Good evening, and thank you for this opportunity to speak on this very important issue.
This is my first time speaking here today, after eight years of living in this Region. When I moved here in 2003, I could hardly make sense of our labyrinth of roads, let alone the spaghetti bowl our transit network was back then. But around that same time, our region began to prudently investigate how our transportation system could accommodate massive anticipated growth and how the decisions we make with respect to transportation will serve to shape the character of our community.
In 2005, the iXpress service was introduced and ridership has seen phenomenal and consistent year-over-year growth. The success of the iXpress system clearly demonstrates how simple service improvements can drive ridership. Anyone who rides it north of Fairview can tell you how regularly crowded it is. This struggle to keep pace with demand should tell us that service improvements must be accompanied by long-term capacity planning. One of the earlier delegates quoted Jane Jacobs, who spoke of some of the pitfalls of light rail implementations. What they didn’t mention was in that same passage, Jane Jacobs affirmed the conversion of busy bus routes into fixed rapid transit lines. The iXpress route is ripe for transition to a modern, robust, high-capacity transit corridor.
The region’s extensive research tells us the same thing. And it has painted for us a clear picture of what technology is best suited for our region: a combination of light rail transit for the highest demand areas, with adapted bus rapid transit connecting the less heavily used areas. Staged light rail is the only cost-effective solution to meet our region’s capacity needs beyond 2031. Rigorous commuter modelling has been performed to produce ridership estimates. Cost analysis of a variety of possible configurations has been possible thanks to the experiences of other cities that have already implemented rapid transit solutions like Calgary, Ottawa, and Vancouver. All this evidence points to the same thing – that light rail will meet demand, drive intensification, and cost taxpayers less over the long run than simply buses or more roads. If you’re skeptical, consider the words of the panel of experts asked to review regional staff’s evaluation: “The Region should be commended for the significant amount of solid technical review and work to date,” and “the MAE provides a valid and conservative assessment, concluding LRT is the preferred solution for Waterloo Region.”
I am trained as both an engineer and a researcher. In my world, the best decisions are the ones supported by both the evidence and the scrutiny of peer review. Our Region has both to support the light rail plan. Given my professional sensibilities, it baffles me that this council might delay making a decision in favour of LRT.
But perhaps not all is facts and numbers, a project as large as this one requires broad public support. By that measure, LRT still passes muster. Countless public consultations have been held to gauge public opinion, not to mention the recent polls put forward by third parties. All of these confirm broad support for upgrading our transportation system with light rail. Thus, light rail is supported by the evidence, by peer review, and by the will of the public. It just makes sense. Why delay?
Better buses, while saving us a mere 15% on capital costs, are not a viable solution. According to the peer-reviewed projections, buses will not be able to meet demand beyond the next two decades. We would pay $700 million today, get a mere 15 years of use, and then have to inject billions more to upgrade at that time. As a former resident of Ottawa, who on bad days has sat on a bus for hours just to cross the downtown transitway, let me tell you that quality of life in our region would not be well-served by an at-capacity ‘rapid’ bus system. We must look beyond the next 15 years to the next 50. If we get this right the first time around, we won’t have to shell out a second time at a higher cost. Let’s not waste our tax dollars with a band-aid solution.
Naysayers call LRT a ‘white elephant’. A white elephant is something that seems desirable to have, but is costly to maintain. By this definition, LRT is anything but a white elephant: it’s labour costs are far less than for buses, and vehicle operating lives are several times longer. Considering that the cities and the region have a combined road maintenance backlog that will cost us at least twice as much as the the region’s share of the LRT costs, it is our over-reliance on the automobile that is the true white elephant. Instead of spending half a billion on new roads when we can’t even afford to maintain the old ones, let’s invest just half that amount, the $250 million share the region will carry, into something that will save us all money in the long run.
What we build today will be here tomorrow for our children, and our children’s children. Today’s young adults are more likely to have a cellphone than a driver’s licence. This presents us with a unique opportunity to invest in a rapid transit system that will enable these young professionals to choose lifestyles that do not require a personal vehicle. But if we continue to demonstrate that our collective financial priorities lie with single-occupancy vehicles, this next generation will be forced to make the same poor transportation choices as their parents. Let’s break the cycle of car-dependency here and now.
It is this emerging young generation, of which I am a part, who will come to eventually form the backbone and engine of our local economy. We will be the ones ultimately who will pay for the bulk of whatever decisions council makes this month. If light rail is chosen, we will not only embrace and use it, but we will pay our fair share willingly because we know it will benefit everyone. But we will not want to stay in nor be drawn to a region where we do not have the choice to conveniently eschew the automobile.
I urge council to avoid the needless delay and expense of a referendum when we have had all of the facts in front of us for some time. Instead, vote to implement the light rail transit proposal on June 15. It’s the smart decision, the cost-effective decision, the right decision, and the decision our children will still be thanking us for making decades from now.
I had wanted to address the township mayors to persuade them that LRT was in their interests, however, a number of delegates from rural areas spoke first and were much more eloquent. In the interest of brevity, I omitted the following from my presentation:
To those from townships who may be skeptical, on the fence, or ambivalent, let me say this: Light rail is important for you too! While you do not share the costs of public transit, your taxes do contribute to the region’s roads. If those road costs continue to increase, you will be asked to help foot the bill. In addition, without intensification in the cities, suburban sprawl will continue unabated, and will increase pressure to expand into the townships. Light rail transit is the solution for you to preserve the quality of life, cost of living, and character of your communities.