliban or gangsters but just people who are protecting their homes and families. Western media presents the occupation as humanitarian, but it isn't. We are killing innocent people. Their families are fighting back. The longer we continue to kill Afghans, the more Aghans are going to become "radicalized."

There is incontrovertable proof that Canada had a policy to pass on Afghans we detained to people who would torture them. Our roundups captured a lot of innocent people. When this came out in the press, most Canadians didn't care. Our government was very clear that it didn't care. Don't you think that might be a reason for an Afghan-Canadian to become "radicalized"?

The latest terrorist plots are homegrown in that our military policy is creating them. Our government's policies appear to be breaking international law. In order to cover up their acts, Harper took extraordinary antidemocratic measures, including disrupting parliamentary committees, smearing whistle blowers and shutting down parliament. This whole situation smells very bad.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Did You Get Pears?

"Did you get pears? Did you get pears? Did you get pears?" "We'll discuss it inside."
- the last lines of last Sunday's episode of Mad Men

What the heck was that all about? Were they showing us that Don has sunk so low that his decrepit old neighbors don't trust him enough to discuss produce purchases in front of him? Were they telling us that Don has returned to his roots - left upper middle class suburbia for a low-rent dump? Was this Don observing what he might have become - a whiny, dependent old man - if his marriage hadn't ended? Were we seeing that even when he's sunk into alcoholism and isolation, Don is always observing things about people that help him be a great ad man (as opposed to the focus groups he dismissed earlier in the episode)? Was it a comment on the paranoia in America during the 60s? Or was it a coded message to the audience, with pears really being "pairs" - telling us to observe the dualities in the episode?

Could it possibly be that all those meanings were packed into that one, brief, seemingly pointless little segment? Or is this show so enigmatic that we can create our own meaning?

Sometimes Mad Men seems more like a poem than a novel.

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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Waterloo's Burgeoning Club Zone

On King Street in the block north of Erb, we already have two bars catering to heavy drinking: the Vault Lounge and Chainsaw. Around the corner on Regina, the patio of the Royal Canadian Legion is another noisy, boozy spot.

New Year’s Eve, 2008, I walked by the Vault with my 80 year old mother about an hour before a massive brawl broke out on the sidewalk. The police called it a riot as dozens of drunken patrons fought; people were stabbed with broken bottles and bones were broken. Last summer the Vault was the scene of another late night brawl.


Now, directly across the street from the Vault and next door to Chainsaw, the Waterloo Theater seems poised to become a nightclub.


Here's some local buzz about the plans for the Waterloo Theater, which apparently will be called Beta. I'm not sure there's anything to be done to prevent Beta at this stage. A local resident has asked the Alcohol and Gaming Commission to withhold the liquor license, but it's doubtful that that approach will work. If the City of Waterloo had funded the arts to a decent degree (and not thrown so much of available funds into the pit that is the Clay and Glass Gallery), perhaps the previous attempts to make the theater a cultural center (Theater Athena and the Waterloo Entertainment Center) would not have failed.

As a long-time Waterlooian, I'm a bit paranoid about Waterloo suffering the fate of Kitchener. When I was growing up in Waterloo in the 60s and early 70s, downtown Kitchener was a wonderful, vibrant area full of interesting shops. The main attraction was the string of movie theaters along King Street. One of the downfalls of Kitchener was when those theaters got turned into clubs, with all the drunken brawls, public urination and vandalism that goes along with nightclubs.

The core of Uptown is King Street from William to Erb. Uptown needs to expand north up King, and our new nightclub zone is the first block north. The area is slated for streetscape improvements next spring. I'm really concerned that this concentration of booze cans (as the Chronicle likes to call them) will mess up the development of other blocks to the north.

Some of our city councillors believe that any criticism of bars is due to teetotalling tendencies that must be ignored. I disagree. Local politicians may have heard out-of-line complaints about bars; that doesn't mean that all concerns about bars are invalid.

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Laurel Trail Interrupted

Laurel Trail runs along Laurel Creek and the railway tracks through Uptown Waterloo, Waterloo Park, and the University of Waterloo. It's a beautiful trail and my bike route to work. Here's a particularly pretty spot:

In recent years, the city of Waterloo planted flowers where the trail used to be along the tracks from Caroline to King. From the Waterloo Square north parking lot, here's where the trail used to be, east to King:

...and where the trail used to be, west to Caroline:

I guess City Hall figured that people following the trail can walk on the tracks or in the parking lot. That's a real pain for bicyclists and roller bladers. Also, the break in continuity is a problem for what is already a poorly marked trail.

Laurel Trail should be clearly marked, be paved, and have snow removal - not be a hodgepodge of unmarked segments of path.

The Iron Horse Trail is also abandoned as it goes through Uptown, picking up as it exits each end. Trails should be showcased in Uptown, not abandoned!

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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Empty Lakes and Concrete Canyons

I snapped this picture of Silver Lake in Waterloo Park yesterday. I was standing on the foot bridge at the western edge of the lake.


In case you're wondering, that dry land is part of the "lake". Water levels in creeks and rivers around the area are fairly high now, even though it's the middle of summer. Not so with Laurel Creek in Waterloo.

A few decades ago, amid concerns that water levels would rise, the city of Waterloo lined creek beds in ghastly-looking blocks of rocks encased in chicken wire. I remember when they did that to Laurel Creek near Marshall, destroying beautiful banks, trees, and plants. You could see the wheel treads of the bulldozers for years. A beautiful burbling brook became a hideous mess.

