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Region prepares to gamble your money on LRT experiment

Region of Waterloo residents will be forgiven for feeling like they’re being, well, railroaded into the light rail transit proposal that’s likely to win council approval next week despite opposition and common sense.

From the beginning, the process has been skewed in favour of the train rather than buses, which even LRT boosters admit make more sense from a transit perspective. The real goal behind spending $710 million on a train linking Conestoga Mall in Waterloo to Fairview Park in Kitchener is to encourage growth along that corridor.

Essentially, the region argues people will choose to live and businesses choose to locate along the rail lines. This intensification will control suburban sprawl and take cars off the roads as the region’s population grows over the next two decades.

If we’re interested in transit, rapid buses make more sense, but the train is a development tool, say boosters.

It’s a nice theory, but the jury is still out on whether it works.

A Conference Board of Canada report from 2007 suggests the experiment is likely to fail.

“In Canada, most big cities aim to support public transit by linking land use and transportation planning with higher density residential and commercial development. Nevertheless, policy initiatives aimed specifically at more sustainable land use have had a disappointing track record,” says the organization in “Sustainable Urban Transportation: A Winning Strategy for Canada.”

A variety of other studies have found that investing in public transit is another approach that has had limited success in North America. Traditional rail transit systems operate on a hub-and-spoke network. When cities were more compact and jobs concentrated in a central district, such networks worked well. But they are ill-suited to the dispersed trips that people actually take today, and they are very expensive to build and operate.

Therein lies the rub. The limited, fixed system that comes with the LRT option is anathema to the way we want to live. Bus rapid transit, the option proposed for the Cambridge link at a cost of $80 million, offers much more flexibility at a tremendously lower cost, but has been dismissed because intensification has been deemed the prime goal, even though it appears unlikely to be reached.

The Conference Board report recognizes even the most ideal transit system – and in scope, convenience and frequency, the regional plan doesn’t come close to that designation – is not enough to get us out of our cars, let alone change the residential and business patterns.

“Improving the viability of public transportation is not enough – on its own – to guarantee the changes in travel behaviour that are essential to achieving sustainable urban transportation. Incentives to leave the car at home need to be combined with disincentives to use the car.”

By disincentives, the report means adding additional costs such as road tolls and other barriers in order to force people out of their cars. Other financial burdens include the model adopted in London, England whereby car drivers are charged high fares simply to enter the central zone of the city.

Such measures are likely to meet staunch opposition from Canadians, however. Drivers already pay far more in fuel taxes than governments spend on roads. Yes, there are social and environmental costs related to our dependence on the automobile, but significant “sin” taxes are already being collected.

Statistics Canada figures indicate that federal fuel taxes bring in about $4 billion a year, with only 10 per cent of that money being spent on roads.

But promoting transit, especially fixed, inflexible rail systems, goes beyond changing – or, more to the point, penalizing – our love affair with our cars: it means altering our entire land-use policy. With the LRT, the region argues intensification will naturally occur along the line, reversing our desire to live and work outside the urban core. In large cities such as Toronto, people have been driven out to the suburbs by rising prices, exorbitant taxes, crime and the desire for elbow room. Businesses, too, moved out of the cores because of the same land cost and tax pressures, along with a greater availability of space and services.

While the region’s cities have not had problems on the same scale, most of us have sought to avoid the cores for various reasons. That phenomenon is not likely to change. In Kitchener, for instance, a recent study shows 90 per cent of new homes built in the next few decades will be on land on the city’s periphery. Much of the employment land to be developed will be not in downtown Kitchener, Waterloo or even Cambridge, but around Breslau; that’s even official regional policy.

“Further exacerbating the urban transportation problems is the phenomenon of “employment sprawl.” Not only are people choosing to live in suburbs, but they are also working there. Traditional commuting patterns were based on people travelling to work downtown, making it relatively simple to plan for transit services. Today, however, central business districts in Canada account for only 20 per cent of total urban region employment – a percentage that is decreasing as jobs decentralize throughout urban regions,” says the Conference Board report.

Still, as the rapid transit issue goes to a vote next week, the region appears ready to roll the dice, gambling with $800 million (in reality, likely to be much, much more) of your money in the hope that things will be different here.

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