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Learning about being civic-minded

There’s much to be learned from a drilling machine completing a new tunnel in the Swiss mountains last week. No, really. Bear with me.

The tunnel become’s the world’s longest at 57 kilometres, destined to become an integral link in Europe’s high-speed rail network. It will be open to trains in 2017, perhaps earlier.

It’s a pretty cool bit of engineering, but that’s not the part of most interest. Rather, it’s the philosophy behind the massive construction project that can teach us a thing or two, especially as we head into an election where infrastructure tops the agenda.

The Swiss committed $10 billion to the project. Almost two decades ago. In a referendum. In which citizens agreed to foot the bill, about $1,300 each.

Stop and think of that in the context of Canadian politics. A similar situation here is almost inconceivable.

Politicians are short-term thinkers – nothing exists beyond the next election. Policy revolves around the next set of public opinion poll results. And the average resident is almost equally shortsighted – it’s all about today’s taxes. We appear to have no collective memory – we don’t learn from the past, fail to hold politicians to their repeatedly-broken promises, and don’t recall that the prudent investments of the past gave us the infrastructure we have today.

The existing infrastructure – roads, bridges, water pipes and sewers, as well as buildings such as hospitals and schools – is in decline. Simply maintaining what we have will cost billions and billions of dollars. Add in new stuff such as the light rail transit scheme proposed for Waterloo Region and the bill becomes even more enormous.

Tackling the problem will require forward thinking we haven’t seen from politicians in decades. Nor from ourselves, for that matter. Upgrading our infrastructure is a long-term project, well beyond any one term of office. In fact, it’s an ongoing need that will outlast our lifetimes. It requires the kind of thinking that took years to become part of the environmental debate: what are we leaving behind for our children and grandchildren?

It’s that long view that proponents tout in the debate over light rail transit, which has become the leading – perhaps only – issue in the regional council race.

It’s here, however, that I’ll have to take a position contrary to my call for long-term thinking.
Public transit is an essential. To return to Switzerland, trains are an integral part of life there. The Swiss do a great job of it. Indeed, that’s the case through much of Europe. Home to small countries, already densely populated and with cities that long predate the automobile, Europe is an ideal place for light rail transit. That’s especially true given the strong integration between local, regional, national and international train systems.

It’s just the opposite in Canada, where long distances and mostly scattered populations make transit much less viable.

Few places in this country are as car-dependent as Waterloo Region. Yes, it’s a good idea to reduce that dependency, but the LRT puts the cart before the horse.

The negatives are many. Too expensive. Unlikely to be used even to the low numbers predicted. A north-south corridor going against the grain of east-west growth. Inflexible, unlike the bus option that even LRT supporters acknowledge is superior from a transit perspective.

The biggest factor in the region’s decision is a hope the train will reshape the urban area, prompting businesses to relocate and residents to live along the rail line. That’s a high-risk gamble.

While politicians supporting the LRT may consider that long-term planning, that much effort and money would be better spent on projects with a much higher payoff, one with benefits for the population as a whole. On the transit front, that would mean coordinating at least a provincial effort to vastly improve train routes between cities. A high-speed link to Toronto, for instance, would do much more to get cars off the road. Eventually, with more of us accustomed to transit, we could build local feeder systems, perhaps including LRTs, to link up seamlessly with the network.

Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re hearing in the regional debate. Rather, proponents seem fixated on spending large, but inadequate amounts of federal and provincial money. Augmented by hundreds of millions of local dollars to be paid for by people who will not benefit from it. Actually, few will even ride it, as the system would fail to meet the necessary requirement to get more of us out of our cars: some combination of faster, more convenient and cheaper. As planned today, the LRT would be none of those, while burdening residents with double-digit tax increases and massive traffic disruptions.

The kind of commitment to infrastructure seen in Swiss voters may be a long shot here, but it will never happen unless politicians become longer-term visionaries, with ideas that actually resonate with us.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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