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LRT Vote: Some Late Reactions

So it's been a month and a half since Regional Council voted in favour of the Light Rail Transit proposal. I am still in shock that the proposal passed. During last year's municipal elections support for the LRT was at best lukewarm: Jean Haalboom, Ken Seiling and Carl Zehr supported it wholeheartedly, and the other incumbents were wary of the cost. In particular, semi-incumbent Geoff Lorentz campaigned hard against LRT on the basis that it was too expensive and too unnecessary. Then he voted in favour of the proposal, despite it being more-or-less identical to the one he rejected during the election campaign.

Only Waterloo mayor Brenda Halloran prevented the decision from being unanimous, and she was pilloried for it. Her decision to vote against three of four motions in the vote (overall support, studying how to get Cambridge on rail sooner, and studying the routing for Waterloo) did come across as petty, but I would have expected more of the counsellors to take her approach.

I fully expected regional council to vote against the light rail proposal, and to vote for rapid buses instead. Rapid buses seemed politically safe -- they would have been cheaper than trains, and they would have avoided the unfair treatment Cambridge is getting with LRT. Buses would not have made either side in the rapid transit debate happy (the "Taxpayers for Rapid Transit" did not want any dedicated-lane rapid transit for the region) but a Bus Rapid Transit system would have been politically safe in the short term. Nonetheless, Regional Council voted for trains, even though this decision may well cost some of them their jobs in 2014. Why?

Influences in the Decision

Part of the credit needs to go to the high-profile campaigning by TriTAG, members of the forum Wonderful Waterloo, and the local Twitterati. They put in a lot of work to pressure Council, to write endless letters to the editor and editorials in the local paper, and to run two high-profile rallies in support for the project. Their opposition -- primarily Taxpayers for Sensible Transit -- came across as less organized even though they raised $28000 to run an opinion poll.

I think the final rallies for and against the LRT proposal may have made a difference here. On Saturday June 11 the pro-LRT people held a rally at Speaker's Corner in Kitchener. The rally was fairly well-attended and despite rain most attendees stuck around for the entire event. That same afternoon, an opposition group (which I don't think was Taxpayers for Sensible Transit) held a rally in the afternoon at the same location, and far fewer people showed up. I do not believe attendance at a rally reflects overall support for or against a proposition, but they do influence public perception.

Another part of the credit should probably go to our local paper, the Waterloo Record. I am no fan of the Record, but they are influential in this region. Rapid Transit dominated the editorial pages for months leading up to this vote, which kept the project highly-visible. Maybe more importantly, the Record published an editorial shortly before the vote in favour of the LRT. A similar editorial against the MMP referendum in 2007 helped sink local support for that proposal, so it is only fair to assume that the positive editorial for LRT helped regional councillors support the issue.

A third factor in the decision was the high-tech community, which strongly supported the LRT proposal. Many local companies are represented by a group called Communitech, which publicly endorsed the proposal. An infographic created by members of local tech startup SnapSort company probably won over a few minds as well. Waterloo Region is an area in transition. The manufacturing sector that used to dominate the area has been bleeding away, and many people are hoping that the tech sector will pick up the slack. Many people hope that a rapid transit system will appeal to the young, highly-educated workers that will drive the high-tech economy.

A fourth factor has to be the last-minute work carried out by counsellors Jim Wideman and Sean Strickland. Wideman looked for ways to fund the system, and Strickland tried to appease fears around LRT routing in Waterloo. Their efforts likely helped.

A fifth factor has to do with the Region's long-term plans. The region is worried about stress on its road infrastructure, because it believes that population in the region is going to grow to 731K by 2031. To cope with this additional stress, the Region is banking on stronger public transit, and has assumed the existence of rapid transit in some important documents -- the Transportation Master Plan and the Regional Official Plan. Voting against the LRT proposal would have put those plans at risk. For this reason, Council was probably getting strong pressure from regional planners to support the proposal. (In contrast, I believe that many LRT opponents either do not believe that there will be increased traffic pressure in years to come, or that they believe that LRT will not help solve those problems.)

Finally, I think that trains have an appeal that buses don't. There is a perception that rich people are willing to take trains and are not willing to take buses, and there is a perception that buses (in the form of iXpress) are already struggling to keep up with demand. I think that many members of Regional Council feel that appeal as much as the rest of us, and that this had some influence in swaying them.

Was the Proposal Worth Supporting?

Given all these influences it may seem that supporting the LRT would be a no-brainer. I do not think that this is the case. The LRT is going to be expensive, and municipal taxes are going up in order to pay for it.

