If Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig thinks his city is getting a raw deal in Waterloo Region’s proposed rapid transit plan, what are residents of the rural townships to make of it? Cambridge will be getting some service for its money, yet township residents will foot the bill and enjoy none of the benefits.
Oh, sure, proponents talk about intensification benefitting the rural areas by containing suburban sprawl. Leaving aside the dubious development claims, a hard line on development would do the same thing at a much lower cost – zero dollars to be exact.
The transit system proposed by the region is a far cry from that price tag – an estimated $790 million. If history is any guide, that figure will jump dramatically the moment shovels go into the ground.
I’ve been wary of the light rail transit (LRT) proposal since the beginning, going back some seven years. It’s a great theory, but not likely to return significant results for the money.
The region argues a light rail transit system will boost commercial and residential development along the transit corridor. This is supposed to lead to the re-urbanization of some highly undesirable locations, particularly in downtown Kitchener.
If current development preferences continue, even with the moderate growth forecast for the next couple of decades, such a transit system will never be warranted along the proposed route.
Perhaps it’s a case of if you build it, they will come. Certainly that’s what the region is gambling on. And gambling big, to the tune of more than $700 million just to get the ball rolling.
The transit system is part of the region’s plan for managing growth, a document with admirable goals. I certainly have few quarrels with it outside of the LRT proposal.
It’s not the train itself that’s the problem. In Europe, trains of all kinds make getting around fast and convenient. The problem begins with the fact that Canada is not Europe: we have a very small population spread out over a very large area. The region is no different.
The North American experience with LRT systems has been less than stellar. Of course, as with all public transit programs, the systems lose millions of dollars annually – they never pay for themselves. That’s not the issue. Rather, hundreds of millions in upfront capital costs are needed before losing buckets of money every year.
Proponents of LRTs, including those here in the region, put considerable emphasis on the ability of trains to take cars off the road, reducing congestion and helping the environment. An admirable goal, but one that typically falls short of the mark – for instance, the expensive rail system may simply end up moving people from buses onto trains, not taking people out of their cars.
We are a car-centered society, for better or for worse. For decades, our communities have been built with the car as the central focus, and most of us are accustomed to the conveniences that implies. To be fair, there is a downside, and we know it – it’s just that we’ve found the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
Certainly, a change would be good for our community as a whole – and we’d all encourage our neighbours to embrace public transit … leaving all the more room for “me” to take my car out on the road.
With this project, the region finds itself in the classic chicken-or-egg scenario: build the train and watch no one use it, or wait until population densities increase so dramatically that the train becomes more viable. But let’s be clear: financially, public transit is a money pit – even in high density cities, the systems do not pay for themselves.
Transit proponents, on the other hand, will argue that governments already pay out huge amounts of money to subsidize private transit: our cars. There are roads to build, and to maintain, clear and repair. Then there are the environmental costs of burning fossil fuels. All good points, but there’s a catch: we’ve already invested in the existing infrastructure.
Dropping hundreds of millions of dollars into the train today would mean dropping millions more each year to subsidize the few riders that will use it; those of us already invested in cars will not pay exorbitant transit fees for less convenience – the car will remain faster, cheaper and more accessible for most of us living in the region. We love our conveniences – how realistic is it to expect an Elmira resident planning a shopping trip to walk to a bus stop (providing the route survives the pilot stage), wait for a bus, pay the fare (despite a perfectly good car sitting in the driveway), take the milk-run route, transfer to a train at Conestoga Mall, then ultimately make his or her way to a shopping destination, and then reverse the process when done? That doesn’t even take into consideration the inability to carry more than a light load – so much for stopping at the building-supply store.
While the money swirls down the drain, I’ll be in my car, perhaps headed somewhere to console myself over my skyrocketing tax bills.