Saturday, February 1, 2014

Light Rail approaches its last big hurdle

In 2011, I blogged extensively about the decision-making process that led to the approval of Light Rail in Waterloo region. That decision set in motion years of groundwork required before construction could start in earnest. But planning and preparation is almost complete. It's almost time to build!

The bids for construction are in. On March 4th, the rapid transit team will bring their recommendation to the Planning and Works committee. This will be the point at which we find out who the preferred bidder was, and what construction cost will be, and whether council intends to approve it.

There has been a vocal element in our community who has campaigned non-stop to derail this plan. While some of them are simply concerned about the amount of money being spent, a considerable number will say pretty much anything to tarnish the case for LRT, including outright misrepresentation of how the system works and welcoming cancellation penalties some kind of  perverse morality object lesson.

Transit crowd at Conestoga mall wait for a train "from nowhere to nowhere"
And yet, as I wrote for TriTAG recently, the fundamentals supporting LRT have never looked stronger. Go ahead and read that if you'd like to learn more about the change that has happened so far. Basically, the short version is: service is expanding. Ridership is booming. This is working.

The new reality along our central transit corridor

But it's also important to remember that LRT is a key element in a multi-faceted plan to grow Waterloo region in a smart and sustainable way. The affordability of our community in the future depends on how we build now. We face a decision: grow up, or grow out. The Active Transportation Master Plan is up for council approval this month, and it is focused on providing the region with better walkability, and the ability to make short trips on foot and by bike. The broader Regional Transporation Master Plan, which includes a transit network redesign to coincide with LRT, aims to flesh out a transportation network to give thousands an alternative to driving.

But LRT is the single biggest (and admittedly, most costly) piece of the puzzle, and the one with the highest level of expectation tied to it. It is not meant to just serve demand, but also to shape our city to generate it. By providing a high quality level of service, convenience and permanence, Light Rail is already drawing lots of interest for people to live and work along its route and closer to downtowns.

1 Victoria, one of many developments green-lit after LRT approval

This growth in our core translates into fewer greenfield subdivisions, which directly improves our traffic situation within existing suburban areas. It also lowers the overall reliance on transportation by car, which again means less demand on our road infrastructure, and fewer costly expansions. By shaping our growth in this way, LRT will cost less than doing nothing at all because we don't actually have an option to "do nothing at all".

Now, this one light rail line is not perfect (I've criticized aspects of it before) and it will not change the world on its own. As I said before, there are other pieces to this puzzle. They are all important. But it's safe to say that LRT is the linchpin. Without it, everything else we do will have much more muted success. If we blink now, it will be many years before we get a do over. We'll eventually find ourselves drawn back to something like it, because of the fundamentals and the way our region is laid out. But it will inevitably cost more, and we will be fearful of taking the steps we have to, because of our failure to face the future.

Public support of LRT in 2011

I, for one, would like to stop talking about LRT. Having approved it twice, there's no good reason for council to change their minds this third time. But the vocal minority grows more vocal and strident, and they still offer no real solution of their own, only the false reassurance that nothing will change. Someone has to say something. But I look forward to having construction underway, and to be able to step back and tackle new challenges.

Council approved LRT in 2009, and as seen here, in 2011 (to great appluase)

So, if you support this plan, please, contact your councilors and tell them.

If you're on the fence, or wonder why I keep going on about this, I urge you to recognize this: We have a thoughtful and progressive regional government that are trying very hard to prepare Waterloo region for the future, with a vision that very few other cities aspire to. It's part of our culture here, to be industrious, to adapt, and to innovate. Ultimately, we have to be ready to sign off on the plan, and take the next step.

LRT is our next step. It's a big one. Come with us.

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