Secondly, the proposal is not that good. In order to pay for the system the region is going to delay service improvements to transit outside the corridor. The proposal leaves Cambridge with iXpress-type buses. Neither of these things is going to help transit usage overall, which is worrying.

As I have written before, I do not like this proposal. But it gives the region an infrastructure that it can build upon in the future. If the region can stay prosperous and the initial LRT system is actually built, then there is a good chance that this gamble will pay off.

Timing Is Everything

If the Regional Council vote was to be held today then I think it would not pass. Several of you no doubt snickered when I discussed high-tech support for the LRT proposal: the latest news out of local tech giant Research in Motion (RIM) is that they are laying off another 2000 members of their global workforce. For reasons I don't totally understand, confidence in the smartphone company has suddenly evaporated.

Make no mistake: RIM is a company that has put Waterloo Region on the map, and if it collapses then this region is going to take a beating. Amongst other things, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (which landed Stephen Hawking as a research fellow, amongst other things) and the think-tank Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) could lose most or all of their funding; since they are both underwritten by the personal wealth of RIM CEOs. RIM employees are well-paid and contribute lots to the region -- in taxes, in volunteer engagement, and in keeping the local economy flowing. If the people who are laid off flee elsewhere then the region could lose a fair amount of its vitality. Certainly, our confidence that we are destined to be a high-tech mecca are shaky right now, and that lack of confidence could have undermined an LRT vote if it was to happen today.

I personally believe that Waterloo is resiliant, and that it would survive the loss of RIM -- especially if many of its former employees stay in the area. Waterloo Region is home to several companies that are prominent in their fields, including Christie Digital, Desire2Learn, and Sandvine (yes, I know). Several large companies have branch offices here, including Google and Intel. The spirit of enterpreneurship in the region (particularly at the University of Waterloo) is strong. The Region has lots of startups we have never heard of, and a couple of them might win the startup lottery. None of this guarantees that the region will remain strong over the next few decades -- confidence can evaporate quickly -- but I would rate its prospects higher than average.

Having said that, perception counts for a lot when it comes to huge public infrastructure projects. There are a lot of things that could have undermined the optimism around an LRT system, and the misfortunes of RIM are just one of them. We have other major employers -- Toyota, assorted insurance companies -- and bad news from any of them could have undermined public confidence. Even worse would have been the provincial or federal government withdrawing funding from the project. Even news of a fatal light-rail accident in some other city could have sunk the LRT vote -- just look at how the Japanese nuclear power plant failure gave the rest of the world cold feet. Light Rail Transit in Waterloo Region was never a done deal, and the battle is not over yet.

The Future

Politically speaking, the timing of this project is precarious. The new system is supposed to open in 2017. Construction is supposed to start in 2014. That itself is touchy -- the next municipal election will be held in the fall of 2014, and if the project has not broken ground by then then opponents might seize the opportunity to scrap the LRT.

I expect the project will be over budget and behind schedule, which will raise lots of additional criticism.

Funding for the system is still up in the air. The federal and provincial governments have both committed to significant chunks of funding, but the provincial government is facing a huge deficit and a change of government this October. If the new Conservative government pulls the plug on its share of the funding then the LRT is sunk. (I suspect the fortunes of RIM might factor into that decision.)

Ridership on Grand River Transit has increased significantly over the past decade, but I believe that the numbers have been inflated a great deal by university ridership. Both the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier subsidize Grand River transit through their "U-Pass" programs, which allow students to take the transit in exchange for a significant levy on their tuition bills. At the University of Waterloo, that levy has been increasing steadily, from $39.50 in 2005 to $60.64 in 2011. At some point students may revolt and withdraw the subsidy. Given that Grand River Transit staff state that students represent 23 percent of ridership, the loss of a UPASS program will make LRT ridership projections look pretty bad.

I expect that established businesses along the route are going to be unhappy with the construction. In particular, I worry about Central Fresh Market, a pretty-decent independent grocer whose only road access is from King Street. It will be bad news if an established business like Central Fresh went under because of the construction, and it will be bad news if such businesses raise a big public stink about the project.

But if the project gets built then I expect ridership will be good. If ridership stays good for a few years then the LRT will become a part of the landscape, and people will feel as resistant about scrapping it as they feel about scrapping the iXpress now. At that point I suspect discussion may well turn away from whether we should have an LRT system, and towards expansion of the system. We'll be arguing about where to expand the system, and how quickly we should do so.