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Train rolling out of region’s financial reach

Waterloo Region would be well advised to scale back its plan for public transit, beginning with scrapping the light rail option, in light of this week’s provincial funding announcement.

The $300 million pledged is a considerable amount of money, but the region was expecting far more. In fact, it was looking for Queen’s Park to cover two-thirds of the $790 million earmarked for rapid transit in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge. The federal government, which has yet to commit to the plan, was expected to pay most of the remaining costs, leaving regional taxpayers to pick up the rest of the tab, optimistically some $50 million.

Now, even if Ottawa matches the $300 million, we’re still facing a $190 million shortfall. And that doesn’t included the tens of millions of dollars for direct costs such as land acquisition, nor the multiples of that needed to alter the road network to deal with the installation of a new rail corridor.

Most troubling, however, is the absolute certainty that the cost estimates bandied about today will undoubtedly be unrealistic should the rail project go ahead. As municipalities have discovered under infrastructure funding programs, the one-third shares picked up by upper tier governments only cover original budget estimates. When the actual costs come in much higher, often the case here in the townships, the municipality is left to make up the difference.

In short, the $300 million that represents about 38 per cent of $790 million today will be a much smaller part of the total when the bill passes $1 billion or more.

Of course, the feds could decline to get involved or provide less than $300 million. We are in a time of restraint, after all, despite the profligate spending by the Harper government just now.

We’ve argued here before that investment in rail lines is worthwhile, but only on a larger scale. A high-speed rail link between Kitchener and Toronto, for instance, would do far more to get people out of their cars than a train taking the milk run between two shopping malls in K-W.

A cheap and fast train to Toronto would take many commuters off the roads, particularly the 401. It would also encourage more people to use transit, which is often shunned because it’s slow, inconvenient and costly. And, of course, there’s a certain stigma associated with it. With the right incentive – we mentioned fast and inexpensive, right? – more people might be willing to become accustomed to public transit. At that point, they may even opt to use Grand River Transit to connect to the fast trains. A bit of a gamble, but far less so than the risk the region is prepared to take with piles of your money.

Given the reduced funding, rapid buses – much less expensive and far more flexible to deploy – make more sense. The math is simple: of the $790 million proposed for rapid transit, $710 million would go toward the train linking Conestoga Mall and Fairview Park. Just $80 million of the total would cover rapid buses connecting Cambridge to the network.

In that light, the decision is a simple one, too.

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