Friday, October 21, 2011

GRT Business Plan 2011-2014

GRT held a public consultation on its business plan for the next three years at Regional HQ last night.  I made my way down, appropriately enough, by bus.  The event was not well attended, unfortunately... but I drink this stuff up, so I was happy to be there to bend a few ears and to learn what I can.

You can read the business plan at GRT's website.

The Good

By 2013:
  • University Avenue Express, providing a link from Boardwalk to the Northfield/University RIM complex, via Erb, Westmount, University and Bridge.
  • Extension of the 201 iXpress out to Conestoga mall and to Northfield/University.
Together these create two legitimate cross-town routes in Waterloo and establishes new links to the main line and future LRT.  (And personally they benefit me and my workplace by adding two express route stops at Bridge and Northfield.)

The Bad

The three-year plan is fairly modest.  The approach is to establish new routes every two years (2013, 2015..) and to bolster existing service on the other years (2012, 2014..)

However, the original RTMP projected a more aggressive establishment of express routes, with University Express in 2012 and follow-on routes in 2013-2014.  But this cutback was expected: part of making the LRT tax hit more palatable was reducing the funding growth needed to provide this service.

In the long term, this is costly-- with LRT established, the support network won't be as mature as it should be.  In the short term, this delays the introduction of new service.  In the medium term, well... it's complicated. More on that later.

Also disappointing: while Saturday and Sunday iXpress service is being improved, there is no late service and no news of extending the 200 iXpress' hours. I've been hoping to see a link from Cambridge to Kitchener later than 9:15pm, but it's still not in the offing.

Speaking of Cambridge, not much love from GRT in the next three years.

The Ugly

I have to call this ugly, because I can't figure out if it's truly good or bad.  Again, it's those medium term consequences...

GRT is presenting a fare increase structure.  Instead of factoring in an annual 2% inflation increase, GRT is presenting options for 5%, 7% and 9% (!!) fare increases with the aim of not just keeping up with cost of operations, but to change the balance of funding between fares and property tax, with a goal of 50% cost coverage from fares.

TriTAG has some strong words against this.  GRT points out in defense of this that average fares (across all modes) are lower than average for comparable systems, and increased revenue will help drive faster growth.

On the other hand, it'll put a headwind on ridership growth, and strain on the most vulnerable GRT users.  I'm not happy about that.  Theoretically we could improve GRT's low-income support program to address the latter issue-- according to a TriTAG rep, this program is behind in dealing with applicants.  But we're in a war for the hearts and minds of commuters who don't yet take our transit system seriously, and in swaying potential riders, there's no argument like success (and the last ten years have been very successful for GRT.)  Continued growth in ridership is paramount.

And yet... I keep worrying that LRT will be a political football in 2014, when we go back to the polls.  There may be value in showing that our transit service is taking steps to reduce its burden on the tax base.  Forget for a moment, dear enlightened readers, that good transit will save hundreds of millions in road expansion costs... Put aside that those same roads are heavily subsidized, or that self-sustaining profitability is not the goal of a transit system anywhere.

Increasing fare coverage of cost may be bad for transit growth and bad for transit users, but it could be ammunition against those whose goal is to minimize transit costs and kill LRT no matter what the long term consequences.

Yup, that's politics.  And that's why it's ugly.  In the balance, I don't know what's right.

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