No: We need other mass transit solutions
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.