Friday, March 25, 2011

Unknown Costs of LRT

We don’t yet know the Region’s preferred option for LRT, so we don’t have final estimates of capital costs or the increases to property taxes. But we know it will result in hundreds of millions in costs to Regional taxpayers.

Recently, it has become apparent that there may be more costs that haven't been made public so far, and that there are other issues around costs that are much too unclear. In particular:
  • Downloading – At a March 11, 2011 meeting of municipal Directors of Engineering, it supposedly came out that the Region intends for the municipalities to pay for a portion of capital costs related to LRT. These are costs related to moving hydro vaults and poles, resurfacing roads, rebuilding curbs and sidewalks, moving light posts, and so on. I have confirmed this information with two senior sources, but don’t know if it is completely settled yet.

  • Tax increases – A recent article in the Waterloo Chronicle revealed that property tax increases that have been publicized have been a bit misleading. The increases are cumulative, so a $20 increase means $40 the second year, $60 the third year, and so on. See Confusion over tax impact of rapid transit, March 15.

  • Land acquisition costs – Some local politicians have raised concerns about land acquisition costs, which could be much higher than expected because the Region will have to acquire a lot of land at one time. I have heard this issue described as "the big cloud hanging over LRT."

  • Costs of alternatives not known – The Cambridge Economic Development Advisory Committee has advised Cambridge City Council that rapid transit should not proceed until comparison costs for aBRT are known. In the Region’s February 15 eleven-option report, the only bus option was a “Cadillac” version of BRT that went to St Jacob’s market. We need to be able to compare realistic options: LRT, BRT, aBRT/expanded iXpress. (Note: aBRT is like BRT but merges in with regular traffic most of the time.)

  • Total transit costs not known – LRT is part of a transit solution that includes a lot of other transit enhancements. The cost of the Transportation Master Plan over 20 years is estimated to be $3.75B, according to Regional staff. It is disingenuous at best to tell us the tax effect of LRT without telling us the tax effect of the total transit solution.

  • The effect of cost overruns – A couple of years into construction, what will the Region do if there are large cost overruns? Will it ask the townships to pitch in? Will it ask the municipalities to kick in more? If all of the overrun is paid for by the regional tax base, how much might regional taxes rise?

We need objective analysis of all these issues – not more PR.

LRT should be deferred until all these cost issues are resolved.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Downloading LRT Capital Costs

I have heard that the Regional LRT plan includes a lot of downloaded costs to the municipalities where LRT goes - Waterloo and Kitchener. Apparently this came out at a recent meeting of Regional Council. It was one of those situations where staff made a presentation and councillors, realizing that something wasn't adding up, probed until some unexpected truths came out. Or so I hear.

If true, then Kitchener and Waterloo city councils are going to have to come up with tens of millions of dollars to pay to repair the infrastructure damaged by LRT construction: moving hydro polls and lamp posts, replacing curbs and sidewalks, repaving torn-up sections of road.

Just to be clear: this is a bombshell. If true, it means that severely strained municipal budgets will be stretched past the limit.

In addition, there is a second possible set of costs to the municipalities (and this might affect Cambridge as well): What will the Region do if there are cost overruns? The provincial and regional governments have agreed to pay 2/3 the cost of LRT to a limit. We pay the other third of the budgeted cost and we pay all cost overruns. If LRT goes a few hundred million dollars over-budget (which is not uncommon), where will the region get the extra money from? Will they guarantee that they won't demand more from lower tier governments?

When people talk of the cost of LRT, they mostly talk about tax increases. It goes beyond that. It also means cuts to lots of other municipal services: the libraries, arts funding, parks maintenance, road repair, snow removal, on and on and on. We in Waterloo are already cut to the bone because of RIM Park.

I'm throwing this out there, and if anyone has evidence one way or the other, I'd like to hear it. It is not responsible to proceed with LRT if there are any uncertainties of this magnitude.

Update: I have received confirmation that this downloading of capital costs is indeed the plan. And there's more - apparently the region also intends for Kitchener and Waterloo to build parking garages for some of the stations.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Cambridge: Getting Screwed and Dodging a Bullet

On her blog, Regional councillor Jane Mitchell completely poo-poos any concerns of Cambridge residents that LRT won't extend to their city. She describes Cambridge as a bunch of whiners who had terrible transit when it was their responsibility, who don't have the ridership to justify being in on Phase 1 of the LRT, and who make a habit of complaining falsely of unfair treatment by the Region.

I was embarrassed by the post and thought it was shockingly undiplomatic, especially as it was written by someone who's making decisions for the entire region. But in addition, it's wrong. This is not about being unkind to Cambridge; it's about materially disadvantaging them.

First - The LRT is not going to be much faster than the iXpress in travelling from Conestoga Mall to Fairview Mall. But for people going on to Cambridge, the LRT requires that people get off the train and wait for a bus - which means that for people going from Cambridge to anywhere in K-W, the trip will be slower and less convenient than iXpress. They are expected to contribute over a hundred million dollars - possibly several hundred million with expected cost overruns - for a transit system that is worse than what they have now.

Second - Imagine five years from now, when a company or individual is considering relocating to Waterloo Region. What signal do they get from the region's second-largest city not being on the main transit route? This isn't just about disadvantaging transit riders: it's about disadvantaging Cambridge real estate and property values and businesses. An LRT that doesn't go to Cambridge is far worse for Cambridge than no LRT at all.

