Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2011/ Rapid Transit Public Consultation Feedback, March 2011

Rapid Transit Public Consultation Feedback, March 2011

First, some context: the Region of Waterloo is still wrestling with rapid transit. During the municipal election rapid transit dominated the agenda. Almost every candidate for Regional Council argued that having light rail in the reason was too expensive because the federal and provincial governments gave the Region less money than it wanted to build the system. In response, the Grand River Transit people were told to amend the proposal. They held yet another series of public consultations, no doubt populated with the same set of transit advocates who came out to all of their other public consultations.

Despite being a hypocrite who rarely takes public transit, I attended these consultations. They made me pretty angry. It is clear that the transit people have their hearts set on a mixed LRT-aBRT system, and it is likely that they will recommend exactly the same system that was so controversial during the municipal election. It is also clear that the public consultation process is largely a sham.

During the consultation, the Grand River Transit people asked us to choose between 11 "options". Options L1-L4 consisted of light rail in Kitchener-Waterloo, and so-called "aBRT" (aka iXpress) for Cambridge. All of these options started at Conestoga Mall, and varied in where they ended: L1 at Ottawa Street, L2 at Block Line Road, L3 at Fairview Mall, and L4 at Sportsworld. L3 was essentially the proposal previously recommended to council.

Options L5-L8 corresponded to L1-L4, except that instead of beginning at Conestoga Mall these have the LRT portion beginning at Northfield Drive, creating a shorter route and therefore a cheaper option.

Option L9 was an all-LRT option, which the planners made seem as expensive as possible by having the trains begin at St Jacobs Farmers' Market (as opposed to Conestoga Mall). Option B10 was an all BRT (not aBRT) route that also starts at St Jacobs Market. BU11 was the "Business as Usual" option, which would involve no rapid transit option. During the consultation meetings we were told that option L9 was out because it was too expensive, and BU11 was out because it was infeasible -- and yet these options were still listed for us to choose.

In terms of transportation modes: LRT consists of trains that travel on a separate track, BRT consists of buses that travel down a dedicated laneway, and aBRT consists of buses that share the lanes with other traffic, but may get signalling priority and some bypass lanes. Our current iXpress system travels down a similar route to these transit options, and has many of the same features as the aBRT system (except dedicated bypass lanes -- I think they either have prioritized signalling or are going to get it). In Kitchener-Waterloo, my understanding is that iXpress already cannot keep up with peak demand -- the buses are packed and leave passengers behind.

With all that context, here is the submission I made to the rapid transit people. The question was "Which Rapid Transit option provides the best value to our community?"

As usual, you should probably take what I recommend with a grain of salt. I recently had an experienced that convinced me that I am a total hypocrite about this issue.

Consultation Feedback

None of the options you list provide good value to the community. The best option (which you have already ruled out) is a variation on L9: to plan for an all-LRT system, but one which goes from Conestoga Mall to Ainslie Terminal, not from St Jacobs to Ainslie terminal. By including the extra section you cleverly raised the cost of the project by millions, creating a convenient straw man.

Of the remaining options, my preferences in order are L4, B10 and BU11. While attending the information session, it became obvious that city staff had already made up their mind to choose L3 and that this public feedback session is nothing but a public relations ploy. Ruling out L9 and BU11 are the initial indications of this. You also conveniently forgot to include fair numbers for each of the different options, including estimated costs of road widenings and increased traffic for each option in addition to their construction costs. We cannot make informed decisions of which option to choose without understanding the costs and beenfits, and you have not provided that to us. Instead you give us a flat number, from which we are apparently supposed to include that we should tack on this rate as a flat rate. These shenanigans have been occuring throughout the public consultation process, and they are growing increasingly frustrating.

In any case, since your mind is already made up on L3 I will attempt to argue why L4 is a better option. First of all, L3 is a terrible option because it is exactly the same proposal that was shot down by regional council after the municipal elections. Why do you think it will be more successful now?

