Sunday, May 17, 2009

Rapid Transit, Like It Or Not...

Over a week ago, the Region of Waterloo unveiled its plans for rapid transit in our city, and yet they provided only a sketch of what they intend: for Waterloo, there are no details on the location of stations, direction of route, whether the tracks will be down the center or on the side of the streets, whether key intersections like Erb-King and Erb-Caroline will have gates, whether the Adult Recreation Center will remain, and so on. I have been trying to formulate a response to their proposal but have so far been unable to obtain details. Meantime the clock is ticking: they are planning on approving this massive $760M proposal in a little more than a month. There will be public meetings next week, but I will not be able to attend them.

So all I can do for now is reproduce this excellent article that was in the Record recently... and add to it that I attended all the public sessions last year, and everything he says is exactly true.

All aboard? Light rail transit plan is leaving the station way too early

May 14, 2009

One of the central conceits of Waterloo Region's new rapid transit plan is how widely the community has been consulted, and how everyone is solidly behind the idea.

Last week the region released a report favouring light rail transit over rapid buses. Included was a lengthy list of events, workshops, consultations and online efforts to explain the plan to residents. Later Regional Chair Ken Seiling added: "I don't recall ever a process where there's been as much public participation." Really?
One of the most striking aspects of the transit story is how few people have actually attended, workshopped, consulted or logged-on to the region's plans.

Last summer, for example, the region held 12 "focused public consultation meetings" at various locations across Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. To get the word out, they mailed 9,500 invitations. A grand total of 72 people showed up. As part of the same process, the region also received "approximately 12" comment cards. (When numbers are this low, can precision be so difficult?)

Still, the region comfortably stated "the majority of public comments received ... indicated support for the rapid transit initiative, and a continued preference for light rail transit (LRT) over bus rapid transit (BRT)." It seems a rather heroic assumption.

Let's face it, if you're going to attend a transit meeting, or join a rapid transit Facebook page (190 friends so far!) you're probably a big fan of the idea already. Seiling certainly is.

But what about everyone else? I've been conducting my own entirely unscientific public consultation process. My findings suggest most folks have never even heard of the plan. Those that have figure it has nothing to do with them. They live in subdivisions, drive to work and rarely take transit.

But whether you plan to take the train or not, the light rail transit is going to have a huge impact on your life. Here are "approximately four" reasons why it's time everyone started paying attention:

Your taxes will go up: Yes, the province has agreed to pay two-thirds of the $790 million cost. And Ottawa will probably cover the rest. But just because someone is paying to build it, doesn't mean it's free.

Regional taxpayers must foot the bill for a host of prebuild costs. The responsibility for inevitable cost-overruns is unclear, since the province has a fixed budget for all transit projects in the province. And once it's built, operating costs are entirely our responsibility.

This makes the credibility of light rail transit ridership projections critical. The nuts and bolts of light rail transit costs will be a future column. For now, it's enough to point out that if a massive increase in riders fails to materialize, your taxes will go up even more.

Driving will become more difficult: Success for commuter trains requires that people stop driving their cars downtown. How to do that? By making driving difficult. The report calls these strategies "auto disincentives."

The preferred light rail transit option will reduce King Street to one car lane in each direction for much of the route. Drivers will thus be forced to abandon the region's "Main Street" as a major thoroughfare, to the chagrin of local businesses.

Parking will also become harder to find. "Additional parking supply is counter productive to increasing transit use," stated a 2005 report from the region. It called for an end to free employee parking downtown. And say goodbye to parallel parking on King.

Even if you never ride the light rail transit, it will have an enormous effect on how you get around. The region will soon have a vested interest in making car travel unpleasant and inefficient.

It will change your region forever: Waterloo Region today doesn't look like an area that requires rail transit. We have a widely dispersed residential profile and no single employment core.

Instead of meeting demonstrated needs, the light rail transit is about reshaping the area into something new -- a high-density urban metropolis. But this is not something most residents favour. Recall the battle last month when a group of Kitchener residents in the University/Fischer-Hallman area objected to a new highrise apartment among their single-family homes.

Lots of people like the idea of rapid transit because it sounds modern and fancy. Faced with the actual implications of these policies, they're not so keen. Many residents will come to regret the light rail transit's big footprint.

It will happen without your approval: The most rapid thing about the light rail transit is the approval process. Regional council aims to give its blessing by the end of June. Tenders could go out by mid-2010. The next municipal election isn't until the fall of 2010. This may be the biggest public works project in the history of Waterloo Region, but voters won't get a say until it's nearly over.

While a besotted council is fast-tracking its light rail transit plans, the overwhelming majority of residents haven't even started to think about it. Better hurry up. This train is about to leave the station.


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