In my research I have been talking to Cambridge residents, politicians and city staff, and what I hear is that they are well aware that they both have been screwed and dodged a bullet. Screwed in the ways I mention above, but dodged a bullet in other important ways. LRT would have messed up Water Street and the lovely, growing core of Galt. In addition, it looks like the municipalities are going to have to foot the bill for a lot of LRT capital costs: for replacing pavement, sidewalks and curbs that are torn up; for moving hydro polls and street lights; and so on. This was wholly unknown until Nancy Button was asked a question about it at the last Regional Council meeting. This could be tens of millions for each of Waterloo and Kitchener: I heard that Cambridge recently had to pay $2M for such capital costs when the Region built a roundabout.

Note: I like Jane Mitchell's blog a lot. I read it regularly, and I think she does us a service by being so candid in her writing. I wish I'd written a positive post about it before writing this negative one.


Turmoil in the Middle East

This is just a sidebar, or metacomment, to the coverage of upheaval in the middle east.

I don't trust the coverage we're getting, because behind it I see a smirk - both from the people in the news rooms, and from our western governments.

Since September 11, 2001 - and before - the west has seen the Muslim states as their enemy, at least partially. Now that there are several popular upheavals against governments in those states, there seems to be a bit of smugness in our reaction. Oh, we genuinely care about the plight of people there: but we are also glad to see the comeuppance of these governments that formed oil cartels and stood against us and had the economic power to oppose our governments' worldview.

This reaction seems to be slanting our view of what's going on. I don't view the protests as primarily about democracy. I think it's more a matter of demographics.

Years ago, I heard a lecture by a demographer who said that in coming years (about now), the proportion of 18 to 25 year-olds in Arab states would result in social upheaval. He said that the proportion of young adults would be so high that they would face massive unemployment, and that historically that led to violence - and he said the only way to avoid it was to give them an outlet through emigration.

We don't hear anything like that in our current coverage. It's all about the dream of democracy. But what democracy? Toppling a dictator does not guarantee democracy. More likely it results in another dictator.

A few other thoughts:
  • Fair elections cost a lot: $200 million and up. Can all these countries afford them? Is democracy sustainable?
  • As Hannah Arendt argued, the political/economic system adopted by a country is only part of the picture: culture is the major factor. Changing the way the government is chosen is not always as much a game-changer as we assume.
  • How much of all this is due to problems of countries whose economies are developing on the back of oil production? There are all sorts of things at play: a dominant industry that provides relatively little employment; the interference of oil-consuming nations; the ownership of the industry by giant multinationals; the potential for corruption; etc etc.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Rail transit will not solve urban congestion

I have another guest column in the Record today: Public will never give up their cars. It is printed along with an article by Tim Mollison of Tri-Tag: Rail transit an answer to urban congestion.

While I thank the Record for airing the debate, I'm not thrilled with the way they broke up my paragraphs in the print edition, which messed it up somewhat (the online version is the way I wrote it). Also, I object to the headline they put on my piece, as I neither say nor intend to say that the public will never give up their cars. I myself bought my first car at 40 and would prefer not to own one. A better headline for my piece would have been "Rail transit will not solve urban congestion."

However, reading my column again, it would have been better to put the last four paragraphs first, which would have clarified where I stand on transit. I want better transit; I want density; and I want a city that makes it easy to get around on transit - but from my analysis of the proposal, I think LRT will not only fail at achieving those goals, but will take us backwards.

Anyway, that's not the point of this post. If anyone is interested in the Jane Jacobs reference, I thought I'd supply it. She has a lot more to say about why LRT became a fad and why it's wrong. Luckily, parts of the book are available on Google books, here.

Here is the relevant excerpt:
[Paul Martin] told me that he intended to announce a program of federal grants enabling municipalities to install light-rail public transit. Now it was my turn to demur.

I told him that unfortunate experiences already showed that fixed transit routes were expensive failures when they were not preceded by evidence of sufficient demand. Underused routes not only are a drain on transit systems but are ill-suited as contributors to the needs and convenience of users. In the past, designers of transit systems had usually chosen to locate rail routes by observing which bus routes were most heavily used, a pragmatic method that worked well in Toronto and elsewhere. After it was apparently lost to transit engineers' memories in the 1960's, Toronto and a number of other cities, among them Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago, tried rail routes justified by other goals and these have been unable to pull their weights, literally or figuratively. They don't have enough passengers.

I asserted that a prudent program to promote transit must be flexible enough to encourage experiments with routes, should that be what a city wanted to do, and possibly experiment with bus sizes, before settling on fixed rail routes. Why not specify grants for transit? I wondered aloud. Why specify from on high what form the transit must take?

... [Mr. Martin] pointed out that the mayors of every large city had asked for light-rail transit grants. I told him that I had attended the meetings where they arrived at this unanimity; they reasoned that asking for light-rail grants was politically more realistic than asking for other kinds of public transit equipment or more general transit help, such as grants for operating costs, the most desperate need in some municipalities.

Mr. Martin perfunctorily conceded that flexibility might be worth taking into consideration. Again I saw that our points of view were different. What he could contemplate as attractive bonanzas for clamoring cities and perhaps for complaining corporations producing rails and streetcars, I feared as foregone fiascoes.