Secondly, there are pragmatic benefits to putting an LRT station at Sportsworld. First of all, it makes sure the main transit route gets over the Grand River, which continues to be a transportation bottleneck. Once we have rapid transit that has dedicated right-of-way over the river, the incentive for using this system to go between Kitchener and Cambridge increases. Your aBRT will not have dedicated lanes, and as far as I can tell will certainly not be able to get over the bridge faster than regular traffic.

In addition, Sportsworld is trying to become a transportation hub. Although regional staff despise the development, for now the Greyhound terminal is located there, which means that turning Sportsworld into an LRT destination will help those commuters.

Thirdly, L3 sends a clear message that LRT is for Kitchener-Waterloo, and Cambridge should be happy with iXpress (which is what your so-called "aBRT" really is). Politicially it makes a lot of sense to extend some of the LRT into Cambridge as a first step to demonstrate that we are serious about making this a regional -- and not just a KW -- transit system. Do not underestimate the value of this step politically. If you don't have the political support to push a rapid transit system through, you will get nothing. Mayor Craig won't be happy with anything short of full rapid transit into Cambridge, but his constituents might be easier to sway if you put in place systems that will benefit them as soon as the LRT is built. Turning Sportsworld into a genuine transportation hub will help achieve this.

One real issue with putting rapid transit in Cambridge is that you do not have any real idea of the best route to use -- unlike Kitchener-Waterloo, there is no natural "spine" for the rapid transit route to follow. This is why earlier public consultations had us choosing between dramatically different routes: one that followed King St through Preston, and the current set of proposals that take Franklin/Pinebrush and then go down Hespeler Road. You don't know which of these options will get you the ridership to support LRT, so you should solve the problem empirically: put iXpress/aBRT routes down both of these routes. The start of the route will be the LRT station at Sportsworld, and the end will be the Ainslie St Terminal. Then in ten or twenty years you will know which route (if any) has built up enough ridership to support an LRT system.

Given these arguments, why do I still support a full LRT? The purpose of rapid transit is to be fast and reliable. Putting any break in an LRT system creates a transfer point, and transfer points are huge disincentives to taking transit trips. This is why all of your proposals to make short LRT systems are stupid. If you are serious about building the LRT, it should be as long as we can afford.

There is no question: building light rail is a risk. It will be expensive, and I don't like increased taxes more than anybody else. But if we are going to build a system, let's do it right. Although this is not a great time to engage in such a huge infrastructure project, there won't be any better time. Building an LRT will not become any cheaper as time goes on. Furthermore, right now we are blessed with a number of significant employers that are keeping our local economy afloat: RIM and Toyota, to name two. The health of these companies is not guaranteed in the long term, so if we are going to put in the dollars for expensive permanent infrastructure, we should do so now.

I agree we should be pragmatic. The place to start with this might be to use the data on traffic flows from the transportation master plan to plan your routes -- as I recall there are large traffic flows that neither the rapid transit nor your revamped bus system will address. I still believe that having a reliable transportation system in this region will be a great asset. But if we are not willing to commit to making a system that works, we should be upfront about that and build a BRT that is complete and works (B10) or forget about the entire idea and let the region's "sensible taxpayers" achieve their vision of expensive road-widenings and endless gridlock (BU11). We should decide what we can afford, and then commit to that -- not dilly-dally around with nice promises of future expansion. Unless we have a regional collapse, rapid transit will never be cheaper than it is now.

Regardless of what rapid transit option you decide (including BU11) you should revamp the transit system as planned, with high-frequency connector routes going to the spine. Since iXpress is essentially the same as the aBRT you want to impose on Cambridge, you can pretend that is your rapid transit system, and then increase frequency (and the service schedule) up and down the route. You used to promise 9 minute frequencies for aBRT with your original proposal to the region; surely you can guarantee such times for iXpress now?