Accruing none of the benefits, residents of Waterloo Region’s townships should bear none of the costs of an expensive rapid transit scheme, says Woolwich Coun. Ruby Weber.
The costs and potential benefits were uppermost on councillors’ minds as Thomas Schmidt, the region’s commissioner of transportation and environmental services, explained the preferred options and the environmental assessment process that will follow the region’s decision. A vote is expected June 24.
Current plans call for spending $710 million to build a light rail transit system between Conestoga Mall in Waterloo to Fairview Park mall in Kitchener. Electric trains, connected to overhead wires, would run on dedicated tracks connecting 18 stations.
A further $80 million would be spent for a fast buses linking Fairview Park to the transit terminal in downtown Galt.
Annual operating subsidies – the deficit between costs and revenues – will start at $14 million, falling to $11 million by 2031, the timeline for the growth study. The region’s population is expected to grow by 45 per cent to 729,000 by that date.
The region looked at a light rail system all the way through to Cambridge but decided ridership numbers did not justify the $600-million-plus price tag, Schmidt explained.
If approved this year, the system could be ready to roll by late 2014. Daily ridership on the light rail transit (LRT) portion is projected at 22,000 in the first year, climbing to 47,000 by 2031.
As 70 per cent of the projected ridership would be in the corridor from Conestogo Mall to Fairview Park, that half of the system will be served first by LRT.
For Cambridge, where councillors are already grumbling about being shortchanged, an “adapted” bus rapid transit (BRT) is part of the preferred option. Buses will use regular roads, but the region will look at the possibility of high occupancy vehicle lanes and shoulder lanes, along with ability to alter traffic signals if necessary to keep on schedule.
The two systems would be integrated.
A full BRT system using dedicated lanes for buses was explored at a cost of up to $585 million across the entire region, but was dismissed as inadequate for the higher volumes expected in K-W, said Schmidt.
The rapid transit plan provides nothing for the four townships, although some consideration was given to extending service to the farmers’ market area of St. Jacobs.
“In the end … rapid transit just isn’t justified,” he said.
“When we look at it, it just doesn’t make sense to run [LRT or BRT] to the St. Jacobs market.”
That said, the new bus service launched last month linking Elmira to Conestoga Mall will be evaluated to see if more frequent service is needed to link St. Jacobs, Schmidt added.
Facing increased taxes and seeing no services in return, township residents should be excluded from paying for the rapid transit experiment, said Weber, suggesting a special-area rate for city residents. Currently, only city taxpayers are hit for a share of the $47 million annual operating subsidy for Grand River Transit.
“I can’t see how the townships can benefit from it,” she said.
“There’s no benefit for me living in Elmira. It’s the people in the cities who’ll benefit – that’s who should pay for it.”
As the rapid transit plan is part of the region’s growth management strategy to curb suburban sprawl, its success would reduce pressure on the townships, Schmidt countered. One of the rationales for rapid transit – and a focus beyond the traditional cost-benefit analysis – is to promote intensification along the transit corridor. The idea is that businesses will locate along the core routes, bringing new residential development as well.
“Part of the benefit to the rural areas … is preventing sprawl,” he said.
However, the cost to the average taxpayer has yet to be determined, he said in response to a question from Coun. Mark Bauman. The delay is in part due to the region having no idea how much of the money will come from the federal and provincial governments, which are expected to cover the lion’s share of the expense.
An estimated per-taxpayer cost is expected to be released next month.