The park behind Waterloo City Hall got the full treatment: Laurel Creek was buried at the bottom of a concrete canyon:


A block away, just across Erb Street in a less heavily travelled area, Laurel creek is in its natural banks again:


Former mayor Joan McKinnon told me that the water projections of forty years ago turned out to be incorrect, and Laurel Creek has instead dropped in volume. I wonder if there's any way to boost it.

We could have a beautiful (and cooler) uptown if we made the most of Laurel Creek. A hundred years ago Silver Lake was a popular swimming spot; we might not achieve that again, but it could be a pretty place if it had water and maybe even a fountain. Laurel Creek behind City Hall should be naturalized with willow trees hanging over it and rounded grassy banks. It may never be as spectacular as the rushing creek that runs through downtown Boulder, Colorado, but it could be a lovely urban park.

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Cleanup efforts

Immediately after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up and it was known that oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, people around the world started offering assistance to clean up the oil. There are many countries that have skimmers that can remove oil from water far more efficiently than any US technology can do it. A great unexplained scandal is why they have not yet been allowed to help, but it seems to have to do with overly cautious US bureaucracy. Now that hurricane season has arrived (and it's predicted to be a bad one), there will not be as many opportunities for skimming oil.

The first good news has arrived in the form of a Taiwanese tanker that [it is hoped] can scoop up 21 million gallons of water a day, separate out most of the oil and siphon it to a nearby ship, then put the cleaner water back in the Gulf. However, even it needs to wait approval from the Environmental Protection Agency, as current regulations won't allow it to put dirty water back in the Gulf - even if it's cleaner.

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How much oil has spilled?

Since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up on April 20 until today (July 1), various estimates put the amount of oil that has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico at between 100 million and 200 million US gallons. Some of the oil has been siphoned, burned or skimmed from the water. The current official estimate of the remaining oil in the Gulf as of Thursday was 140 million gallons. It is estimated that 1.4 to 2.7 million gallons is being added to that each day.

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Why is the Gulf Oil Spill Different Colors?

When I was collecting photos of the Gulf oil spill recently, I was puzzled why some of the pictures showed red oil, while some was the usual iridescent black.

Turns out oil turns red when mixed with water. Wierd Koops, chairman of Spill Response Group Holland, says, "the red-brown color happens when oil picks up more than 60 percent water."

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What Will Happen to All that Oil From the Gulf Oil Spill?

Some of the oil that has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico is being reclaimed by BP. The rule of thumb seems to be that if it has turned red, the oil is too "weathered" to be commercially viable, but if it's still black it may be salvagable with processing.

In a gigantic rescue effort, a small amount of the oil has been brought ashore manually - by boats and by people bending over and picking it up off beaches. The oil in liquid form will be put in injection wells, while contaminated solid waste will go to special landfills.

As part of the cleanup effort, some of the oil on the surface of the water has been set on fire.

The Automated Data Inquiry for Oil Spills predicts that about 35 percent of the remaining oil will evaporate, about 20 percent will find its way to the ocean, and roughly half will remain in the Gulf of Mexico - some on the surface and the rest dispersed throughout the water.

The oil that goes to the ocean will round the tip of Florida and then probably get caught up in the northward-flowing Gulf Stream. Simulations predict that that oil will flow close to the coast of North America.

The Gulf Stream eventually finds its way to the Norwegian Sea, where the cooled water becomes heavy and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. The trip from Florida to the sink will take about 18 months (based on this analysis of how long ashes dumped in Fort Lauderdale will take to get to England). After sinking in the Norwegian Sea, the Gulf Stream waters flow back south and reappear in the Pacific about 1,600 years later.

Some or all of the oil in the Gulf Stream will drop off en route. Tar balls may wash ashore. The oil may foul beaches and fisheries all up the east coast, although the simulations predict it will veer offshore long before Canada. Some of the oil will disperse in the Atlantic or sink to the bottom - which is reputedly already littered with tar balls from other oil spills and from chronic oil leakage from practices like dock degreasing.

A hurricane, tropical storm, or even plain old high winds could cause several problems.

High winds could dislodge or destroy the booms that are containing some of the oil, causing the slick to spread further. They would also likely cause large waves that will drive more oil ashore.

Storm surge could drive contaminated water up canals and rivers. (It was storm surge that caused the flooding of New Orleans in the hours and days after Katrina.) A major concern in New Orleans is that the contaminated water will reach Lake Pontchartrain.

The oil itself is a deadly carcinogen, and the tons of dispersants that have been dropped on the slick make it even more toxic. It might seem insane to add more poisons to the mix, until we get to the next hurricane problem - which requires that we get oil off the surface as quickly as possible, and which is the reason for the dispersants.

The biggest concern about hurricanes is that the toxic mess will be picked up by the wind and carried inland. It could be carried hundreds or even thousands of miles before it's dropped on crops and pastures (from which it will spread throughout the food chain) and it will contaminate lakes, rivers, reservoirs and the rest of the water supply.

Of the oil that remains in the Gulf, some will stay in the water forever. Some of it will seep onshore, especially into the salt water marshes that stretch inland for a hundred miles in places. Hurricanes, storm surges and other forces of nature will continue to carry it further inland, possibly for decades to come.

Many people seem to think that BP can pay the costs of the oil spill's damage, but this is way too big for a single company to cover.

(The comic is from xkcd.)

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